Abstract How and with what consequences are individuals fleeing the Syrian conflict to Lebanon given various legal, bureaucratic and social labels by humanitarian, state and local government actors? A wide array of labels are imposed; registered refugee, labourer, displaced and foreigner are only a few of the various categories that have developed to govern their presence. This article argues that each of these belongs to and reproduces various modes of ordering, each with its own set of implications for what a Syrian may do, how her presence is understood by others in the community, and what type of rights and protections she may have access to. Importantly, the emergence of labels in one arena often influences how and why another set of labels takes shape in another. As such, the categories do not operate distinctly and membership in one may create constraints or opportunities in another. Introduction The al Homsi family is living in a coastal town in Lebanon’s northern region, like many other Syrian families we have met during our recent years of researching Lebanon’s refugee response. Mother Nur works as a teacher in a Kuwaiti-sponsored school for refugee children near to the family’s home; currently, however, she is at home caring for the family’s youngest addition, little Ahmed, only two months old. Father Waleed used to own a small electronics shop in the family’s hometown not far across the border; since the outbreak of war in Syria, he has been increasingly preoccupied with documenting the plight of his compatriots in Lebanon. Naama (aged five) and Khaled (aged seven) are lucky to be able to attend the school where their mother works. Living with this family of five is also Waleed’s sister, Sara, who has just started volunteering with an international non-governmental organization (NGO) working in Lebanon’s north. Once in a while, the family also briefly hosts Syrian newcomers, not infrequently smuggled across the border following Lebanon’s decision a few years ago to effectively seal off the country’s border with Syria for those wishing to seek asylum. What makes the al Homsi family like so many other Syrian families currently staying in Lebanon is the wide array of labels they carry, imposed on them by a diverse set of institutional actors. Registered refugee, labourer, displaced and foreigner are only a few of the various categories that humanitarian, national and local authorities have developed to govern the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Each of these belongs to and reproduces various modes of ordering, each with its own set of implications for what a Syrian may do, how her presence is understood by others in the community, and what type of rights and protections she may have access to. In this article, we interrogate how and with what consequences individuals fleeing the Syrian conflict to Lebanon are given various legal, bureaucratic and social labels by humanitarian, state and local government actors. As forced migration scholar Roger Zetter noted in his seminal study on this issue in 1991, ‘labels infuse the world of refugees’ (Zetter 1991). Our research shows how this has proven particularly true in Lebanon, where a wide array of modes of ordering have become central in shaping a Syrian individual’s chances in life. In this sense, and as noted by Glasman (2017), refugee classification is an emblematic illustration of Pierre Bourdieu’s insight that life chances are shaped not only by ‘class struggles’, but also by ‘classification struggles’. In the case of the al Homsi family, Mother Nur and her two oldest children are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and she has renewed her residency papers in Lebanon on the basis of her UNHCR certificate—a mode of renewal that technically prohibits her from working in Lebanon. Father Waleed maintains that he is not a refugee and has therefore resisted registering as such with UNHCR. While being considered by UNHCR as one of the country’s many ‘unregistered refugees’, his legal status in Lebanon has fluctuated: sometimes living legally in the country, sometimes not. For a long time, he was looking for a Lebanese national to sponsor him so that he would be able to renew his residency as a migrant worker under Lebanon’s kefala system. However, the informal cost of a kafeel (sponsor)—at least $500—is too much for the family. Sara has also spent years in Lebanon without registering with UNHCR. She found the stigma of being labelled a UNHCR refugee outweighed the actual benefits—particularly as the material assistance provided by UNHCR became increasingly limited to those considered the most vulnerable: yet another category that Syrians must contend with. When Lebanon in 2015 changed its residency requirements for Syrians in such a manner that having a UNHCR registration certificate suddenly became important for many to be allowed to stay legally in the country, Sara found herself too late to register properly with UNHCR. The Lebanese government had almost concurrently suspended UNHCR’s ability to officially register refugees. As a result, she is one of UNHCR’s ‘recorded refugees’ and left without the option of renewing her residency in Lebanon on the basis of being a refugee. And baby Ahmed? Being registered neither with the humanitarian organizations nor with national and local authorities, he legally does not exist at all. Ahmed is thus one of the many Syrian newborns at great risk of becoming stateless (American University of Beirut/Norwegian Refugee Council 2016). Because labelling also can be seen as a process of stereotyping (Zetter 1991)—generally involving the standardization and the formulation of clear-cut categories—it is essential to observe carefully not only which labels are used, but also how they are constructed. In the following, we explore on the one hand the labels and terms applied to Syrians in Lebanon today and how these vary between actors and, on the other, the implications and consequences of the multiplicity of labels on the lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Our examination takes on three levels: the humanitarian and the global, the national and, finally, the local. Importantly, these three levels should not be understood as entirely distinct from one another. First, the emergence of labels in one arena often influences how and why another set of labels takes shape in another arena. Second, they do not operate distinctly, as most Syrians belong to a number of these categories together, and membership in one may create constraints or opportunities in another. This article is based on a combined total of 24 months of research in Lebanon between 2013 and 2017, including semi-structured interviews with a wide set of actors, ranging from UN, government and local officials to Syrian refugees and migrants and NGO workers. While the article focuses on the situation of Syrian nationals in Lebanon and thus excludes the situation of the approximately 40,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria, it is noteworthy that the latter are subject to a separate, increasingly restrictive policy, in line with Lebanon’s long-standing attempts to reduce the size of the country’s Palestinian population (Erakat 2014). Global and Humanitarian Approximately 22.5 million of the world’s more than 65 million forced migrants are categorized as refugees with an internationally recognized legal status. Where they have granted refugee status, states bear the primary responsibility under international law for these refugees, but international organizations may also carry important responsibilities (Goodwin-Gill and McAdam 2011). Of the world’s 22.5 million refugees, about five million Palestinian refugees fall under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), whereas an estimated 17 million refugees are provided with another international agency—the UNHCR—specifically tasked with safeguarding their interests. Lebanon has long refused to ratify the key refugee protection instruments, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, but has since 1963 allowed UNHCR to operate in the country and, as such, carry the greatest responsibility for protecting and assisting the country’s non-Palestinian refugee population (Janmyr 2017a).1 In the following, we will elaborate on how UNHCR, and, as such, the international humanitarian system, more precisely categorizes Syrian refugees in Lebanon: (de facto) prima facie refugees; registered, unregistered and recorded refugees; ‘convention’ and ‘mandate’ refugees; and, finally, ‘vulnerable’ refugees. (De Facto) Prima Facie Refugees In accordance with UNHCR’s mandate, UNHCR may declare prima facie refugee status for certain individuals or groups. A prima facie approach generally means the recognition by a state or UNHCR of refugee status on the basis of readily apparent, objective circumstances in the country of origin. This approach was developed primarily in order to deal with situations that involved large-scale displacement and in cases where individual refugee status determination was deemed not necessary, or where host state/UNHCR capacities were thinly stretched (Durieux 2008; Albert 2010). While UNHCR in late 2006 adopted a prima facie approach to Iraqi refugees in Lebanon (Trad and Frangieh 2007), it may be surprising to learn that no official declaration of prima facie refugee status has been made with regard to Syrian nationals. In this case, UNHCR has rather introduced a novel category, classifying the flight of civilians from Syria as a ‘refugee movement’. In contrast to prima facie refugee status, however, the notion of ‘refugee movement’ is not an established means of determining refugee status under international law. UNHCR’s globally applicable International Protection Considerations with Regard to People Fleeing the Syrian Arab Republic suggest that there is merely a presumption that a Syrian seeking protection is a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention until the opposite is proven.2 Despite the lack of any official prima facie declaration, it is interesting to note that UNHCR in Lebanon in fact treats all Syrians in Lebanon as refugees. UNHCR staff confirm that the concept of refugee movement is ‘ more or less—not formally—but more or less the same thing as prima facie status’.3 As one of the authors has argued elsewhere, this essentially means that UNHCR considers Syrians in Lebanon to be, if not officially prima facie refugees, then de facto prima facie refugees (Janmyr 2017b). This is evident perhaps most clearly in UNHCR registration activities, where Syrians are being registered as ‘refugees’ and not, as UNHCR’s International Protection Considerations would suggest, merely as ‘persons seeking international protection’. UNHCR’s registration is moreover strikingly similar to other procedures of prima facie refugee status determination, where information on the basis of flight from a given place during a specified period is efficiently established during the process of registration. At the same time, and as we will discuss in more detail in a later section, UNHCR appears to make little distinction between those Syrians who are registered and those the organization simply labels ‘unregistered refugees’. Registered, Unregistered and Recorded Refugees This (lack of) distinction between the various humanitarian categories is even more starkly reflected when one considers the lack of substantive difference in the way UNHCR deals with registered Syrian refugees and those Syrians who are considered ‘recorded’ refugees. UNHCR’s registration of Syrian refugees in many ways mimics the process of prima facie refugee status determination, and registered refugees receive a UNHCR registration certificate. This is valid for two years in the first instance and entitles refugees to international protection and humanitarian assistance. The certificate has nevertheless not traditionally conferred any formal status recognized by the Lebanese government, nor has it exempted refugees from penalties associated with irregular entry or a lack of residency in Lebanon (Chaaban et al. 2013). For the majority, the principal meaning has as such been access to international assistance. Syrians who approach UNHCR after the Lebanese government decision to halt registration in May 2015 are currently being ‘recorded’ rather than ‘registered’. This practice differs from registration in that only basic information and biometrics are collected in UNHCR’s assistance database, the Refugee Assistance Information System (RAIS).4 Numbering approximately 40,000 in June 2016,5 these ‘recorded’ refugees appear to have a status somewhere between that of the ‘registered’ and ‘unregistered’ refugees. While recording does not grant a Syrian a UNHCR registration certificate, which, as we shall see, has recently become crucial for legal stay in the country, it does provide them with access to assistance—a term that in practice UNCHR interprets fairly broadly. As a senior UNHCR official explains, ‘ for us it is also protection, so if a case approaches us and needs psychosocial, legal assistance, protection, etc., that’s part of our assistance’.6 Recorded individuals are reportedly also eligible for resettlement abroad, once they have undergone the merged refugee status determination/resettlement procedure that establishes that they are not only mandate refugees, they are also convention refugees—two distinct refugee categories to which we will return shortly.7 In one way, the suspension of registration and the emergence of categories such as ‘unregistered refugees’ and ‘recorded refugees’ can be seen as window-dressing; from the perspective of UNHCR, the refugees are there whether or not they are registered. For UNHCR, more or less ‘ any Syrian outside Syria is a refugee’ and the true number of refugees as such greatly exceeds the number of those it has registered.8 However, and as will be discussed further below, this de facto (in contrast with de jure) designation does not translate into recognition by other institutional actors—most importantly in this case by the Lebanese national authorities. ‘Convention’ and ‘Mandate’ Refugees Syrians also face other modes of ordering within the international refugee and humanitarian regimes. Those hoping to be resettled by UNHCR to third countries will soon find themselves confronted with the fact that the international refugee regime distinguishes between what are commonly termed ‘convention refugees’ and ‘mandate refugees’. Convention refugees are those refugees fulfilling the refugee definition as it is laid out in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol,9 while mandate refugees are generally considered to be those individuals who fulfil the definition of those persons to whom the UNHCR’s competence extends. These are very close to, though not identical with, the definition contained in the Convention (UNHCR 2015b). Based on UNHCR’s Statute and successive UN General Assembly and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolutions, UNHCR’s competence to provide international protection to refugees encompasses not only individuals who meet the criteria for refugee status contained in the Convention. It is also extended to those who are outside their country of origin and who are unable or unwilling to return there owing to serious threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order. Importantly, then, a person can simultaneously be both a ‘mandate refugee’ and a ‘convention refugee’, and the term ‘refugee’ as employed by UNHCR includes, for example, both those recognized by states parties to the Convention and/or Protocol and those recognized by UNHCR as ‘mandate refugees’. UNHCR’s prima facie approach is normally employed in the case of ‘mandate’ refugees, and is thus considered qualitatively different from other forms of status determination. It necessitates a lower standard of proof and does not provide scope for consideration of exclusion or non-inclusion from the 1951 Refugee Convention (Durieux 2008; Albert 2010). For many, it is confusing, then, to learn that, while UNHCR considers Syrians in Lebanon to be refugees, they are not refugee enough for resettlement to third countries (Janmyr 2017b). Resettlement states have generally been reluctant to resettle this refugee category without a further, substantive refugee status determination review that establishes that they are bona fide refugees who meet the criteria of the 1951 Refugee Convention (UNHCR 2003). This is done through an expedited refugee status determination and resettlement procedure that requires yet another humanitarian categorization: the ‘vulnerables’. ‘Vulnerable’ Refugees In the merged refugee status determination (RSD) and resettlement procedure, Syrians are again categorized—this time according to vulnerability. Only those deemed vulnerable enough to be eligible for resettlement are considered for the procedure. As one senior UNHCR staff explained to one of the authors: Firstly we [UNHCR] do a selection where we pick out those who are most vulnerable. And then we look closer and closer: are you really vulnerable? Yes, but really, really vulnerable? And that’s how the pool all the time decreases.10 However, certain categories are perceived to be—by definition—vulnerable, overlooking important heterogeneity and implying a fixed state of being (Clark 2007). The ‘vulnerables’ to be considered for resettlement from Lebanon include the categories of survivors of violence or torture, women and girls at risk, and those with medical needs or disabilities (UNHCR 2015a). This categorization has proven to be critical not only to the resettlement procedure, but also to the broader humanitarian governance of Syrians in Lebanon, where targeted assistance was put in place as early as 2013. The primary manifestation of this logic has been a yearly survey entitled the Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (VASyR) (UNICEF et al. 2016). This survey provides the bedrock of targeted humanitarian assistance, as it allows a segmentation of the Syrian population into levels of vulnerability, and for a review of where the new cut-off should be for humanitarian assistance. The sample is drawn from the population of registered refugees: a category—as discussed above—that structurally excludes a significant (although undetermined) segment of the broader Syrian refugee population, as defined by the de facto prima facie approach adopted by UNHCR. The survey does not define ‘vulnerability’, but rather identifies components, such as shelter conditions, poverty levels, food (in)security, household demographics and ‘coping strategies’. Overwhelmingly, the findings demonstrate that the vast majority of registered Syrian refugees are living with a significant level of ‘vulnerability’. For example, in 2016, 71 per cent of refugee households are living below the poverty line (UNICEF et al. 2016). However, the exact criteria used to determine eligibility for assistance remain opaque: what precisely makes one among the ‘most vulnerable’ is a source of great contention and questioning among Syrians. As one Syrian male living in an informal tented settlement in Lebanon’s Beqaa valley told one of the authors: I just don’t understand why I was cut off [of assistance]. You’re supposed to be a family of five, and we are five: my wife, my two children, and my mother. And there’s no one else to provide for the family. My neighbors, they are still on, and they have two males who can work.11 Maintaining the opaqueness of the selection criteria is necessary, it is argued by many humanitarian staff, as refugees may alter their responses to fit into criteria that they believe would render them more eligible for assistance or resettlement, both of which rely on categories of vulnerability. For the purposes of both resettlement and assistance, a set of gendered assumptions appear to underlie a humanitarian understanding of who is ‘vulnerable’. A recent assessment by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) found that Syrian men in Lebanon are: a category not prioritized by the humanitarian system for support, are often not able to access support that they need and, even more often, feel themselves to be excluded from it. In addition, refugee men’s engagement in informal work creates specific vulnerabilities to abuse and exploitation for which effective and consistent responses have not been formulated (IRC 2016: 3). Perhaps more alarmingly, it finds that the particular dimensions of vulnerability experienced by single and employed men are often either not captured in traditional assessments or are interpreted as diminishing one’s level of vulnerability. Ultimately, these categorizations create yet another layer of ordering that Syrians must contend with to have access to resources, protection and, in the case of unregistered refugees, even recognition. State and National As the section above discusses, at least three different orderings are critical in understanding how the international refugee and humanitarian regime categorize and order Syrian refugees in Lebanon: namely, the legal categories employed, the nature of their registration and their assessed levels of vulnerability. For national authorities, there are often contradictory political interests surrounding the designation used, and Lebanese political actors have often disagreed with UNHCR’s (de facto) prima facie refugee approach to Syrians seeking protection in Lebanon. ‘Displaced’ and ‘Refugees’ A couple of issues, however, have garnered significant consensus among the national political class. One is the strong opposition to Lebanon being a country of asylum; Lebanon does not have a formal domestic refugee legislation in place, and the provisions on asylum as found in its 1962 Law Regulating the Entry and Stay of Foreigners in Lebanon and their Exit from the Country are in reality redundant (Stevens 2014; Janmyr 2017a). There is thus general agreement that the only ‘official’ refugees in Lebanon are the Palestinians under the mandate of UNRWA. This leads to a general preference for the term ‘displaced’ within discussions at the national level. However, particularly early on, the category of ‘displaced’ was largely seen as a semi-trivial terminological distinction; in practice, it did not interfere with the application of an international and humanitarian categorization that saw all those fleeing conflict as largely having the same rights. This is evoked quite forcefully in a speech given on 3 January 2013 by the leader of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah: When we talk about the displaced, whether they be Syrian families, Palestinian families, or Lebanese families who used to live and work in Syria, they are all now displaced. We call some displaced [nazihin], some refugees [laji’in], and others migrants [muhajarrin], but these are details and in essence make no difference (Al-’Alam 2013). However, this began to change over time, as fear of the mobilization of Syrians in Lebanon grew. In the aftermath of the national Syrian election in May 2014, leaders within the March 14 political bloc—previously the strongest political advocates of refugees in Lebanon—even called for the removal of the label of ‘displaced’ for all those who voted in the election (Annahar 2014). Here, we see that the term ‘displaced’ was largely understood as semi-congruent with an a-political notion of refugeehood. As one journalist put it, in reference to Syrians in Lebanon: Broadly speaking, ‘refugees’ are perceived to be, rightly so, first and foremost ‘victims’. … Often, these ‘victims’ are deemed—intentionally or otherwise, overtly or subtly—as apolitical, homogeneous, incapable of comprehending complexities, and utterly vacant of any agency or power (al-Saadi 2015). This incident also brought to the fore the reality that Lebanese national authorities had thus far played little to no role in defining membership in this category. Coming quickly after the ‘milestone’ of one million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR was reached in April 2014 (UNHCR 2014), it would prove to be critical in justifying the government’s decision to take decisive action for greater control over the presence of Syrians. Following the formation of a new government in September 2014, the Council of Ministers adopted its first clear policy on Syrian displacement—known as the October Policy. The policy had one explicit goal—to decrease the number of Syrians in Lebanon by reducing access to territory and encouraging return to Syria (Janmyr 2016). Before these policy changes, Syrians were generally subject to the same provisions in domestic law that apply to other foreigners, but had the added benefit of a 1993 bilateral Agreement for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination between Lebanon and Syria, which granted freedom of work, residence and economic activity for nationals of both countries. The border regulations that accompanied the October Policy radically changed this. The new entry policies, effectively put in place as of January 2015, restrict admission to Lebanon for Syrians to those who can prove that their stay in Lebanon fits into one of the approved entry categories, such as tourism, business, study, medical treatment, economic migrant entering with a Lebanese sponsor or transit to another country. As observers have noted, the list of reasons stipulated by the government ‘aims to deny entry to poorer Syrians, while keeping the borders open to those who enjoy good financial standing’ (Frangieh 2015). Even though one of the entry categories is for ‘displaced’, this category in fact requires compliance with one of the other categories, or with the government’s ‘humanitarian exceptions criteria’, which remains officially undefined but only appears to apply to: Unaccompanied and/or separated children with a parent already registered in Lebanon; persons living with disabilities with a relative already registered in Lebanon; persons with urgent medical needs for whom treatment in Syria is unavailable; persons who will be resettled to third countries (Amnesty International 2015). As such, the category for the ‘displaced’ does not include most of those fleeing the armed conflict, violence or persecution. Therefore, entry policies aimed at restricting access to the Lebanese territory to those who would otherwise be considered mandate refugees by international ordering. In turn, they were coupled with residency policies that applied to those Syrians already residing in Lebanon and that have had an even greater effect on the blurring and reordering of categories. From Refugees and Displaced to Economic Migrants The October Policy was followed by the implementation of two primary options for Syrian nationals to obtain residency: sponsorship by a Lebanese citizen or reliance on a UNHCR registration certificate (UNHCR and GoL 2017). In other words, a Syrian can be lawfully staying in Lebanon if s/he is registered as a refugee with UNHCR or is an economic migrant under the sponsorship system. Central in this process was the contention that many Syrians in Lebanon are simply economic migrants who are not fleeing violence, but rather looking for work (Knutsen 2014). Here, then, appears yet another significant category that Syrians must contend with: the economic migrant or ‘labourer’. These new residency policies are as such arguably the clearest manifestation of an attempt to transform Syrian ‘displaced’ into economic migrants, and therefore without the international protection ordinarily afforded refugees. While, in principle, Syrians registered with UNHCR as refugees do not have to provide a local Lebanese sponsor, this has been loosely applied in General Security branches throughout the country. While this practice has been denied by the General Directorate of General Security in correspondence with one of the authors,12 instances of discretionary refusal of residency renewal have been documented by both NGOs and researchers (Amnesty International 2015; Human Rights Watch 2016; Janmyr 2016). This rebranding of Syrian refugees as economic migrants was in part intended to ease societal and political tensions among Lebanese, who were generally wary of hosting large numbers of refugees but had for decades accepted the presence of Syrian migrant workers (Janmyr 2017b). Lebanon has long relied on the presence of a large, low-wage Syrian labour force; while exact figures do not exist, estimates for the early 2000s claimed that Syrians constituted between 20 and 40 per cent of Lebanon’s labour force (Chalcraft 2009). However, as we will discuss further below, coupled with other policies of categorization, it has had devastating effects on the ability of Syrians to remain under the protection of the law in Lebanon. Localities In addition to the legal and political categorizations Syrians face in Lebanon, they are subject to a wide array of social categories in the localities in which they reside. Some of these may have some overlap (although may not be defined in the same way or through similar processes), such as nazih [displaced], to ’ammel [labourer], while others are more particular to local dynamics, such as ’ajaneb [foreigners] and in some cases even ’ikhwa [brethren]. One particularly visible manifestation of this has been the language used by local authorities instituting curfews targeting Syrians within their localities: in many cases, the banners announcing curfews would refer to ‘foreign workers’ or ‘Syrian workers’ while, in other cases, they specify ‘displaced Syrians’ or even ‘motorcycles’ (a class marker, as owning a motorcycle is much more affordable than owning a car) (el Helou 2014). In popular commentary, these distinctions appear inconsequential, all to be understood as broadly targeting Syrian refugees. Visibility as Marker of Refugeehood However, the ambiguity of the distinction between ‘refugees’ or ‘displaced’ on the one hand and Syrian labourers on the other came up repeatedly in interviews with municipal and regional authorities. In one case, a district official told one of the authors that a municipality she was planning on visiting—one where over 2,000 Syrian refugees were registered with UNHCR as of January 2015—‘had no refugees’.13 By that, he meant that most Syrians there had previously been in the village as seasonable labourers, and now had returned to settle more permanently with their families. Syrians the author met in that village did often have long-standing ties to it as labour migrants, but had brought their families to settle with them only following the beginning of the conflict in Syria. This is the case for many—if not most—Syrians in Lebanon, who have either family ties and/or labour ties in the places they settled. When discussing the presence of refugees within his district, the official referred the author to areas that had informal tented settlements (ITS).14 There, he said, there were ‘real refugees’. This brings to the fore how the visibility of Syrians has emerged as a central concern for local authorities. While ITS are one particularly stark marker of visibility, it is part of a broader concern with the presence of Syrians within public spaces. As one local leader in a village in the Baalbek Governorate recalled to one of the authors: ‘[Syrians] are here as workers and refugees not tourists nor as permanent members of the community. There’s no reason for them to be walking around at night.’15 In addition to night-time curfews, many localities have gone further to put in place measures that attempt to circumscribe the presence of Syrians in public spaces broadly. In Kfarroumane, for example, a village in the district of Nabatieh, the municipality issued a decision banning ‘displaced Syrians’ from entering public parks and attending local celebrations, while specifically permitting the use of ‘Syrian labourers’ in agricultural lands.16 Second, certain municipalities required that Syrians ‘register’ their presence with the municipal authorities and, in some cases, this required that Syrians provide the name and contact of their sponsor. When pressed on the issue, municipal authorities would often state that they needed this to confirm the Syrians’ identity, that there were security risks and that having someone within the local community be accountable and responsible alleviated those risks. These local regulations served to blur the line further between ‘refugee’ or ‘displaced’ and ‘labourers’ as sponsorship at a local level often was unconcerned with whether Syrians had UNHCR registration or not. The Use, Misuse and Abuse of Categories As the above sections have outlined, Syrians face a panoply of labels, categories and modes of ordering depending on the nature of the institutions with which they are interacting. In the following section, we will expound upon these issues to show how, perhaps most critically, these categories have not remained siloed, but rather have had important spillover from one institution to another, and from one context to another, and at times have come into collision. Shifting Uses While the process of labelling suggests neutrality, labels often replicate the professional bureaucratic and political values that create them (Zetter 1991). Thus, as Wood (1985) has argued, labels in fact reveal ‘the political in the apparently non-political’. An essentially contested concept is that of refugee, which, as observed by Haddad (2004), is appraisive in character and necessarily involves value judgments. In Lebanon, this deeply contentious nature of terminology is perhaps brought to the fore most prominently during the drafting processes around major donor appeals such as the Lebanese Crisis Response Plans (LCRP). To date, two consecutive LCRPs have been drafted jointly by the UN and the Lebanese government, and these plans provide important insights into the humanitarian–state nexus of categorizing those Syrians fleeing to Lebanon. In the early stages of its Syria operation in Lebanon, UNHCR had agreed to avoid using the refugee label but, as UNHCR’s response grew more conventional, it increasingly insisted on the importance of using refugee terminology—much to the ire of the Lebanese government. The 2015–2016 LCRP consequently seeks to reconcile these conflicting humanitarian and state views. The document specifies in its preamble that the government refers to individuals who fled from Syria to Lebanon after March 2011 as ‘displaced persons’, while the United Nations characterizes the flight of civilians from Syria as a ‘refugee movement’ and considers that most of these Syrians are seeking international protection and are likely to meet the refugee definition (UNHCR and GoL 2015). The LCRP also establishes a number of terminologies when referring to persons who have fled from Syria after March 2011: ‘persons displaced from Syria’ (which can, depending on context, include Palestine refugees from Syria and Lebanese Returnees as well as registered and unregistered Syrian nationals); ‘persons registered as refugees by UNHCR’; and ‘de facto refugees’ (both 2. and 3. referring exclusively to Syrian nationals who are registered with UNHCR or seeking registration). The 2017–2020 LCRP largely mirrors the above categories—with one notable exception: the adverb ‘temporarily’ has been added to the category of ‘displaced persons’ to now read ‘temporarily displaced individuals’. Amid increasing discussions domestically and abroad around so-called ‘safe zones’ in Syria and the need to have Syrians ‘return to the country’, this emphasis on the temporariness of the Syrian presence in Lebanon cannot be seen as inconsequential (Ainsley and Spetalnick 2017; Reuters Arabic 2017). Intimately linked to the question of labelling is also that of numbers. The 2017–2020 LCRP specifies that Lebanon has ‘welcomed around 1.5 million refugees fleeing war-torn Syria’. In light of the meticulous categorization exercise as laid out in the LCRP’s preamble, the seemingly unhesitant use here of the term ‘refugees’ is noteworthy. Equally puzzling is the fact that the number 1.5 million is not actually reflected in UNHCR’s refugee registration, which rather establishes that there were ‘only’ 1,011,366 Syrians registered with UNHCR in the country in December 2016. This suggests not only that UNHCR considers the number of ‘unregistered refugees’ to be quite substantial—approximately 400,000 individuals—but also that the Lebanese government perceives a utility in expanding and contracting the category of refugee depending on the context. For reasons of residency, it employs a more limited definition that relies on UNHCR registration whereas, for donor and funding purposes, the emphasis is placed on the more expansive definition, which appears to mimic the de facto prima facie approach adopted by UNHCR.17 This is evident both in the language of the LCRP and even appears in certain parliamentary bills primarily related to international assistance, some passed as recently as mid-2016.18 Reifing and Reordering Labelling processes are not neutral or precise and, as Zetter (1991) has observed, labels can be deployed as a tool to create marginalization and, as such, accentuate the contradictions they seek to reduce. In Lebanon, humanitarian agencies have reified the distinction between ‘registered’ and ‘unregistered’ refugees by relying on the registered population for the purposes of assessment. As a critical building block for planning in the humanitarian sector, VASyR uncritically states that ‘the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has stabilized’ (UNICEF et al. 2016), without making reference to the state policy that has fixed that number nearly by fiat. While it is acknowledged that the sample is drawn from registered households, the distinction is blurred throughout the text where the sample is taken to be representative of all ‘Syrian refugees’. The result: the needs and potentially particular vulnerabilities of ‘unregistered refugees’—whether ‘recorded’ or not—are rendered invisible within one of the most significant policy planning and assessment documents of the crisis response, and their very claim to ‘refugeehood’ obscured. As highlighted in a previous section, since the government’s adoption of a new residency policy for Syrians and its concurrent suspension of UNHCR registration, it is obvious that being a ‘registered refugee’ with UNHCR has become ever more important. UNHCR registration has been afforded legal value, even leading to what some observers have called ‘a semi-recognition of refugee status’ (Gebeily 2015). No longer being able to secure a UNHCR registration certificate, many Syrians have nevertheless had to obtain residency through the latter category of sponsorship, requiring them to secure a national sponsor (kafeel). This process has had the effect of transforming them from ‘unregistered refugees’ or ‘recorded refugees’ into ‘labour/economic migrants’. The national government’s efforts to rebrand Syrian refugees as economic migrants has also had significant spillover effects into policies developed by municipal and other local authorities, who are required to provide sets of documents to Syrians hoping to renew their residency. As mentioned above, one municipal council, for example, has required that all ‘displaced Syrians’ living within the locality be sponsored by a resident of the same locality.19 Many others have instituted municipal IDs that require registration not wholly dissimilar to those administered by General Security, and many requiring fees as well (Barjass 2016). Of particular concern is that the rebranding of refugees as economic migrants, and the consequent de-legitimization of Syrians’ claims to refugee status, conceal more difficult political aspirations, such as the return of refugees to Syria. After considerable donor pressure, in February 2017, the Lebanese government agreed to waive the annual $200 residency fee for UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees, but the policy excludes, among others, Syrians not registered with UNHCR and registered refugees who renewed their residency through sponsorship by a Lebanese national. Coming amid public statements about the possible return of refugees and the establishment of ‘safe zones’ in Syria, this announcement is deeply troubling, as it ‘risks cementing a category of refugees without residency who would be highly vulnerable to any forced returns’ (Human Rights Watch 2017a). The new residency policy furthermore had unintended effects on a national level. It notably created a set of criteria concerning the renewal or regularization of legal stay that are so onerous and expensive that most people are unable to renew their permits and are consequently forced to reside in the country without legal stay. The 2017–2020 LCRP estimates that 60 per cent of those over the age of 15 lack legal residency, compared with 47 per cent in January 2016. This means that a considerable number of Syrians are irregular in the country and the central government authorities have limited knowledge about their situation and whereabouts. This situation could have been mitigated by the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities (MoIM) decision in January 2013 to put in place Regional Security Cells (RSC) that would be tasked with, among other roles, regularly collecting information on all displaced Syrians from municipalities within their area. So far, however, many municipalities have abstained from cooperating and the effort has as such had limited success. Therefore, rather than serving as a gateway for national planning and oversight, the use of registration practices at the municipal level has meant that, in many cases, Syrians can often rely on their local ‘registration’ procedures in day-to-day and local needs, but have to limit their movement beyond a certain area. It effectively makes them invisible to the central state, except if they are detained by one of the state security services. Costs, Benefits and Subjectivity The attribution of a particular label may also bring forward benefits in particular arenas while bearing costs in another. For example, Feldman (2012) notes, in the case of Palestinian refugees, that ‘even when refugees were at their most destitute they evaluated relief [that came with UNRWA registration] in relation to both political and material effect’. Therefore, despite the ongoing desire on the part of the UN to maintain the relief-oriented nature of UNRWA registration, ‘[a]ll parties were aware of the fact that even as UNRWA’s refugee definition was humanitarian in orientation (directed towards defining those who received assistance), its effects were also both social and political’ (Feldman 2012: 294). Our research with individual Syrians residing in different localities across Lebanon similarly suggests that sometimes refugee status recognition by UNHCR may be beneficial for the individual, while the informal label ‘refugee’ may be perceived as burdensome. This then suggests that the two seemingly similar labels are not synonymous. In Lebanon, it appears also to be the case, as Ludwig (2016) has pointed out elsewhere, that there are many de facto but not de jure refugees who cannot access any of the advantages that those officially classified as refugees obtain. One example is Sara from the al Homsi family, who only too late realized the full scope of benefits (additional to material assistance) of being a UNHCR-recognized refugee. Despite these material benefits, as one journalist noted: The ‘refugee’ in Lebanon is saddled with much social, if not political, liability. … This aversion to refugees, born out of yet unresolved historical sensitivities, is routinely exploited among the various political, economic, and social power-holders in Lebanon (al-Saadi 2015). As discussed above, refugees are seen as acceptable when viewed primarily as ‘victims’ and are subject to severe politicization when they exert moments or practices of agency. Notions of ‘vulnerability’ used to determine access to humanitarian support—and the implicit ordering they create—reinforce perceptions of what a real refugee looks like, operative in both Syrians’ subjectivity, as seen above, as well as the discourse of many local authorities. The significance of this ‘performative dimension’, as discussed by Malkki (1996), can be seen in the distinction drawn by many local authorities between those Syrians living in ITS and those residing in rented homes; or those who have no previous ties to the community and rely on assistance and those who used to work (or continue to work) in the locality. The latter, in both cases, are not the ‘exemplary victims’ (Malkki 1996) that local authorities have in mind. For individual Syrians in the localities, being a refugee is also often deeply interlinked with the notion of suffering, which in turn is perceived largely as poverty and a lack of dignity (Inhetveen 2006). Thus, it is not uncommon to see, particularly among Syrian activists and NGO workers, an outright rejection of this label. Waleed from the al Homsi family is an example of how resisting the refugee label, and finding alternative ways of achieving a comparable protection, is about retaining agency and dignity. In a discussion among friends, another young man was telling us that he was considering leaving the country to go to Europe and his friend asked him: ‘kif, loujou’? (how, as a refugee?)’ and he responded, half jokingly, ‘fasharet—wahad mittlak laji’ (yeah right! (sarcastic)—someone like you is a refugee!)’. In another interview, one civil society activist who had fled to Lebanon fearing arrest by Syrian authorities explained why she did not consider herself a refugee: ‘Because I don’t have any help from anyone … And I feel deep inside that I don’t have the right to have this word, refugee. Because I’m not getting any benefits from this word, you know.’ Almost as if refugee status was in limited supply, she gives the impression of being undeserving of being a refugee when so many other people were suffering much more than she felt she was. Her reaction, however, when asked in front of a large group during a touristic visit to a historical site whether or not she was a refugee, indicates the complexity of this social label: ‘Of course not! Did you ever see a refugee making tourism?’ For this reason, among others, Syrians often rely on a wider set of social categories in justifying their presence on Lebanese territory and in particular within the localities they live in. For example, one Syrian NGO worker living in Beirut, and waiting for a visa to France to be reunited with his spouse, considered himself to only be a ‘visitor’ in Lebanon, but explained how he would become a ‘refugee’ once he actually moved to France. Another example from when the village of Dhour Choueir imposed a curfew on ‘foreigners’, a Syrian man who had been living in the village for over two decades said he had no problem with it but he was not a foreigner and therefore should not be subject to it.20 However, while the term ‘foreigners’—rather than Syrians—appears in many of the banners, it is understood that this designation does not imply all foreigners. When pushed on this phrasing, one mayor stated: We’re not saying it’s a curfew for everyone, it’s for foreigners—for Syrians—and it’s known why … I mean motorcycles, who is using them? The French or … ? It’s known what we mean by foreigner (LBC News 2013). Conclusions The ‘refugee problem’, Emma Haddad (2004) once noted, is first and foremost one of categorization, of making distinctions. In this article, we have sought to interrogate how different systems of law and policy pertaining to the lives of Syrian refugees are applied on the global and humanitarian, national and local level. We have shown how Syrians face a panoply of labels, categories and modes of ordering depending on the nature of the institutions with which they are interacting. We further explored how these labels differentially structure the level and quality of protection, assistance, and even legal and social recognition that individuals of the same refugee population—and sometimes, as exemplified in the case of the al Homsi family, even within one and the same family—have access to. Moreover, these categories have not remained siloed, but rather have had important spillover from one institution to another, and from one context to another, and at times have come into collision. At least three different orderings are critical in understanding how the international refugee and humanitarian regime categorize and order Syrian refugees in Lebanon: namely the legal categories employed, the nature of their registration with UNHCR and their assessed levels of vulnerability. In light of changes in the national regulation of the Syrian presence, the significance of the legal categorization and registration status of Syrians has increased immensely. At a national level, the lack of a consistent legal framework has made Syrians vulnerable to vacillating political interests. As such, with few if any national political allies, Syrians increasingly face a reality of re-categorization in the national sphere from ‘displaced’ or even ‘refugees’ to ‘economic migrants’. In addition to the legal and political categorizations Syrians face in Lebanon, they are subject to a wide array of social categories in the localities in which they reside. Some of these may have some overlap, such as displaced, to labourer, while others are more particular to local dynamics, such as foreigner. For local authorities, the visibility of Syrians has emerged as a central concern, evident not the least in the curfews targeting Syrians within their localities. The ongoing interaction and blurring of these categories, coupled with a heightened security situation on the Syrian-Lebanese border (particularly near the Lebanese town of Arsal) and a growing consensus among political elites, have made the conditions for Syrians even more precarious and rendered any vocal support of Syrian refugees in the country difficult. Two recent developments are worth noting: the first is the Lebanese government’s decision on 17 July 2017 to declare an indefinite ban on all protests, immediately following calls by civil society for a sit-in in solidarity with Syrian refugees and the latter’s cancellation due to online threats to the protest itself and its organizers (Chamoun 2017; Hall 2017);21 the second—and arguably most alarming—is the transfer of thousands of Syrians, many of them clearly civilians, from Arsal to the Syrian town of Idlib in a deal between Hezbollah (and to a certain degree the Lebanese army) and a militant Syrian opposition group (Abdullah 2017; Hubbard 2017). Both of these developments speak to the increased securitization of the Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon. The latter development, and the relatively muted outcry that accompanied it, is perhaps most strongly connected to and reflective of the fragile legal and social order that Syrians depend on in Lebanon. Discussions among states, donors and international humanitarian actors over addressing migration at ‘the source’ by providing neighbouring countries with development support must take into greater account the conditions within these states, and whether refugees within them enjoy the conditions of safe refuge they are presumed to be entitled to under international law. Footnotes 1. Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees, numbering approximately 280,000 (Chaaban et al. 2016), fall under the mandate of UNRWA. 2. Most Syrians seeking international protection ‘are likely to fulfil the requirements of the refugee definition contained in Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention, since they will have a well-founded fear of persecution linked to one of the Convention grounds’, UNHCR 2015c 3. UNHCR official, 5 October 2016. 4. UNHCR official, 12 May 2016. 5. Government official, 10 June 2016. 6. UNHCR official, 12 May 2016. 7. UNHCR officials, 17 May 2016; 21 February 2017. 8. UNHCR official, 17 May 2016. 9. Article 1(A) of the 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person who, ‘owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it’. 10. UNHCR official, 5 October 2016. 11. 17 October 2016. 12. Correspondence with General Security official, 14 October 2016. 13. District Official, North Governorate, August 2016. 14. Informal tented settlements (ITS) is the term officially used by the government and international agencies to refer to the over 4,000 groupings of tents built on (primarily) private land and house over 18 per cent of the Syrian population in Lebanon. See UN-Habitat and IFI 2015. 15. Local leader, 3 April 2016. 16. Kfarroumane municipality, Municipal Decision no. 148, 11 August 2016. 17. UNHCR official, 17 May 2016. 18. See e.g. Lebanese Council of Ministers decree No. 11721 of 21 May 2014, decree No. 1721 of 1 April 2015, decree No. 3641 of 2 June 2016. 19. Kfarroumane municipality, Municipal Decision no. 148, 11 August 2016. 20. Unreleased documentary footage, courtesy of Walid Abdelnour, recorded in July 2013. 21. 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Journal of Refugee Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Dec 1, 2018
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