Lebanon: A Country of Refuge or Transit?

Rasha Akel
Graduate Assistant, IMS


It is well known that Lebanon has frequently received different groups of persecuted populations throughout its history. At each juncture, these groups contributed to the economic, social, and political life of the country. Lebanon stands out from other Middle Eastern States in that it played an active role in laying the foundations of international refugee law. According to Janmyr, “it was one of only 20 States that formed the committee appointed by the UN General Assembly, in February 1946, to lay the basis for the International Refugee Organization (IRO)”. At that time, representatives from Lebanon advocated for a broader definition of the term ‘refugee’.  Lebanon participated in the creation of UNHCR in 1949, and voted in favor of a joint resolution that establishes this agency with a view to assist and identify refugees within Europe. This positive approach towards the international refugee regime, which was taken during Lebanon’s nascent years as a nation-state, contrasts starkly with the approach Lebanon has taken towards Palestinian and Syrian refugees. In proportion to its population size today, Lebanon currently hosts the highest number of refugees in the world. In the country, Syrians represent the vast majority (approximately 1.5 million) of refugees. Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) are estimated to number 504,000 persons. It is also important to account for Palestinian refugees who have been displaced from Syria, thus enduring a double displacement, who number 42,000 (registered with UNRWA).

Lebanon’s Position

Lebanon insists that it is not a country of asylum, and has long rejected the ratification of the major instruments of refugee law. This position is clearly stated in the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) which was first released in 2015. As part of the regional Refugee and Resilience Response Plan (3RP), the LCRPs address refugee protection and assistance in the country . The 3RP “has been a key expression of the international community’s support to address the impact of the Syrian crisis in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan”. These plans clearly establish Lebanon’s relation to the international refugee regime whereby the preamble states: “Lebanon is not a State Party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and has not signed its 1967 Protocol”. Also, it states that, “Lebanon is neither a country of asylum, nor a final destination for refugees, let alone a country of resettlement”. Janmyr states that there are several reasons that explain Lebanon’s resistance to the ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention. The main reason pertains to the fear that signing the Convention lays the foundation for the permanent settlement and integration of refugees into Lebanese society. This in turn has an impact on the sectarian composition of the country, which is intricately linked with the political “power sharing” system. As Janmyr puts it, “In such a context, the presence of refugees raises concerns about the substantial demographic changes in the country, which would have major political implications”. Not only is the concern with the confessional demographic composition or balance reflected in Lebanon’s approach to the refugee regime, but it was and is also reflected in Lebanon’s restrictive citizenship policies and nationality law.

Historically, Lebanon’s citizenship regime has been preoccupied with the demographic composition of the population. This is reflected in the last census, conducted in 1932, which laid the foundation for the pre-war political system. Several scholars find that the 1932 census displayed a bias in favor of Lebanon’s Christian population. While a number of refugee groups belonging to Christian denominations were registered as Lebanese in the census, the same cannot be said of the Muslim refugee communities who arrived in Lebanon during the same era. This was the case of the Kurdish Sunni-Muslim community who came to Lebanon along with the Arminian and Syriac communities upon fleeing from Turkey. Lebanon currently hosts a significantly large number of Muslim migrants and refugees. Against this backdrop, debates surrounding the amendment of the nationality law (whereby Lebanese women cannot transfer their nationality to their children and foreign spouses) are heavily influenced by controversies about the confessional and political “balance” of the country. The assignment of citizenship becomes part of a “numbers game” which affects the delicate political framework. In May 2015, the Lebanese government ordered UNHCR to suspend the registration of Syrians. It could be argued that this reflects the fear surrounding the demographic, and hence political, shift such numbers would imply for Lebanese society if naturalization were to occur at a later stage.

Concluding Remarks

The question surrounding Lebanon being a country of transit, although it has historically received different groups of refugees and has played a major role in the establishment of the international refugee regime, is inseparable from the issue of citizenship and the confessional demographic composition of society. The issue of demography and religious composition of the refugees and the host communities lies at the heart of Lebanon’s shift in its approach towards the international refugee regime. For future research, it would be interesting to trace these variations historically whereby connections are found between Lebanon’s approach to the international refugee regime and its demographic composition, as well as the religious composition of the refugees it has received. When (under what historical circumstances) and why did it benefit Lebanon not to be a country of refuge or transit? Can similar patterns be found with other countries? Such research may help elucidate the existential anxieties that lie at the heart of the matter, and could help better inform social, political, and human rights discourses.