‘Refugees’ in Lebanon: Future Citizens?

Syrian Refugees Living in Tents in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley

Editor’s Foreword

It is perhaps one of the world’s greatest ironies that the state with the highest proportion and density of refugees does not actually recognize their status as such. The Republic of Lebanon has one refugee for every four citizens and has a refugee population density of about 244 per square kilometer (greater than the density of most states), yet it has never signed an international treaty to give these ‘refugees’ any recognition or any rights. There is a similar lack of local law to govern the matter.

As harsh realities fly in the face of a purposeful lack of legislation, will the law eventually enforce its own reality or will our current reality enforce its own future laws? Shall these displaced populations one day become Lebanese citizens?

Table of Contents


The Economics of Life as a Refugee

The 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention

Lebanon’s Foreign Populations



Lebanon has always been the getaway point to most refugees, especially from the Arab world.

Many are fleeing war, and some decided to live in Lebanon for its democracy and political freedom, two elements rarely found in other Arab countries.

The number of refugees in Lebanon lately has considerably augmented, especially with the outbreak of the Syrian and Iraqi turmoil of this past decade.

But how does Lebanon  manage to control the number of refugees on its soil, how does the Lebanese government handle its internal relation with non-citizens living on its ground, and what are the major problems faced by foreign refugees in Lebanon?

All these questions will be answered in this article with a main focus on the national and international rights of refugees.

First of all, we will start by talking about the international rights of refugees around the world, explaining their main problems from a political and economic point of view before mentioning their rights as per the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol.

Afterwards we shall discuss the foreign populations of Lebanon, and the main day-to-day obstacles they encounter. Will these foreigners one day become Lebanese citizens?

The Economics of Life as a Refugee

It is obvious that war has never been beneficial to both sides, as one side will always lose more than the other.

When it come to a war between two nations, the biggest mistake to make would be to assume that only these two parties are implicated in the conflict, neglecting the impact a war could have on a regional scale that genuinely implies neighboring countries and allies. This has become increasingly true in recent times with the advent of globalization, and advancements in telecommunications and transportation technology.

Neighboring states may be affected from nearby armed conflict directly through spillovers, from the economic burdens of a cessation of trade activities, or even socio-demographically through an influx of refugees. Of all the possible complications, the matter of refugees (especially in large numbers) would seem to be the most serious and most dangerous matter at hand.

Civilian populations are consistently the most adversely affected party of any war. With the advent of total war, belligerents view civilian populations as contributing to the war effort and as such consider them to be legitimate targets. Civilians realize this danger and many choose to flee and seek refuge among third party state actors. Thus the term, refugee, a person who flees persecution for their own self-preservation.

This self-preservation however comes at a cost. Not all states are accommodating to such persons, and many may be leaving behind great riches for fear of death or pain. Many factors therefore come into play that decide the well-being of these refugees in their host states, including:

A significant portion of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon have inadequate accommodation.

1) The Host State

It is according to human reason that migrants and refugees have in recent times been flocking to the sea in an attempt to reach Europe. Western Europe is arguably the best developed region of the world and so ingrained in their national ethos are the concepts of human rights and freedom that to most refugees it may seem to be the closest thing to heaven. Few if any refugees would choose to go to developing nations such as the sub-Saharan states for the simple reason that such states are having difficulty providing for their own citizens and it would be outlandish to assume that they would be able to provide for droves of persons seeking refuge from war and conflict.

2) Refugee Population

“Ask me to help one man, and I’ll help him right away – Ask me to help ten, and I’ll tell you that I need help myself,”

This is particularly true for governments. Because housing 10,000 refugees is absolutely not the same thing as housing 100,000 or even 1,000,000. Even for the highly developed states of Western Europe, providing proper care to such high numbers of refugees would be a tremendous task.

In addition to the number of refugees, one must also consider refugee density relative to the native citizenry. Lebanon is the most refugee dense state in the world as well as being in the upper rankings for the sheer number of refugees. Lebanon has 244 refugees/km2. This translates to a refugee for every four nationals. This is a HUGE metric, and could even be a historic record. Turkey has more refugees than Lebanon (both mainly caused by the Syrian Civil War), but Turkey is about 75 times as large as Lebanon and has a native population of about 82 million. While there has been no official census in Lebanon since 1932, according to most estimates Istanbul alone is 2-4 times as large as Lebanon in terms of population.

3) Financial State of these Refugees

It is absolutely no surprise that having rich people fleeing war from their land and coming to your country, would be an excellent thing for your local economy since these people will undoubtedly invest in real estate to buy a place where they can live, or perhaps even invest in some work fields to ensure themselves a stable job and a stable life. These individuals represent less than a fraction of the global refugee population. Most refugees are quite impoverished and rely on the state or international players such as the UNHCR for monetary support.

How a refugee family from Syria typically lives.

The 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention

The challenges regarding refugees are never ending for both the host and the refugee. To protect the international rights of refugees the international community met in Geneva and came up with the 1951 Refugee convention and its 1967 Protocol Amendment.

Only 145 states have formally adopted the convention, Lebanon being among those that have not yet officially adopted it.1

1) What is a refugee?

The term “refugee” is clearly defined as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.”

To sum up the whole convention, refugees have the absolute legitimate right to benefit from the same rights as the citizens of the host state including:

  • The right to receive health care
  • The right to receive proper education
  • The right to have a decent lodgment
  • The right to find a suitable job
  • The right to freely practice their religion
  • The right to be completely protected by the state
Lebanon is no desert, and Syrian refugees are learning to dread the coming of winter.

Briefly, the convention of 1951 clearly gave refugees their full rights to live a decent life as any other citizen of their host state. The states that have ratified this convention have the obligation to abide by it and to give refugees their full rights, as if they were their own citizens. This was limited by geography however, as the original convention was meant to alleviate the sufferings of European refugees from the Second World War. While it did allow for the host state to declare a non-European population as a refugee population, such an act was completely voluntary. The main purpose of the 1967 protocol was to address this issue, and by virtue of the protocol no geographic constraint is placed and states party to the protocol must recognize all such populations as refugees and accordingly give them their rights. Of all the states that are party to the 1951 convention, only the Republic of Madagascar is not party to the 1967 protocol. The United States of America is the only state party to the 1967 protocol but not the 1951 convention.

As a matter of example let us cite some key articles from the convention of 1951:

Article 3: Non-discrimination

‘The contracting states shall apply the provisions of this convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin,’

Article 3 clearly protects refugees from any sort of discrimination and clearly provides them with all their basic human rights as cited previously.

Non-discrimination is not restricted to marginalization, but extends to full assimilation in that it also implies an obligation to give him his full rights and to provide him with all his basic needs.

Article 4: Religion

‘the contracting states shall accord to refugees within their territories treatment at least as that accorded to their nationals with respect to freedom to practice their religion and freedom as regards the religious education of their children’

The convention of 1951 clearly came as the ultimate savior to refugees, not only by protecting them but also by giving them their full human rights. Whereas in the past the treatment of refugees has been left largely to the charity and humanism of the host country, it is now enforceable international law.

We must also mention that 1951’s convention clearly stated in its 5th article that refugees also have ‘rights granted apart from the convention’

Article 5: Rights Granted Apart from the Convention

‘Nothing in this convention shall be deemed to impair any rights and benefits granted by a contracting state to refugees apart from this convention’

Meaning clearly that any state which can provide more comfortable circumstances to refugees on its territory is welcomed and encouraged to do so even if these rights are not mentioned in the convention. They can provide more rights to refugees, but absolutely not less.

Let us also mention that 1951’s convention guarantees general rights to refugees like their personal status their right to own movable and immovable properties their artistic and industrial rights their right of association and many more.2

In brief, this convention clearly gave hope and justice for refugees. This convention clearly showed that the UN values and respects human rights regardless of their nationality, race, and religion.

2) Lebanon’s Memorandum of Understanding

Let us not forget that 48 UN members states, did not vote neither ratify this convention. These are known as non-contracting states, chief among them for the purposes of this paper being the Republic of Lebanon.

The Republic of Lebanon has instead signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the UNHCR in the wake of the Syrian Civil War this past decade. The MoU grants Syrians most of the basic rights of a refugee as stated in the 1951 convention (including the most important one being that a host country may not return a refugee to a state where they face persecution) but notably it does not classify them as refugees in the fullest sense. This indicates that in Lebanon, legally speaking, there is no such thing as a refugee. These Syrians are merely ‘displaced’ persons seeking temporary asylum. This MoU was enacted in order to not only respect the human rights of these refugees, but also to respect the law of Lebanon and its unique demographic makeup. Syrian ‘Refugees’ will never gain Lebanese citizenship – or if they ever do, it will not be as a result of this MoU with the UNHCR

 The 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees is not law in Lebanon and holds no obligatory nature, however the MoU has certain points that we must highlight:

– The situation of refugees highly depends on foreign help

– Most of the money reserved for refugees, will depend on foreign help

– The Lebanese government will most certainly protect any refugee on its territory, however the UN has the obligation to help the Lebanese government.

To sum it up briefly, Lebanon explicitly said that the situation of refugees on Lebanese ground depends on how much the United Nations is ready to cooperate.

Living Conditions of ‘Refugees’ in Lebanon

Let us also not forget that ‘refugees’ in Lebanon are far from the same standard of living as Lebanese citizens, even with the help of the UN. This is mainly caused by the huge amount of unregistered ‘refugees’ in Lebanon, as well as the fact that Lebanon has always been a place of refuge for afflicted populations in the region and as such hosts a large and diverse ‘refugee’ population; much more than what the state can bear to accommodate.

The amount of unregistered refugees in Lebanon is huge, because of people regularly crossing the borders illegally (Syrian borders). It becomes increasingly difficult to find them especially when considering that they usually do not want to be found for fear of expatriation. With over a million registered Syrian refugees at one point, trying to find the ones without their proper papers is quite literally like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Syrians are not the only ‘refugee’ population in Lebanon, they are simply the largest and the most recent. Lebanon has always been a place of refuge for persons fleeing the political turmoil and violence of neighboring Arab States, and as such Lebanon hosts sizeable populations of Iraqis, and most notoriously Palestinians.

These large populations have really created a major economic obstacle for the Lebanese government as the state finds it difficult to regularly provide for its own citizens. These populations do not have the life they deserve as human beings: because the country’s poor economy cannot give it to them.

Lebanon’s Foreign Population

Let us discuss the situation of different populations of refugees, what caused them to take refuge in Lebanon, and their life conditions. These are the Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi populations of Lebanon.

1) The Palestinians

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in general the larger Israeli-Arab conflicts, have been ongoing for over seventy years so far. They are highly divisive on the international stage and have caused a massive amount of casualties.

Our focus is on the 100,000 Palestinians who sought refuge in Lebanon in 1948, and their rights.

Palestinian refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

UNRWA services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. The descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children, are also eligible for registration. When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.

Where do Palestinian Refugees Live?

Nearly one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.5 million individuals, live in 58 recognized refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

In 1948 100,000 Palestinians arrived in Lebanon – today there are over 470,000 refugees registered with UNRWA. UNRWA estimates 180,000 estimated for planning purposes to be residing in the country.  About 45 per cent of them live in the country’s 12 refugee camps. Conditions in the camps are dire and characterized by overcrowding, poor housing conditions, unemployment, poverty and lack of access to justice.

Palestinians in Lebanon do not enjoy several important rights; for example, they cannot work in as many as 39 professions and cannot own property (real estate). Because they are not formally citizens of another state, Palestine refugees are unable to claim the same rights as other foreigners living and working in Lebanon.

The conflict in Syria has forced many Palestine refugees from Syria to flee to Lebanon in search of safety. Nearly 29,000 of them are receiving UNRWA assistance in the country, including cash assistance, education, health care, and protection. Source: United Nations relief and work agencies for Palestinian refugees in the near east.

The way the Lebanese government treats these refugees has always been criticized by international NGO’s and human rights organizations. But since Lebanon has never fully agreed on adopting the international pact of refugees, the UN and other international organs cannot legally pursue the government. In fact many believe that the main reason the Lebanese state has not yet partaken in the refugee convention is the Palestinians.

On Palestinian Assimilation and Citizenship

Many may ask questions like ‘why not make the Palestinians refugees Lebanese citizens?’ or, ‘why aren’t they allowed to have the Lebanese passports?’

The answer for these questions highly varies from the political group answering them, as Lebanon is not only highly politicized but also politically diverse.

For one group, the answer may be that the Palestinians were one of the major factors that started the civil war in 1975 and that they actually wanted to invade Lebanon and conquer it.

‘The road to the Quds3 passes through Jounieh’

– Yasser Arafat, PLO President4

This quote clearly shows the will of the Palestinians to conquer Lebanon, because the city of Jounieh has absolutely nothing to do with Quds – it lies in the opposite direction!

Jounieh is a coastal city located at 20km from Beirut, up to the north. While the way to the land of Palestine and the city of Quds goes all the way to the south, where Palestinian militia men were initially located.

Note also that the will of Palestinian refugees to conquer Lebanon was clearly seen in their many battles objectives, just like they wanted to conquer Jordan. This was the main reason Black September happened. The Jordanian army massacred an entire Palestinian refugee camp at the Israeli borders of the country, because Yasser Arafat was plotting against the Jordanian government. Palestinian refugees fled to Lebanon because of Black September.

For some, the answer may simply be that they do not wish that Palestinians become a part of Lebanese society. This may be for cultural, demographic, or religious reasons, since Lebanon is a very religiously diverse country. In fact, Lebanon is the most religiously diverse state in the MENA region. And for some others, who hate the Palestinians, these refugees are welcomed to go back to Gaza.

Others even refuse to give Palestinian refugees the Lebanese citizenship, simply to preserve the Palestinian identity. They consider that if Palestinians become Lebanese, there would not be any Palestinian people left to return to their rightful land.

There is a broad consensus among Lebanese politicians from all camps that Palestinians shall never become official Lebanese citizens, and that their current life situations are not a major problem for the state since they all live in specific areas and are almost self-sufficient.

In conclusion, the Palestinian society in Lebanon has been suffering for a very long time because of their lack of rights and because of the various political barriers standing in front of their way to get the Lebanese citizenship. There is no political will to alleviate the situation; neither is there any legal instrument to do so.

2) The Syrians

Ever since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, more than 1,500,000 Syrians have fled the war to take refuge in Lebanon.

‘It is without a single doubt that Lebanon was the smallest country neighboring Syrian territories to house the biggest number of refugees compared to its geographical land.

There is nearly 1 Syrian refugee for 4 nationals in Lebanon, making it the country with the most number of refugees.’ – UNHCR

This massive influx has contributed in aggravating the economic crisis by taking the jobs of thousands of Lebanese. The reason for this? They accept lower wages. This has considerably augmented the unemployment rate in Lebanon and has done more harm than good to the national economy.

Of course, we are to recognize the rights of Syrian refugees to work and have a stable life. But since the country doesn’t even have enough job opportunities for its own nationals, this matter is not as easy as it may seem. The Lebanese people have a longstanding tradition of immigrating to other states in search of better opportunities, but in the wake of the Syrian Civil War more and more people are leaving. Some want to leave, but cannot scrape together enough money to be able to start a new life abroad. The daily life of Syrian refugees in Lebanon highly depends on foreign help, especially from the UN and its agencies like the UNCHR.

‘The UNCHR has always been side by side with the Syrian refugees, and has always been cooperating with the Lebanese government to help the Syrian community in Lebanon.’

Many Syrian refugees living in Lebanon live in poor conditions. There are mostly lodged in tents, and most of the time their salaries are low. And since the Lebanese government has no much legal obligations towards refugees on its territory, the life conditions of the Syrian community in Lebanon highly depends on foreign help. According to the local government the cost of this has exceeded $25B.

On Syrian Assimilation

Very frankly, most of the Lebanese population would reject the matter of granting citizenship to refugees for historical reasons, like the Syrian intervention during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) or the Syrian occupation of Lebanon that did not end until 2005.

Many political parties (mainly right-wing parties and the 14th March Coalition) would probably never accept such a demand and will most certainly refute the matter each time it would come to the discussion, because this same coalition has always been in a political confrontation with the Syrian government of Assad. Syrians present in Lebanon have a poor chance of getting Lebanese citizenship, and will most probably return to their country once the war is over.

3) The Iraqis

According to the UNHCR, the number of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon may vary between 50,000 and 100,000 overall (both registered and unregistered).

Iraq has always been a prosperous and powerful Arab country, especially under the reign of Saddam Hussein. Various regional and international factors have contributed to making Iraq one of the most dangerous places on earth. These include the 2003 American Invasion (which resulted in Saddam’s deposition and execution in 2006) as well as the war against terror. Most notorious of the groups fighting the Iraqi central government is the barbaric Islamic State.

This sad sequence of events caused nearly 2,000,000 Iraqi nationals to leave their homeland to take refuge in a safe place, 95% of whom live in countries neighboring Iraq in the Middle East region.  The condition of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon highly depends on foreign aid, especially from the UN and its agencies like the UNCHR. This international organism cooperates with the Lebanese government in order to insure the protection and wellbeing of the Iraqi community in Lebanon.

‘it is true that Iraqi refugees in Lebanon are having a hard time for the most of them, but since their numbers are much smaller than other communities of refugees, the UNCHR is able to provide them with more help’

The solution for Iraqis is much easier than the one for Syrians or Palestinians, many of them will immediately go back to Iraq once the situation there becomes more stable. There is no need to discuss granting them citizenship, as the Iraqis do not wish to become Lebanese.


Georges Abou Mrad
Georges Abou Mrad


Law and Political Science

Law is not just any career path, it is the knowledge that gives you the power to defend the innocent, and to punish the guilty. It is the knowledge that gives a man the legitimate power to take another man’s freedom, and sometimes even another man’s life. Such power can not be placed in the wrong hands, justice entails responsibility.
I want to study criminal psychology, criminology, and international law at the ASSAS university in Paris. Hopefully to one day join Interpol or Europol.

  1. From this point on, the displaced populations within the borders of Lebanon shall be referred to as refugees despite the fact that the Republic of Lebanon does not recognize them as such. This is simply for lack of a better term.
  2. Articles 12, 13, 14, 15.
  3. Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
  4. Fisk, Robert. Pity the Nation. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Leave a Comment