By Angela Facundo Navia
For several years I have conducted anthropological research on the political and administrative character of refuge in Brazil. Although more recently I have worked with people from other countries, my expertise mostly rests on the experiences of Colombians with a wide range of state officials, international agencies and NGOs.
The mention of nationality when describing the groups we work with is viewed with suspicion by some authors addressing the anthropology of migration. They point out, quite rightly, that considering nationality as the main criterion for the analysis of what happens to people when they migrate may disregard other more important factors such as class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, political action, etc. These categories are indeed better suited to explain the enormous inequalities in access to the benefits and rights in the citizen’s link with a state. The criterion of nationality, moreover, can lead us to take for granted or naturalize the very idea of nationhood, that is, a permanent construction that aims to encompass an enormous diversity of subjects, times, spaces, experiences, and memories, and present it to us as an experience common to the group of people it tries to describe (Colombians, Haitians, Venezuelans, Syrians, etc.).
We know that, on the contrary, in addition to the differentiated experiences that we have just pointed out, regional variations in Latin American countries are strongly marked and become indispensable elements for understanding the reasons why people migrate, flee, are displaced or are afraid to return. Finally, the criticisms point, also rightly, to the fact that not all people have a nationality and that the dispute over what the national project should look like is often the source of the violence that expels people and allows banishment to be one of the contemporary political punishments.
On the other hand, there are also risks if the category of nationality or national origin of refugees is completely ignored in our investigations. Like it or not, the prevailing model of contemporary planetary organization is that of nation-states that provokes what author Liisa Malkki calls the "national order of things" (1995). Refugees in that order are thought of and produced as inhabitants of a different world: "the world of refugees", as people who are outside the national order and outside the power of the state, as Butler has also pointed out in conversation with Spivak (2007). This reading ignores the situations of violence and injustice that led to the exodus from their country of origin, nationality or where they lived for a time. The formulas so used in the language of humanitarian management in Brazil such as restart, new opportunity and a life that is remade from scratch also reinforce the idea that the refugee ceases to exist in that hostile place of origin and will be reborn protected and sheltered in a place of peace. It is also assumed that this change of state will occur thanks to the power of the State to recognize people as refugees. That is clearly not what happens. Nor do these notions mirror what we have seen in the trajectories of refugees, even among those who manage to activate an official application or obtain such recognition[i].
In the case of Colombia, moreover, nationality has been used not only to describe and qualify people, but also the conflict itself, which causes one of the most intense and prolonged displacements in the world, leaving to date more than 8 million people forcibly displaced and almost 400 thousand refugees (UNHCR, 2000).[ii] The formula "the internal Colombian conflict" invokes the idea that this is only a product of relations between individuals and groups within the country, ignoring the game of international interests that feeds and keeps it active and, in addition, reinforces the imagination of a conflict contained by the fictitious lines that are the geopolitical borders. The dynamics of the war in Colombia, as persecution of political opponents and social leaders, the control of local economics with practices such as money-lending, forced displacement of populations and the export of paramilitaries and mercenaries (as was made clear in the recent assassination of the president of Haiti), to name but a few, are practices that have passed beyond Colombia's national borders long ago and are part of regional dynamics.
As a research category, nationality does not necessarily give us information about people's specific experiences or conditions, or even their character, way of thinking, and personality. Instead, it locates the analysis of the social situation in a geopolitical context. In addition, the diplomatic relationship between different countries usually affects the administrative responses of a government when it comes to acknowledging groups of refugees. This can be seen in the attitude of the Brazilian government to Venezuelans. Another case in point is the issuance of humanitarian visas for most of the Haitians who arrived at the beginning of the last decade[iii].
In the early 2010s, the massive presence of people from Haiti strongly mobilized public opinion, the media and humanitarian agencies in Brazil, as is the case today with Venezuelans. In this context, most of the economic benefits or in-kind donations distributed by NGOs went to Haitians, generating discontent on the part of some white-mestizo Colombian families who at the time lived in the same shelters and demanded the same benefits. Some Afro-Colombians, on the other hand, benefited from a kind of racially informed blindness of some officials who thought, according to my interlocutors, that all the black people in these management spaces were Haitians. Thus, a political-administrative decision, based on the national order of things, directly impacted the daily lives and coexistence of people who shared the status of asylum seekers.
In the contexts investigated, nationality also appears as an element of negotiation based on the attributes that are commonly associated with a certain group. The refugees and applicants with whom I spoke were convinced, for example, that Colombians were very hardworking and that this characteristic was associated with nationality. Other nationalities, by contrast, were thought to be lazy and deceptive. Elsewhere (Facundo, 2021), I have explored how these supposed national characteristics are associated with gender and especially with race. Here, I want to point out that the interpretation of the national characteristics was not only carried out by migrants, but also by the officials responsible for implementing the programs for the reception and care of refugees and applicants.
As for the Colombian refugees in Brazil, it struck me that the officials emphatically referred to their case as positive and that this evaluation was based not only on the technical competence of the programs and officials, but also on the characteristics of the Colombians. According to officials, Colombians, especially those who arrived as refugees through the solidarity resettlement program, were very grateful people, who accepted any job, who complained little about life's problems and were always willing to make progress. Most striking to me was that those supposed characteristics of Colombians were always contrasted with the supposed characteristics of Palestinians who had also arrived in the country through the resettlement program. For the officials I interviewed, the Palestinians had acquired "the habit of protest" and that prevented them from establishing a dialogue that Brazilian programs considered adequate and educated, as was explored by Sonia Hamid (2019). In addition, their cultural habits and their alleged machismo contrasted, according to the officials, with Brazilian cultural dynamics, including hygiene habits, the custom of salaried female labor, as well as the manifestation of gratitude. In that permanent comparison, Colombians in Brazil were constructed as a “close otherness” in contrast to the “radical otherness” represented by other national groups.
In addition to the interpretation of nationality, another element that allowed an immense drama, still active, of millions of people banished, exiled, persecuted, to be transformed into a successful story of refuge and integration in the Brazilian nation, was the small number of Colombian refugees. At the time I started the investigations there were fewer than 700 Colombians, most of whom had come through the Brazilian resettlement program for Colombian refugees in Ecuador (which at the time had recognized almost 60,000 Colombian refugees). Therefore, they had not arrived in Brazil on their own and had not activated an application for refuge. The low number of Colombian refugees was not read by the representatives of the government or its NGOs as a problem. Quite the contrary: it was seen as evidence of the good technical management of programs that only brought in people according to the reception capacity. Moreover, starting in 2011, when Colombia's then-president recognized for the first time in national history that there was an armed conflict, Brazilian officials' interpretation was that Colombia would be in the process of finding its way to peace and therefore capable of protecting its own citizens. This interpretation translated into a refinement of the selection criteria for spontaneous refugees, a reduction in the number of applications granted, and the progressive deactivation of the resettlement program for Colombians.
The Residence and Free Transit Agreement between Mercosur member countries and partners, including Colombia, was also a key element in reducing the number of refugee applications. According to my interlocutors, federal police officials refused to open the refugee application processes, citing the option of obtaining immigration regularization through the residence treaty. Furthermore, many of those holding the required documents and capable of paying the fees, chose this option, as it did not impose restrictions on them in entering and leaving the country, or paying vital visits to Colombia. The national and international bodies responsible for the management of refugees and migrants insist on the need to distinguish between different categories to safeguard the status of the refugee. However, in the daily lives of the people with whom I worked, these categories are often mixed.
In recent years, the situation in Colombia has deteriorated again. Assassinations of social leaders and signatories of the failed peace agreement have increased exponentially. Collective displacements and massacres have again reached the same scale as in the closing decade of the last century, leaving vast territories available for mega mining, agro-industrial, tourism and energy generation projects. The repression of social protest leaves hundreds of people missing, killed, maimed, or imprisoned without due process of law.[iv] Social inequality is progressively increasing on account of the prevailing war economy and the Covid-19 pandemic[v].
Despite rising Colombian applications for asylum in Brazil, the majority of residence permits issued since 2016 are based on the Mercosur agreement. This calls into question the supposed transparency according to which an experience of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution translates into a request for protection or its recognition. I do not intend to question the moral and existential value that the figure of the refugee has for many people, and that, in multiple ways, dignifies and recognizes their suffering. But based on the case illustrated here, I suggest that not all the well-founded fears of persecution are captured by this juridical-political figure.
Moreover, we can say that the economic consequences of the state of war experienced by a country like Colombia make it difficult to distinguish the threats to life derived from deterritorialization from economic or political threats. The perception of events in a given country and their translation into protection policies for the affected persons is a complex game that includes decisions and administrative traditions of the nation-state and diplomatic relations, as well as assessments and negotiations with categories of nationality that qualify individuals and the conflicts or causes of expulsion. Yet, perhaps most importantly, protection and policies also depend on the assessments and choices (even if they are very limited) of migrants themselves.
BUTLER, Judith; SPIVAK, Gayatri. Who Sings the Nation-State? Language, Politics, Belonging. Oxford: Seagull Books, 2007
FACUNDO, Angela. "Territories of experience and places of administration in an ethnography about Colombian refugees in Brazil". In: Ethnography and space: conceptual transits and challenges of doing (Quiceno Toro e Echeverri Zuluaga, comp.) Medellín: Universidad de Antioquia, 2021 (in press).
HAMID, Sônia C. (Des) Integrando Refugiados: os processos do reassentamento de palestinos no Brasil. 1. ed. Brasília: Editora UnB, 2019
MALKKI, Liisa. Purity and exile: violence, memory, and national cosmology among Hutu refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
UNHCR Global Trends 2020
[i] Many of the contemporary nation state mobility regimes are based on what is known as “reciprocity rule”. This means that the nation states treat citizens of a determinate country as their own citizens are treated in that country. One of the problems of that manifestation of the power of the state is that stateless persons do not have a state to enable such rule. Often stateless persons are treated in the worst possible manner in the countries applying the reciprocity rule.
[ii] Due to the dynamics of the conflict in Colombia, which has lasted for more than 7 decades, there are disputes over the starting date for accounting for displacements. The year considered by the National Government is 1985. The historical record, according to the Registro Único de Víctimas (RUV) is 8.1 million displaced from 1985 to December 31, 2020. The IDMC (Global Observatory of Internal Displacement) in collaboration with the RUV published in 2021 a Global Report on Internal Displacement estimating that, of that historical accumulated, almost 3,300,000 people had overcome the condition of displacement to 2020. The number of people who remain displaced, according to that report, is 4,922,000. Nevertheless, considering that the conflict continues active, the risks of new displacements remain, and the historical record is used for social care and repair policies, the official data continues to be that of the historical record. https://www.internal-displacement.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/grid2021_idmc.pdf#page=34?v=2
[iii] I thank Leonardo Schiocchet for reminding me that an exception to this dynamic was the case of Syrian refugees. The Brazilian government opted for the formula "refugees from the conflict in Syria." So he included in that group people of other nationalities, including Palestinian refugees. A much broader way of protection than that of other countries at the time.
[iv] See the Reports of Indepaz and Tremors: https://4ed5c6d6-a3c0-4a68-8191-92ab5d1ca365.filesusr.com/ugd/7bbd97_691330ba1e714daea53990b35ab351df.pdf
[v] These circumstances led to one of the most intense social massive protests in recent years. Since April 28 of this year a national strike was declared. More information about the situation of human rights in the context of the national strike was available in: http://www.indepaz.org.co/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/3.-INFORME-VIOLENCIAS-EN-EL-MARCO-DEL-PARO-NACIONAL-2021.pdf
By Jasmin Lilian Diab
Source: Euro-med Human Rights Monitor
Legally speaking, the words ‘refugee,’ ‘asylum seeker,’ and ‘migrant’ have three very distinct meanings and implications. Using them inter-changeably leads to hindrances to the livelihoods of each population group, the policies that govern them, and the legal frameworks they fall under. Across the world, an ongoing debate is raging about the manner through which we describe the millions of people escaping protracted conflicts in their home countries and fleeing to safer places. So are they refugees, asylum seekers or migrants? The answer to this question is pivotal – as the term used not only outlines state obligations, policies and applicable international legal instruments, but also may deny a person their internationally recognized human rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. In dismissing many people on the move as “economic migrants” who are less deserving of humanitarian assistance, states have been able to shy away from their legal and human rights obligations towards some of the world’s most vulnerable groups. In 2015, widely popular news network Al-Jazeera made a trailblazing decision on the issue of terminology and wording, by announcing that it will cease using the umbrella term “migrants” when referring to the Mediterranean refugee crisis.[i] Quite fittingly, Al-Jazeera justified this move by insisting: “[…] the word migrant has become a largely inaccurate umbrella term for this complex story”.[ii]
This kind of “washing” is quite commonly resorted to for words referring to controversial subject matters – particularly those with economic, social, political and legal implications. At any instance in the migratory process, there are multiple terms available to describe human movement that are pertinent to the exact migratory experience an individual undergoes – as well as the nature (forced or not) of their experience. The intentional use of one particular term over another to describe a person on the move involves a choice on the part of the speaker and carries implications about their opinions and understandings about those they are describing, and the rights they believe those being described are entitled to. As Mawuna Remarque Koutonin argues, in the lexicon of human migration, there are still “hierarchical words” created for the purpose of putting white people “above everyone else”.[iii] For instance, when people refer to “expatriates”, they are often discussing affluent people, who have moved to another country – and are often white.
The UN Refugee Agency defines refugees as: “[…] persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution”.[iv] According to UNHCR, as of 2020, at least 82.4 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes.[v] Among them are nearly 26.4 million refugees, around half of whom are under 18 years of age.[vi] Refugees’ situation is often so dangerous and intolerable that they cross international borders in order to seek safety in nearby countries, and thus become internationally recognized as “refugees” and as entitled to specific protections under international law, local legal frameworks in host countries, the UNHCR, and other international UN agencies and organizations.[vii] These individuals are recognized as refugees precisely due to the fact that their lives and wellbeing is threatened if they return home. Refugees are additionally protected in international law by the: (1) 1951 Refugee Convention, its (2) 1967 Protocol,[viii] and (3) 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.[ix] Refugees are people for whom denial of asylum carries potentially life-threatening consequences.[x]
Moreover, asylum seekers are individuals who claim to be a refugee, but whose claim has not been evaluated yet or processed.[xi] While not every asylum seeker will be recognized as a refugee, every refugee is initially an asylum seeker. Asylum seekers are individuals who apply for asylum on the grounds that returning to their home country would lead to their persecution on grounds of their race, religion, nationality or political beliefs.[xii] An individual is an asylum seeker for so long as their asylum application remains pending. By the end of 2019, UNHCR states that there were an estimated 4.2 million individuals around the world waiting for a decision on their asylum claims, and more than one million individuals who seek asylum annually based on the aforementioned grounds.[xiii]
Due to the specificity (and implications) of each of the aforementioned definitions, placing refugees and asylum seekers under the “migrant” umbrella poses increasingly problematic realities for both groups. Migrants choose to move. They do not move because of an immediate or evident threat of persecution or threat on their lives, but rather with the aim of improving their economic standing, their education, their quality of life, or to reunite with their families.[xiv] Different from refugees and asylum seekers who are unable to return to their home countries safely, migrants face no such barrier to return nor are they at any risk if they do return.[xv] If migrants choose to return to their home countries, they will immediately continue to receive the protections and rights outlined for them by their government by mere citizenship. For individual host states, the distinction between asylum seekers, refugees and migrants is a pivotal policy concern, as states’ determination of each individual’s status on their territory outlines their obligations towards the individual in question, as well as the international legal protections this individual is afforded.
The Politics of Blurring the Lines in Definition
And while the definitions of asylum seeker, refugee and migrant seem clearly outlined in writing, in application, some individual cases cannot be easily categorized as one or the other – nor can their legal standing be outlined to determine the types of protection these individuals have the right to, and require. Challenges to placing an individual under a specific “category” stems from the fact that labelling an individual as an “economic migrant” or an “asylum seeker” may not always reflect the complex reality of their migratory experiences, as well as the realities that motivated them to move (for instance, this is particularly challenging for migrants that leave areas with natural disasters, drought, etc.). Furthermore, are people arriving at the shores of host countries asylum seekers or migrants? Habitat for Humanity insists they could be “a mix of both” depending on their motive for moving – regardless of whether or not they arrive in the same boat.[xvi] In order to adequately assess the category under which these individuals fall, a case by case investigation must take place into whether or not this migration was “coerced” (for migrants) and “forced” (for asylum seekers and refugees).[xvii]
Moving from these complexities, state politics plays a fundamental role in shaping narratives, attitudes and outlining rights provision within their borders. Often enough, states refrain from specific categorizations in order to reduce its obligations towards particular groups, as well as to refrain from negatively impacting bilateral relations and regional political economies. When terminology such as “displaced”, “illegal immigrants”, “aliens” or “illegal arrivals” are used to refer to those seeking asylum for instance, the implications are not restricted to public sentiment – but rather are translated into policy, legal instruments, citizenship rights, and state obligations under the treaties and conventions they are party to. All this, renders the debate over the “right” term to use when it comes to cross-border movement not only controversial, but also highly political.
Using the terms “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” and “migrant” interchangeably poses dire consequences for the lives and safety of millions of people on the move each and every day, and additionally take away attention from the legal protections vulnerable groups on the move require. Not only can the use of specific words impact rights, this can also undermine public support for refugees, foster anti-refugee/immigrant sentiments, and further generate public disapproval of asylum processes and the non-refoulement principle. At a time where borders are being crossed at unprecedented rates, and a time where we continue to move closer to our understanding of an international community and a shared responsibility, it is pivotal to provide an adequate legal response for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations on the move through contextualizing responses to meet their specific human rights, social, cultural, political and economic needs.
[i] Barry Malone (2015), Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean ‘migrants’, Al-Jazeera, Retrieved at: https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2015/8/20/why-al-jazeera-will-not-say-mediterranean-migrants
[iii] Mawuna Remarque Koutonin (2015), Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?, The Guardian, Retrieved at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration
[iv] UNHCR (2016), UNHCR viewpoint: ‘Refugee’ or ‘migrant’ – Which is right?, Retrieved at: https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2016/7/55df0e556/unhcr-viewpoint-refugee-migrant-right.html
[v] UNHCR (2020), Figures at a Glance, Retrieved at: https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html
[viii] European Commission (2021), Geneva Convention of 1951 and Protocol of 1967, Migration and Home Affairs, Retrieved at: https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/networks/european_migration_network/glossary_search/geneva-convention-1951-and-protocol_en
[ix] UNHCR (2021), OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, adopted by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government at its Sixth Ordinary Session, Addis-Ababa, 10 September 1969, Retrieved at: https://www.unhcr.org/about-us/background/45dc1a682/oau-convention-governing-specific-aspects-refugee-problems-africa-adopted.html
[xi] UNHCR (2021), Asylum-Seekers, Retrieved at: https://www.unhcr.org/asylum-seekers.html
[xvi] Habitat for Humanity (2016), Refugees, Asylum Seekers & Migrants: A Crucial Difference, Retrieved at: https://www.habitatforhumanity.org.uk/blog/2016/09/refugees-asylum-seekers-migrants-crucial-difference/
By Lyla Andreé
Lebanon resembles other Middle Eastern states (except for Yemen) in that it is not part of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 protocol on the Status of Refugees and did not develop a national asylum system. After 3 years of relative openness, the Government of Lebanon forbade in 2015 the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) from registering additional Syrian refugees thereby denying them national but also international rights. This policy led to a situation in which about 70% of Syrian households in Lebanon have not one single member with a legal residency[i]. With the UNHCR contribution to asylum in such a deadlock in Lebanon, its mandate has mainly focused on burden-sharing, that is to the contribution to protection in the host country. Closely embedded in a large scale "resilience" approach to refugees' plight, the way in which the UNHCR implements its mandate in Lebanon is illustrative of the rise of a new conception of refugee protection that weakens the Refugee Regime, as I argue in what follows.
UNHCR mandate in Lebanon targeting refugees' resilience and self-reliance
Framing the international stakeholders' response to the Syrian crisis, the Refugee Resilience Regional Plan (3RP) to address the Syrian crisis outlines the goal of "bringing about a scaling-up of resilience and stabilization-based development and humanitarian assistance to cope with the crises" by bringing together about 200 humanitarian and development partners, including governments, United Nations agencies, and national and international NGOs. Resilience was tellingly defined in 2017 by UNHCR as "the ability of individuals, households, communities, national institutions and systems to prevent, absorb and recover from shocks, while continuing to function and adapt in a way that supports long-term prospects for sustainable development, peace and security, and the attainment of human rights."[ii]. Resilience has become the essential goal of humanitarian & development joint action at a global level because it intends precisely to bridge the divide between relief, recovery, and development to prevent future crisis. In this perspective, service provision through the inclusion of forcibly displaced people into the hosting state services targets both resilience and self-reliance of refugees, linking humanitarian assistance and development: "While humanitarian action tends to be seen as contributing to the self-reliance of forcibly displaced people and development cooperation as building the resilience of host populations, bringing these concepts together has evident value." Building on this common ground, UNHCR's contribution is supposed to serve its mandate of international protection: "UNHCR’s work enhances protection and solutions by supporting self-reliance and resilience in three key areas: (1) strengthening the capacity of national services in the area of preparedness and emergency response, including contingency planning; (2) supporting national systems and local communities in responding to displacement once it occurs; and (3) helping equip the displaced for the future."[iii]
This evolution has also reached the education sector. In the same communication on resilience from a protection perspective, education is listed among UNHCR's main roles: "(2) supporting national systems and local communities once displacement occurs, in order to ensure the inclusion of displaced persons in national services, such as healthcare and education". In the case of the Syria crisis, the provision of education to refugees is enshrined both in the 3RP and in the international "No Lost Generation" initiative launched in 2013 by UNICEF and Save the Children to ensure that the Syrian children affected by the conflict are provided with education and protection in Syria and in neighboring countries.
In Lebanon, the 3RP regional framework gave way to the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan that requires yearly assessments of refugees' needs for each sector. Within this setting, the education sector has been one of the most funded and the most visible in Lebanon from the onset of the Syrian crisis, as childhood education has remained a core objective of the international endeavor. According to its mandate, UNHCR leads the Refugee component of the 3RP that merely deals with protection activities implemented in coordination with the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA). Besides overseeing the Response, UNHCR is also a fund custodian, counting among the main humanitarian actors providing services to refugees. This prioritization of Education in Emergencies and its integration within the public system in Lebanon conceptually fits with UNHCR's stated objective of building multi-scale resilience of the individual - reaching both Lebanese & Syrian refugees; of the community - empowering most vulnerable local communities in the society; and of the State - reforming Public education.
Widening UNHCR's mandate: Legal Protection versus Protection activities
The past twenty years saw the development of discursive and institutional strategies prioritizing education among UNHCR's fields of action as it is a basic human right enshrined in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1951 Refugee Convention. Accordingly, education is defined as a tool for protection fitting UNHCR's mandate and shedding new light on its "raison d'être". UNHCR education activities foster social cohesion, provide access to life-saving information, address psychosocial needs, and offer a stable and safe environment for those who need it most[iv]. Based on this definition, protection is seen as an outcome of the implementation of UNHCR's mandate. Such a conception of international protection - as service provision - gained ascendency over that of protection - as the provision of rights to the individual - as it used to be traditionally prioritized in the Refugee Regime. Gradually, the normalization of UNHCR's humanitarian mandate aligned with that of other humanitarian stakeholders privileging a more technical and "evidence-based assessments of needs" that might overshadow the advocacy in favor of increased rights.
International efforts in the field of education in Lebanon are particularly illustrative of this tendency. In Lebanon, over half of Syrian refugees are children below the age of 18[v]. This situation has confronted the Lebanese public-school system with a gradual influx since 2013, as the country has always allowed Syrian refugee children to pursue an accredited education. The Ministry of Education (MEHE) has taken the institutional lead of the Education in Emergency response with the “Reaching All Children with Education” (RACE) program developed with the support of the international community led by the UN. The strategy has targeted Syrian and Lebanese pupils covering "both immediate humanitarian response interventions as well as longer term support that will build the resilience of children, communities, the education and protection systems, and infrastructure that are so critical to their future".[vi] The understanding of education as a tool for protection is mentioned in the introduction of the RACE II Strategy as an emerging theme for donors considering "the need to increase the focus on those sectors traditionally not well covered in humanitarian responses, but which are essential to protecting the future of an entire generation of children and the prospects of stability in Syria and the region". Education as a socio-economic and collective right encompasses refugees in the wider community of the “most vulnerable” enabling them to access public services.
UNHCR response to Syrian refugees is well enshrined in the international joint humanitarian-development effort, tipping the scale from a strict definition of international legal protection to a widened definition of protection based on service provision. Thereby, UNHCR's contribution to Syrian refugees' protection in Lebanon might overshadow the Refugee Regime's two mandates, namely that of (a) legal Protection and (b) the purpose of finding durable solutions for refugees. In other words, the international response to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon further shifts away international practice; from a rights-based approach to a need-based approach of international Protection; and from a purpose-centered process of finding durable solutions to a never-ending process of service provision. In doing so, both the discursive strategy and the implementation of UNHCR mandate in international protection question the classical statement according to which “Protection is thus based in the law; it may be wider than rights, but it begins with rights and rights permeate the whole”.[vii]
Service provision and the lack of legal and political responsibility for refugees
Deprived of its legal component, UNHCR's mandate of protection in Lebanon emphasizes the provision of services and targets resilience of the individual and beyond, refugees' self-reliance. The resilience-based approach to burden-sharing somehow institutionalized what used to be an anomaly or an “institutional curiosity”[viii] of the interstate system embodied by The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Established in 1949 as a three-year temporary mandate until a just and durable solution for Palestinian refugees was achieved, the agency’s temporary mandate has periodically been renewed for over 70 years, and it continues to provide essential services such as education, health, relief and social services to Palestine refugees in the Near East until the present. Far from being an innovative solution, the widened definition of protection promoted by the international community via the 3RP rather serves to mainstream an exceptional formula used decades ago in response to the exile of Palestinians. However, even lacking a protection mandate, UNRWA has played a changing and ambiguous political role representing Palestinian refugees in their hosting territories; this is precisely what distinguishes the Palestinian experience from the current response to Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Moreover, as it has widened its relief and humanitarian mandate towards development, UNRWA has increasingly acted as a service provider, therefore playing a Nation State’s role. In contrast, through its fragmented sectoral approach, the 3RP is able neither to be a representative agency nor to embody political and legal responsibility for Syrian refugees.
Protection beyond service provision
Currently, the collapse of basic economic and social services following the accumulation of major crises in Lebanon points out a "protection gap" and brings back the issue of legal protection for refugees and migrants. Amid an unprecedented economic crisis and following the Beirut Blast of August 4, 2020, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese experienced a rapid deterioration of their socio-economic conditions. Gaps in resources, services and capacities continue to widen, further hindering the access to and the quality of basic services (water and sanitation, shelter, electricity, food supply) before even tackling the issue of education. As the government was forced to put the country under a strict lockdown in January 2021, UNHCR reported that 88% of the refugees are living below the extreme poverty line and 50% of the Lebanese population fell below the poverty line.
In the light of refugees' increasing vulnerability, the provision of basic services seems to go hand in hand with the provision of legal protection. A lack of legal residency and a work permit de facto worsens refugees' living conditions as legal discrimination weighs on their daily lives exposing them to the risk of arrest and detention. It also hampers their access to basic services like education, as well as to obtaining civil status documents (marriage, birth registration). Indeed, despite the many accomplishments of the RACE strategies and while their exile reaches nearly a decade, around 44% of Syrian children (aged 6 – 14) remain out of school, out of which 36% remained out of learning in the year 2018-2019.[ix] The COVID 19 outbreak one year ago has further compromised Syrian refugees' access to education. Notwithstanding COVID 19 contamination rate fluctuances, schools have remained closed for about a year in Lebanon. Educational programs are conducted remotely and more than 90% of public schools are delivering daily lessons via WhatsApp or Telegram. Remote learning reduces consequently the quality and outreach of education as it also conditions attendance to an internet connection and the availability of a smartphone and/or a computer. Even though UNHCR officially advocates for the fulfillment of its original mandate, the management of Syrian refugees' protection in Lebanon is facing a political stalemate. As a result, the resilience-based approach of service provision remains the only viable and consensual approach.
At the core of the resilience-based burden-sharing lies the danger that the approach of prioritizing collective rights over the traditional Refugee Regime takes root. It is worth remembering that the traditional Refugee Regime was achieved through the creation of an independent international institution responsible for refugees' international protection. To quote Hyndman, "Responses to human displacement and assistance to Forced migration speak the language of humanism: the protection of rights for all people."[x] Without alternatives to the current resilience-based frame, there is a great risk that the precarious situation of the refugees will be reproduced and exacerbated. This would once again raise the issue of statelessness issue that the Refugee Regime was supposed to solve.
[i] 2020 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon.
[ii] Resilience and self-reliance from a protection and solutions perspective
[iv] UNHCR Refugee Education 2030 – A Strategy for Refugee Inclusion.
[v] As of December 2019, Lebanon hosts 620,706 refugee children and youth of all nationalities (i.e. Syrian, Iraqi, Somali, Sudanese, Eritrean, etc.) between the ages of 3 and 18, out of a total refugee population of 1,518,500. UNHCR registration figures, Lebanon Education Unit, 2021.
[vi] RACE II, June 2014, 5.
[vii] Goodwin-Gill. (2014) The International Law of Refugee Protection in The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199652433.013.0021.
[viii] Al Husseini (2005) Réfugiés 50 ans après : l’évolution de la représentation du réfugié palestinien dans le discours officiel de l’UNRWA. Stephanie Latte Abdallah. Images aux frontière : représentations et constructions sociales et politiques –Palestine, Jordanie 1948-2000, IFPO. 117.
[ix] UNHCR Lebanon Education Unit, 2021.
[x] Hyndman. (2000). Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism. University of Minnesota Press. 181-182.