Syrian Refugees in Limbo: Is Lebanon’s Establishment of Camps the Answer?

2014-12-11    |   

Syrian Refugees in Limbo: Is Lebanon’s Establishment of Camps the Answer?

In light of conflicting political stances and the absence of consensus, the Lebanese state has taken no steps towards building Syrian refugee camps. Meanwhile, international organizations, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and civil society groups, have refrained from taking a position on this issue.


The question of building refugee camps is a significant one, both for Lebanon as a host country, and for the refugees themselves. This article attempts to contribute to this debate in a manner devoid of the demagogy and racism implicit in the dominant discourse that tackles this issue under the banner of politics and security. The concept of refugee camps usually applies to settlements of refugees that involve certain restrictions on their rights and freedoms. Such restrictions might include limits to their freedom of movement, their freedom to decide where to live and work, and their access to services and protection. Should such camps be built at the Lebanese-Syrian border or on Lebanese soil? What have we learned from the experience of other host countries, especially when it comes to the potential long-term consequences of building such camps, both for the refugees and for the host countries?


Building Camps in Border Areas: A Dangerous Proposition


Jordan and Turkey rushed to settle 20% to 30% of Syrian refugees in camps built on their own soil. Meanwhile, the Lebanese cabinet, in an attempt to keep refugees outside Lebanon’s territorial jurisdiction, and thus beyond its responsibility, suggested in May 2014 that refugee camps be built inside Syria or in the buffer zone along the Lebanese-Syrian border. The “Policy Paper on Syrian Migration to Lebanon” adopted by the cabinet in October 2014, however, made no mention of this proposal. This might be due to the lack of strong international support for such an initiative. In particular, UNHCR declared that it would not support building refugee camps near the border, citing the lack of security and the Lebanese state’s inability to maintain control of these areas.[1]


Border areas would most likely become the scene of military operations, hardly capable of providing a safe haven to civilians fleeing the armed conflict. According to international standards, refugee camps should not be built in areas affected by armed conflict. They should be built at a reasonable distance from the border of the country of origin,[2] i.e., at a distance of at least 50km[3] in order to maintain the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum. This reveals the dangerous nature of the Lebanese government’s proposal, and restricts the debate to whether or not such camps should be built on Lebanese soil.


Regulating Informal Refugee Settlements: An Obvious Necessity


The issue of building refugee camps on Lebanese soil is of vital significance, given the proliferation of informal settlements. The latest reports issued by international organizations indicate that nearly 60% of Syrian refugees reside in independent houses, apartments, and rooms. Meanwhile, 40% of them reside in tents, collective shelters, unfinished buildings, parking garages, and substandard structures.[4] Statistics from early September 2014 indicate that there are nearly 1,400 temporary informal settlements housing over 186,000 refugees, most of them located in the regions of Akkar and the Beqaa.[5] Such settlements suffer from poor living and health conditions that endanger the lives of their residents. Moreover, they are not subject to any kind of regulation or oversight, neither by the Lebanese state, nor by international or Lebanese organizations. This further exposes refugees to exploitation or expulsion by landowners, or by influential groups or individuals (such as the shawish, or foreman, appointed by landowners) who impose their authority by force.


Lebanese authorities have apparently been warding off attempts to regulate such settlements or improve living conditions by, for instance, setting up ready-made housing. The reason provided by the government is the fear that these settlements might turn into formal refugee camps, similar to those of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Yet, it has obviously become necessary to deal with the proliferation of such settlements in order to protect both the refugees and the surrounding communities. Is turning them into formal refugee camps the solution?


Building Refugee Camps: A Last Resort for the United Nations


The UNHCR has not taken a clear stance on the issue of building refugee camps on Lebanese soil. However, it did make its position clear on this issue at the international level by adopting the Policy on Alternatives to Camps in July 2014.[6] In past decades, UNHCR policy relied on the traditional model of requiring refugees to reside in camps, especially in cases of emergency involving a large influx of refugees into a neighboring host country. As a result of this policy, 40% of the world’s 17 million refugees live in camps, while the remaining 60% live in the cities and villages of host countries.


Yet, this policy has undergone radical change, and the UNHCR now considers refugee camps an exceptional measure and a last resort when dealing with refugee crises. The UNHCR today encourages seeking alternatives to refugee camps in order to provide refugees with the necessary protection, and to take into account the capabilities of host countries. This change has been the result of studies on the experiences of refugee camps in several countries. Such studies have shown that the long-term disadvantages of building these camps, on both refugees and host countries, by far outweigh the justifications for such a step.


Learning From Past Experiences: What Tips the Scales


Past experiences indeed reveal a number of negative effects associated with the setting up of formal refugee camps].[7] The main ones include:


Restriction of Freedom of Movement due to Geographical Containment


Refugee camps allow host countries to isolate refugees from their local population and contain them in places, often at a distance from their cities. Aimed at curtailing the economic and social burden refugee might give rise to, this facilitates the process of keeping them out of sight, and their presence and movements under control. In Lebanon, measures such as the illegal imposition of curfews on Syrians and the more frequent eviction of Syrian tenants from various residential areas have been justified by similar concerns.


This kind of geographical containment often results in broad restrictions on the rights of refugees, such as limiting their freedom of movement, and depriving them of the possibility of working and studying outside the camps. Refugee camps thus turn into open-air prisons for thousands of people whose experience of war and displacement from their home country is compounded by the psychological impact of confinement. All of this contributes to undermining the ability of refugees to live with greater independence and dignity, and to make meaningful choices regarding their lives.


Failure to Preserve Security


Security might be one of the principal justifications invoked by host countries for building refugee camps. The existence of camps, according to this line of argument, limits tensions that might result from refugees clashing with the local population, security forces, or amongst themselves for reasons often linked to the conflict that caused the refugee influx. Building refugee camps may at first seem like the right solution to address these security concerns in Lebanon. Indeed, the presence of Syrian combatants or armed elements on Lebanese soil, and incidents involving the Lebanese army raiding settlements, expelling refugees, and burning down tents, illustrated the necessity of maintaining the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum by separating civilian refugees from combatants.


However, past experiences have shown that, as a result of the isolation and lack of prospects they impose, refugee camps often provide fertile soil for radical and extremist ideas. They also facilitate the forced recruitment of refugees (including minors) to take part in armed conflict. Rather than “keep them in check”, refugee camps thus contribute to exacerbating security problems. A possible example of this is Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, where security problems have become so frequent that they endanger all refugees.[8]


Increased Risks for Vulnerable Groups


Refugee camps represent an efficient means to monitor the numbers and the needs of refugees, and provide them with quick access to protection and assistance. They also allow for the identification of individuals most in need of assistance, such as those with special needs, the elderly, and children who have been orphaned or separated from their families. Yet, past experiences have shown that isolating refugee camps from the surrounding local population often contributes to increased violence against the most vulnerable groups present. Such groups include women, children, and individuals who do not abide by the social norms imposed by the majority.


Reduced Self-Reliance


Refugee camps represent a quick and easy way to provide refugees with aid and funds from donor-countries, especially in cases of emergency. Yet, recent studies have shown that, given their inability to work and provide for themselves, refugees who reside in camps for many years continue to be dependent on aid. This is made worse by the rising cost of funding refugee camps and the difficulty of maintaining such funding beyond the state of emergency, especially as refugee camps often long outlive the conflicts that created them. Meanwhile, refugees who reside outside of camps manage to integrate into their host country’s society, to rely on themselves, and to develop their abilities through education and work – thus freeing themselves of dependence on aid groups. Moreover, refugee camps encourage the establishment of parallel structures of services instead of strengthening existing systems in host countries, which could have a negative impact on the local economy.




Past experiences in Lebanon or elsewhere support the trend of discouraging the containment and isolation of refugees in camps. However, such a trend should not lead us to forgo any responsibilities towards refugees currently present on Lebanese soil, whose protection remains the responsibility of the Lebanese state in collaboration with international organizations. Strong opposition to building refugee camps within the Lebanese cabinet may in fact provide a suitable political climate for UNHCR to apply its new Policy on Alternatives to Camps. This situation indeed requires the implementation of a comprehensive plan, based on regulating the residence of refugees in such a way so as to allow them to lead independent lives within Lebanese society. If the Lebanese state continues to ignore the need to take practical steps in this regard, however, Syrian refugee camps may well become inevitable.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.



[1] See: Elise Knutsen’s, “UNHCR Opposes Government Plan for Syrian Refugee Camps”, The Daily Star, May 31, 2014.

[2] Conclusion on the Civilian and Humanitarian Character of Asylum, UNHCR Executive Committee Conclusion No. 94 (LIII) – 2002.

[3] Operational Guidelines on Maintaining the Civilian and Humanitarian Character of Asylum, UNHCR, September 2006.

[4] UNHCR Lebanon Shelter Update, August 2014.

[5] Informal Settlements (IS) Locations, as of September 1, 2014, Syria Refugee Response, Lebanon.

[6] UNHCR Policy on Alternatives to Camps, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR/HCP/2014/9, July 22, 2014.

[7] See: Kristy Siegfried’s, “Alternatives to Refugee Camps: Can Policy Become Practice?”, Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), October 7, 2014; and, Lucy Hovil’s, “With Camps Limiting Many Refugees, the UNHCRs Policy Change is Welcome”, The Guardian, October 2, 2014.
[8] See: “Security Woes Plague Syrian Refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari Camp”, Today’s Zaman, April 25, 2014.

Share the article

Mapped through:

Articles, Asylum, Migration and Human Trafficking, Inequalities, Discrimination and Marginalisation, Lebanon

For Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *