Lebanon and Syria: From “Brotherhood” to Xenophobia?

12th Jul 2019 by Ryan Saadeh

Lebanon and Syria: From “Brotherhood” to Xenophobia?

Lebanon has seen a rise in  xenophobic rhetoric and policies directed against Syrian refugees, aimed at pressuring them to return to their country. This June,  over 600 Syrian refugees were forced to move camp following a confrontation with local Lebanese in the town of Deir al-Ahmar, and the torching of several of their tents. In Arsal, a Lebanese border town, Syrian refugees set about reducing their shelters to rubble in the June heat, ordered by  military decree to demolish concrete walls higher than one meter. 

Within the same week, the Free Patriotic Movement, the party of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, staged a protest in a campaign to shut down businesses hiring Syrians who lack work authorization. Fliers were passed out which stated: “Protect Lebanese workers and file a complaint about violators. Syria is safe for return and Lebanon can no longer take it.”

This animosity did not emerge naturally out of the refugee crisis. Instead, it stems from an intertwined history of Lebanese-Syrian relations and political manipulation that has been exacerbated by the rapid population inflows following the outbreak of the conflict.

Porous Borders - 20th Century

The Lebanese and Syrian economies’ interdependence pre-dates the modern demarcation of borders. After the declaration of the State of Greater Lebanon in 1920, Lebanese border areas lost direct relations with Syria but were not fully integrated into the Lebanese state. As a result, these areas developed seasonally-patterned border-trade economies oriented towards Syria, with Lebanese consuming essential goods and services from Syria, and Syrians smuggling back products otherwise unavailable in their markets. For decades, Syrians filled the manual labour market in Lebanon and would travel relatively freely across borders, which were tacitly—if not intentionally—opened for Syrian migrant workers by successive Lebanese and Syrian governments. According to John Chalcraft, exit taxes, entry visas, and work and residency permits were kept “either cheap, easy to come by, or easy to avoid” for generations of Syrian workers.

In the second half of the twentieth century, demand for Syrian labour starkly increased as the regional economy boomed. Just prior to the Lebanese Civil War, economic growth in the sixties led to high recruitment of Syrian men, who by 1973 represented 90% of all construction workers in Lebanon. Following the war, there was additional demand for “low-skilled” male Syrian workers in the construction and agriculture industries, compounded by a lack of Lebanese laborers due to out-migration, casualties, and the looming reconstruction economy.

This was also due to a period known as “Pax Syriana,” when, beginning with the war, the Syrian military entered Lebanon and exercised domination of the Lebanese political and security system. The framing agreement of this imbalance was the 1991 Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination between Syria and Lebanon.

The pro-Syrian Lebanese government subsequently removed further travel restrictions on Syrians, likely due to the benefits of remittances and cash-flow into the Syrian economy. This is evidenced by the intentional lack of accuracy in documenting Syrian arrivals and departures in Lebanon by Lebanese General Security Directorate throughout the 1990s-2000s. To further solidify and institutionalise inter-dependence, the Bilateral Labour Agreement in 1994 allowed Syrians to acquire both work visa and residency in a single card at the border, whereas other foreigners required further documentation in advance. While the agreement specified that incoming workers should have a formal work contract, it was not an enforced precondition for issuing these border-entry visas, and, as a result, much of the work done by Syrian migrants remained largely informal.

Border Demarcation Begins

These semi-formal, semi-tacit labour migration agreements began to unravel in the mid-2000s. The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon after the “Cedar Revolution” in April of 2005 exposed a stark division between Lebanese political factions over relations with the Syrian regime, and, after the July 2006 War, the Lebanese and Syrian governments faced pressure to formally demarcate the Lebanese-Syrian border and increase security measures along the historically porous borders. In 2008, the Lebanese and Syrian governments established diplomatic ties for the first time, and began the process of defining Lebanon’s northern border. Jamil Mouawad (2018) explains that, in 2011, the Lebanese-Syrian border areas became “at the heart of major transformations succumbing to a double pressure of fighting in Syria and border closures.”

The civil war further exacerbated Lebanon’s polarised stances on Syria. As the outcome of the civil war had been expected to significantly impact Lebanese domestic politics, some political parties have sought to normalise relations with the Syrian government, including the Free Patriotic Movement, while others have refused to negotiate refugee return until a political settlement has been reached. In this regard, the issue of refugee return to Syria offers a glimpse at broader state relations, and the recent rise in xenophobic rhetoric can be in part understood as a cynical instrumentalisation for political aims.

The demarcation progressed in 2014, when the Lebanese government approved Decision 197 as an addendum to the Lebanese labor law regulating foreign workers, thereafter restricting the industries in which non-Lebanese are permitted to work. In 2015, General Security closed the borders to Syria and began registering new “Entry and Renewal of Residency Permits,” and the Lebanese government suspended United Nations’ registration of Syrian refugees. These new regulations and restrictions on Syrian migration and labour left approximately 70-80% of Syrian refugees without legal residency permits and has increased the preponderance of informal labor. Although authorities often elected not to prosecute these labour codes, since 2018 escalating pressure for refugees to return has led to stricter enforcement.

Economic Refugees and Stigmatisation

The label “refugee” is a binding legal designation with repercussions under International Humanitarian Law (although Lebanon is not a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees) and refugee status entitles one to receive certain rights and protections from host countries. As such, the Lebanese government and politicians have gone to great lengths to avoid using the term “refugee”, except in outward-facing documents and releases to the broader international community. In inward facing reports and statements, the preferred term is nazihin, meaning “displaced”—which comparatively has no international legal repercussions.

Beyond the label of “displaced persons” or “refugees”, a Syrian can be lawfully residing in Lebanon if registered as an economic migrant under the sponsorship system (Kafala). Janymr and Mourad (2018) argue that these new residency policies are arguably “the clearest manifestation of an attempt to transform Syrian ‘displaced’ into economic migrants.” This “rebranding,” they argue, “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.”

However, as noted by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (2017), “economic refugees are perceived as refugees taking advantage of the current situation through informal employment without paying taxes,” and are simultaneously “perceived to have an advantage over their Lebanese counterparts, as they are accepting lower wages, and receiving foreign aid.” Thus, typically low-income Syrian labourers in Lebanon are stuck between a rock and a hard place, pushed out of the protections of a “refugee” while simultaneously facing vilification for supposedly taking advantage of the category.


This is not to say that the refugee crisis hasn’t had adverse impacts on Lebanon’s economy: The Lebanese that are most affected by the crisis are those already impoverished and competing for jobs in the informal labour economy. Nevertheless, the instrumentalisation of xenophobia to push for refugee return will not solve the ills of the underprivileged Lebanese, and will only further endanger vulnerable Syrians. The proliferation of xenophobic rhetoric amongst government authorities has evidently increased social tensions. The repercussions for such discourse are long-lasting.

As Carmen Geha points out, despite most politicians’ consensus on the impending return of Syrians, it is internal schisms among the political elites that have manifested in the policy positions on Syrian refugees and in the “irresponsible political discourse that threatens the stability of Lebanon, its citizens, and all those residing in it.”


Ryan Saadeh is a student at Brown University. He has spent the past semester at the American University of Beirut. 

(Photo credit: Ted Swedenburg/Creative Commons Licence 2.0)