The role of Lebanese host communities in Syrian refugee assistance

August 17, 2015
Helen Mackreath
A Lebanese woman talks to two Syrian refugee girls about gender-based violence and early marriage

The Role of Lebanese Host Communities in Syrian Refugee Assistance

The Lebanese host community is playing a significant role in assisting Syrian refugees due to the Lebanese government’s decision not to set up camps. This assistance takes many different forms. Lebanese individuals host people directly in their homes (either family members, prior acquaintances or complete strangers) and also lend empty ‘homes’ or outbuildings to refugee families without charging rent. Landlords reduce rent amounts or accept long delays in payment. Ordinary citizens lend small amounts of money to refugees for everyday expenses and even go so far as to give away furniture, clothes, labour and larger amounts of money to Syrian refugee strangers.

From research conducted in spring and summer 2014 in Akkar, North Lebanon, it is apparent that the actions of the Lebanese host community constitute a remarkable example of collective individual humanitarianism. This example is noteworthy for its extent, impact on the experience of refugees, and potential impact on the future of refugee planning. While the role of host communities should not be overstated – individuals offering personal humanitarian support representing only one of multiple responses to the refugee influx, others of which are antagonistic or ambivalent – it merits attention.

This article will examine the implications of host community support for refugee assistance in protracted crises, before discussing the relevance of this support to future priorities of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Situating the role of the host community within a broader framework of all assistance provided to the Syrian refugee population, it becomes apparent that the nuanced roles of the host, refugee and ‘aid-giver’ have much to add to the debate about the future of refugee assistance, particularly in relation to the UNHCR. The Syrian crisis finds the UNHCR at a precarious juncture in its life, in a world struggling to find a balance between sovereign power, international institutions and private actors. This is a world which the UNHCR has hitherto navigated well, placing their core mandate of protection for the refugee above other internal or external power interests.

Implications of host community support for concepts of humanitarianism

The question of how individual humanitarian sympathy can be more efficiently harnessed is a pressing one for the 21st century, and has great import across all humanitarian fields as well as human rights and ‘development’ work. In the refugee debate, it has important ramifications both for the mode of assisting refugees (the manner in which aid is distributed) and longer term resolutions to protracted refugee situations. With regards to the long-term, this question of sympathy is important to consider when reflecting on sustainable development discourse and the potential uptake of ‘integration’ as a permanent solution to the refugee problem.

Notably, host community support disrupts notions of hierarchical power structures, and instead paints a persuasive picture of horizontal networks of support and knowledge, which either operate autonomously from, or alongside more ‘formal’ vertical structures. Many Lebanese individuals offering support are offering it as a result of one-to-one interactions, either with family members or individual previously unknown refugee. They are operating independently of the Municipality, the government or any other institutionalised structures. Individual humanitarian initiatives, which are motivated by reciprocity or mutual understanding, highlight the possibility of a humanitarianism which moves away from paternalism or patronage and instead focuses on a more equal power dynamic between giver and receiver. This moves closer to the concept of ‘hospitality’ as a means to ‘protect the unprotected’ by “conceiving the relationship between state and individual in more fluid, mutually beneficial and mutually obligated ways.” Wilson, “Protecting the Unprotected – Reconceptualising Refugee Protection through the Notion of Hospitality,”Local-Global: Identity, Security, Community vol. 8, 2010: 100-122.

These notions of reciprocal ‘exchange’, rather than top-down beneficence practiced by the development industry, are beginning to permeate concepts of aid giving. For example, South-South development cooperation, such as that practiced by China and India, ostensibly rejects hierarchical ‘donor-recipient’ relationships and insists on mutual opportunities Mawdesley, “The Changing Geographies of Foreign Aid and Development Cooperation: Contributions from gift theory,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37, no 2, (2012): 256-272. . Not enough work has focused on how more reciprocal forms of assistance might become every-day practice, on whether it is something that can be fostered and channelled, or whether it will always remain spontaneous and organic.

For ‘refugee humanitarianism’, goals are often short-term, supposedly neutral (apolitical) and often targeted at one specific group – refugees. Aid is channelled to deal with a systemic ‘aberration’, with the intention of returning the system to ‘normal’ once durable solutions – traditionally, repatriation or resettlement – are found for the refugee population. By working along these lines, refugee humanitarianism has often been detached from the local settings in which refugees are embedded – this is particularly the case if refugees are housed in camps.

The example of host communities spontaneously adding their individual support to more institutionalised humanitarianism goes against the tendency to not incorporate localised settings into refugee humanitarianism. It emphasises the greater sustainability of refugee humanitarianism channelled through existing structures within a host setting. The relational basis for viewing the refugee within a community has implications for how aid to refugees is distributed. It blurs the boundary between the ‘guest’ and ‘host’, or the ‘disempowered’ and ‘empowered’ and allows for greater flexibility over who ‘deserves’ assistance, which encompasses vulnerable members of the host community alongside the refugee population. In this respect, it interrupts fixed notions of humanitarianism.

Implications for the UNHCR

The Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon is noteworthy for several reasons, all of which shed a different angle on the prioritisations and operations of the UNHCR alongside other humanitarian actors. The reasons span: the complex identities of Syrian refugee populations; the peculiar history between Syria and Lebanon; the fragile nature of the Lebanese state; the early decision not to house refugees in camps leading to enforced ‘temporary’ integration; and the extraordinary assistance provided at an individual level by the host population. These circumstances raise questions about how appropriate certain UNCHR processes are for meeting 21st century challenges, including its identification of ‘refugees’ in complex circumstances; its dealing with sovereign bodies; and its evolving methods of aid distribution which, if involving decentralisation, may have significant repercussions for how humanitarianism typically works in practice. These issues gain further significance when considered in relation to ‘core mandates’ of the UNHCR, namely protection and ‘durable solutions’ for refugees.

The response of the Lebanese host community to the Syrian crisis has three important implications for the future of the UNHCR. Firstly, the response contributes to the debate over the UNHCR core mandate of ‘protection’ by blurring the identities of those in need of protection, such as refugees, Syrian migrants and vulnerable members of host communities. Secondly, it increases the feasibility of the potential solutions to the protracted refugee problem, by making it more likely that some form of integration will occur. Thirdly, it highlights the need for a shift in the traditionally exclusive relationship between the UNHCR and sovereign states; both actors should be more willing to involve civil society groups and other individual actors within a state in refugee planning.

The UNHCR is, theoretically, aware of the unrealised potentialities offered by individual and grassroots networks of support. A report commissioned by them UNHCR suggests that “although commentators have recognised the increasing contribution of NGOs and civil society movements from the global South in the humanitarian sphere, the humanitarian responses initiated by Southern civil society networks and displaced populations themselves have also largely remained unexplored. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Pacitto, “Writing the ‘Other’ Into Humanitarian Discourse: Framing theory and practice in South-South responses to forced displacement,”UNHCR Working Paper no 257 (2013): 5. But in practice, there appears to be a disconnect between the UNHCR’s theoretical musings and policies on the ground. As reported by Zakharia and Knox in May 2014, interviews conducted across Lebanon indicated that “the UN-driven centralized and top-down relief planning and implementation results in persistent gaps with slow and intermittent service delivery.” Zakharia and Knox “The International Aid Community and Local Actors: Experiences and testimonies from the ground,” Civil Society Knowledge Center, Lebanon (2014). In Akkar, while there is decentralization of roles within the INGO and NGO network, and some collaboration with local religious organizations, there is little or no collaboration with municipalities or other local civic structures.

Conclusion: The Impact of Host Community Assistance

Looking ahead, there should be greater investment in three areas: private enterprise, decentralization and ‘informal networks’ of support. Implicit in all three is greater devolution. Greater investment in these areas can be realised both practically, via methods of channelling assistance, and conceptually, through broader arguments about the future of the UNHCR.

Betts and Loescher make similar points in their projection about the future direction of the UNHCR. They formulate that the particular challenges which face the organization in the 21st century – migration, security, development and peacebuilding – are too broad for the UNHCR to address well through its own work on the ground. Rather, they argue for a “UNHCR that plays a facilitative and catalytic role in mobilizing other actors to fulfil their responsibilities with respect to refugees. In order to fulfil its core mandate, the Office may need to do more by doing less, and become more focused and strategic in the advocacy, coordination and facilitation role that it plays.” Betts and Loescher, Refugees in International Relations (Oxford University Press, USA, 2010): 123. UNHCR depends heavily on its moral and expert authority to justify its interventions in global affairs Barnett et al, Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics (Cornell University Press, 2008): 110. and this may therefore become jeopardised by spreading its remit too wide.

Such a move may run the risk of fostering disjointed operations to assist refugees, run by multiple actors aligned along different agendas – as is largely the case in Lebanon today. Greater focus needs to be placed on the ways sustainable assistance can be offered to both refugees and host communities. The very act of doing this may have a significant impact on the way durable solutions to protracted refugee problems are formulated, as integration is turned into an economically viable option. The international community needs to view host communities as a starting point because they are the most vulnerable to the refugee presence but also the most fundamental component of refugees’ experiences within a host state. This will require a reworking of the international-state-individual triage which has been at the heart of humanitarian and refugee efforts for the past half century.

The concluding question here is whether the current combination of localised, national and international responses to the crisis can become more coherent, in order to inspire long-term capacity building at the local level? UNHCR’s traditional policy of working with refugees in camps has meant that host communities are not generally treated as partners in humanitarianism, with their internal assistance mechanisms typically left unrecognised, let alone built upon. While building on the assistance offered by the host community may be problematic owing to its ad hoc nature, the potential it has for future community cohesion and civic engagement could be further strengthened. The perspective of the host community should shift towards a more nuanced view of their potential capacity, alongside their vulnerability, in order to achieve this.

Helen Mackreath is a postgraduate researcher at the American University of Beirut. Her research focuses on the welfare of refugees in the Middle East, which she has explored through the role of Lebanese hosts assisting Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and the politics of refugee governance in South-East Turkey.


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