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Syrian refugees have found temporary safety in Kafar Kahel informal settlement / Photo by Dominic Chavez / Via Flickr

Do Europeans even know what ‘shelter in the region’ looks like?

Nora Stel, Wim Naudé | 20 June 2016

The 20th of June marks ‘World Refugee Day’. For European policymakers it is another opportunity to promote ‘shelter in the region’ as the single most important instrument for addressing the refugee crisis. Yet, unfortunately, European policymakers have very little idea of what shelter in the region actually looks like. By drawing on our research in Lebanon’s Palestinian settlements, we argue that Europe’s support for shelter in the region represents a gap in the protection of refugees, which is in stark contrast with Europe’s professed commitment to human rights and international law.

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Looking at the governance dynamics in informal refugee settlements in one of the Middle East’s main hosting countries, Lebanon, we can see that European policymakers are externalizing and outsourcing their problems by nurturing an idealized fiction about well-organized and benevolent local refugee policies. While in Jordan and Turkey, Syrian refugees are primarily housed in formal refugee camps, mostly administered by UNHCR, but under the close supervision of the host government, in Lebanon, the large majority of the one-million registered Syrian refugees are actually ‘self-settled’ or live in small informal settlements.

Living in ‘landscapes of uncertainty’

Our research in Lebanon’s Palestinian informal settlements found that the lack of a clear institutional mandate for these spaces, in combination with the absence of any civil rights for refugees in Lebanon, has created a wicked ‘protection gap’. This gap means that governance in informal settlements is irregular and ad hoc, crisis-driven rather than development-based, indirect and politicized. In this landscape of uncertainty, refugees depend on brokerage by local political strongmen to access state agencies. Governance is contested, with each problem demanding a newly-negotiated solution, because there are no established blueprints.

In the case of the Palestinian settlements, this landscape of uncertainty is not a contingent by-product of the refugee problem, but a deliberate ‘policy’ of Lebanese authorities, who are reluctant (and lack the resources) to take official responsibility for refugee populations. Such intentional institutional ambiguity manifests itself in forms of governance that make refugees dependent on representatives that are not accountable, which extends their vulnerability. Ironically, this vulnerability is further entrenched because refugees often reinforce and reproduce the informality they are subjected to through the use of illicit (and illegal) coping mechanisms to ensure access to basic forms of security and welfare.

Palestinian settlement in South Lebanon; photograph by Nora Stel (2014)

A ‘no-policy’ policy

Despite instances of constructive engagement with Syrian refugees by individual municipalities, there are important indications that this unofficial, yet formalized, ‘no-policy’ policy for Palestinian settlements is replicated with regard to Syrian settlements. It is no accident that Lebanon has no refugee law per se. Maya Janmyr shows how Lebanon’s strict entry requirements and the stringent criteria concerning the renewal and regularization of legal stay are “so onerous and expensive that most people are unable to renew their permits”. As a result, “an overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees are present in Lebanon without legal status”.

In combination with the country’s ‘no camp’ policy, this produces a pathological, but deliberate, ambiguity. Jessy Nassar demonstrates how “exclusionary and arbitrary power”, “deliberate passivity” and the “ambiguity of state strategy” generates insecurity and makes governance in informal settlements unsustainable. Like Palestinian refugees, Syrian refugees have few alternatives but to work within the structures shaped by the informality of the settlements they are relegated to, thereby further cementing these same structures. Such negative coping mechanisms affect their strategies for securing accommodation as well as making a living.

Convenient blind spots

The implications of this ‘policy of uncertainty’ for the shelter of Syrian refugees, in one of the most important hosting countries in the region, are dual. As Guita Hourani, Director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center, argues, it is exactly such informality that allows Lebanon to deal with the extreme amount of refugees it is currently facing. She contends that the very absence of official and extensive “parameters governing migration and refugee policy” has enabled Lebanon to “cope with numbers of refugees which would have easily overwhelmed countries in the Global North”. Local case-studies in Beiruti neighbourhoods substantiate this interpretation. Considering Lebanon’s political and financial predicament, it is indeed important to stress the country’s formidable achievements in hosting, informally or otherwise, such an overwhelming number of refugees. However, at the same time, informality exacerbates the already vulnerable position of Syrian refugees, who are now forced underground and face a life lived in the cracks. Because informal Syrian refugee shelters are not protected by the UNHCR, “families cannot access food grants or UN medical help, and none of the children are in school”.

The messy reality policymakers should engage with

Shelter in the region thus constitutes a crucial blind spot along the migration trail with grim consequences for the refugees travelling this trail. Furthermore, part of this ‘blindness’ seems to be intentional. The informal nature of the settlements that host Syrians in Lebanon makes it hard to assign responsibility for them, which is perhaps indispensable for the Lebanese government in its attempts to keep the border open. But it is also convenient for European countries eager to keep refugees on the non-European side of the Mediterranean and altogether less keen on taking actual responsibility for such shelter in someone else’s region.

This European blind spot as to what shelter in the region really means has disconcerting consequences, as concluded by human rights scholars Friederycke Haijer and Jeff Handmaker earlier this year in The Broker’s Migration Trail: ‘All of [Europe’s] costly and what many regard as morally questionable efforts at seeking to combat irregular migration have failed to cease the flow of persons seeking to enter Europe’. Moreover, “these efforts have also been accompanied by a massively profitable, global industry in human smuggling”. In light of this, we need to ask more forcefully not merely what we do not know about shelter in the region, but why we do not know it.

Photo credit main picture: Syrian refugees have found temporary safety in Kafar Kahel informal settlement / Photo by Dominic Chavez / Via Flickr

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About the author

Nora Stel

Nora Stel is an Assistant Professor in Governance and Human Rights at Maastricht School of Manage...

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Wim Naudé

Wim Naudé is Dean of the Maastricht School of Management, Professor in Business and entrepreneurs...

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