Why Are There No Syrian Refugee Camps in Lebanon?

Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, its neighbor Lebanon quickly became the country that hosts the highest number of refugee per capita; today one in four is a refugee.[1] Initially, Lebanon had an open-border with Syria. Between 2013 and 2014, UNHCR registered on average over 48,000 refugees per month.[2] Despite the massive influx, Lebanon did not create refugee camps for Syrians. UNHCR similarly did not seek a camp option for refugees.[3] As a result, an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees live precariously in some 1,700 sites scattered across the country, often among the poorest host communities.[4]

Syria’s other neighbors – Jordan, Turkey and Iraq – have set up more than 40 camps for Syrian refugees, but Lebanon has consistently refused to establish formal UNHCR-run refugee camps.[5] For the first three years of the emergency, human rights groups and UNHCR applauded Lebanon for the combination of open borders and non-encampment. At the same time, UNHCR was adopting a paradigm shift from encampment and the “care and maintenance” approach that has dominated the agency in the past decades. Ninette Kelley, the former UNHCR’s representative to Lebanon, publicly praised the country as “a model for dealing with refugees”.[6] But is Lebanon’s non-encampment approach a humanitarian gesture or does it rather reflect deeper political, security and economic concerns?

Political stalemate

In Lebanon, the refugee issue is highly politicized. According to researcher Maja Janmyr, its non-encampment approach was not a result of an intentional policy but rather “symptomatic of the current political stalemate”.[7] Lebanon has a unique sectarian power-sharing system made up of 18 recognized religious sects, which rarely agree with one another. A policy to establish formal refugee camps would require agreement from all major political forces in the country, and the two main political blocks hold opposing views regarding this issue. The March 14 alliance, made up of the Sunni Muslim majority sympathetic to the Syrian rebels, would consider the establishment of refugee camps. The March 8 alliance, made up of pro-Syria political parties such as Hezbollah, are firmly against refugee camps, concerned that the mainly anti-Assad Sunni Muslim refugees from Syria will remain long-term.[8]

Refugee camps as a security threat

Another explanation for Lebanon’s rejection of refugee camps can be found in its experience hosting Palestinian refugees and the permanence of Palestinian refugee camps in the country. Following the nakba[9] in 1948, hundred of thousands of Palestinians fled to Lebanon and were confined in camps managed by UNRWA. Nearly 70 years later, 12 refugee camps remain, and Palestinian refugees remain excluded from key aspects of social, political and economic life.

Furthermore, Lebanese authorities do not have full control over the camps. The 1969 Cairo Agreement allowed the Palestinian Liberation Organization to lead its armed struggle against Israel from Lebanon and to take control of the camps. Popular Committees, composed of different political (and armed) factions within the camps, were formed. These committees replaced the Lebanese authority within the camps and undermined UNRWA’s role.[10] Palestinian camps are essentially politically autonomous, and Palestinian factions remain armed within the camps.[11]

Host states often view refugee camps as a solution to a security threat, as refugees can be segregated and kept apart from local communities. However, with the experience with Palestinian camps as sites of radicalization and militarization, Lebanese authorities fear that this phenomenon would be replicate itself with Syrian refugees. Rather than a solution to a security threat, refugee camps could become a permanent security threat.[12]

Refugees as “precarious labor supply”

Beyond political and security concerns, researcher Lewis Turner argues that the non-encampment policy could be seen as a measure to encourage Syrian participation in the labor force to the benefit of Lebanese owners of business and capital.[13] Up until 2015, Lebanese authorities showed lenience towards Syrian refugees who had not regulated their stay in Lebanon as required by law or who were working without permits. As a result, an estimated 47% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon actively participate in the labor force.[14] In comparison, only 28% of Syrian refugees participate in the labor force in Jordan.[15]

According to the International Labor Organization, landowners, owners of enterprises, and other members of the Lebanese middle and upper class have benefitted from the refugee crisis.[16] By using Syrian refugees as a “precarious labor supply,” the overall wage levels for unskilled labor have been significantly reduced.[17] In the rural Bekaa Valley where many Syrian refugees have settled, daily wages in some areas have fallen by as much as 60% since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.[18] Turner claims that any policy by Lebanon to restrict Syrians freedom of movement and labor would damage those parts of the Lebanese economy that use cheap Syrian labor.

Lebanon has in fact historically relied on the presence of a large, low-skilled Syrian labor force. The 1993 agreement for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination between Lebanon and Syria gives Syrians freedom of stay, work, employment and practice of economic activity in Lebanon. In the early 2000s, around 20 to 40 per cent of Lebanon’s work force was Syrian.[19] However, following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik al-Harari in 2005 and the Israeli bombardment of 2006, large numbers left. At the start of the Syrian conflict, the World Bank estimates that Syrians made up only 17 per cent of the labor force in Lebanon.[20] Through its non-encampment policy, and by not segregating refugees from the labor market, Syrian participation in the Lebanese economy is being restored to previous levels. The World Bank estimates that by 2014, Syrians constituted “between 27 and 35 percent” of the labor force.[21]


On the surface, the absence of Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon may seem like a humanitarian gesture to incorporate Syrian refugees in Lebanese society. However, at a closer look, the non-encampment approach is not based on such considerations. The political impasse faced by the Lebanese government as well as its long experience hosting Palestinian refugee camps have heavily influenced the Lebanese government’s response to the Syrian displacement. Moreover, non-encampment has allowed Syrian refugees to participate in the labor market at the benefit of Lebanese business owners and capital. Understanding these factors is critical as Syrian refugees are presently facing a worsening situation in Lebanon. Since 2015, new residency rules and further restrictions on Syrians refugees’ right to work have pushed refugees towards accepting even more informal and exploitative labor. Despite Syrian refugees not being confined to refugee camps, their opportunities to development and local integration remain restricted, with minimal legal protection and recourse.

Janie Ziye Shen is a MA student in International Affairs at the New School. Before moving to New York, she lived in Beirut, Lebanon and worked for Save the Children on child protection in the Middle East. 


[1] UNHCR (2015) “Refugees from Syria: Lebanon”, available from: https://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/download.php?id=8649

[2] Kelley, N. (2017) “Responding to a Refugee Influx: Lessons from Lebanon”, Journal on Migration and Human Security, Volume 5, Issue 1 (2017), 82-104

[3] Ibid, p.84

[4] UNHCR (2015)

[5] Knudsen, A. (2016) “Camp, Ghetto, Zinco, Slum: Lebanon’s Transitional Zones of Emplacement”, Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, Volume 7, Number 3, Winter 2016, pp. 443-457

[6] Quoted in Dettmer, J. (2013) “It’s about time: United Nations plans refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon”, The Daily Beast, 6 December, available from: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/06/12/it-s-about-time-united-nations-plans-refugee-camps-for-syrians-in-lebanon?source=dictionary

[7] Janmyr, M. (2016) “Precarity in Exile: The Legal Status of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon”, Refugee Survey Quarterly, 2016, 35, 58-78

[8] Dettmer, J. (2013)

[9] Catastrophe; the Palestinian term for the experiences of 1948.

[10] Abou-Zaki, Hala. (2014) ‘Revisiting politics in spaces ‘beyond the center’: The Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon’, in BOUZIANE M., HARDERS C., HOFFMANN A. (dir.), Local Politics and Contemporary Transformations in the Arab World. Revisiting governance beyond the center, Palgrave

[11] Knudsen, A. (2016)

[12] Kelley, N. (2017)

[13] Turner, L. (2015) “Explaining the (Non-)Encampment of Syrian Refugees: Security, Class and the Labour Market in Lebanon and Jordan”, Mediterranean Politics, 20:3, 386-404

[14] ILO (2014) “Assessment of the Impact of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon and their Employment Profile”, ILO Regional Office for Arab States – Beirut: ILO, 2014

[15] Stave, S. E. & Hillesund S. (2015) “Impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on the Jordanian labour market”, International Labour Organization and Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies

[16] ILO (2014)

[17] Turner, L. (2015)

[18] FAO (2013) “Agricultural Livelihoods and Food Security Impact Assessment and Response Plan for the Syria Crisis in the Neighboring Countries of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey”

[19] Turner, L. (2015)

[20] World Bank (2013) “Lebanon – Economic and Social Impact Assessment of the Syrian conflict”, Washington DC: WB

[21] Ibid.

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