Hierarchies of Displacement [MSc guest blog]

Published 14 October 2016 / By Emily Johanson

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This blog is part of our MSc in Migration Studies guest blog series: Viewing Life Through the Migration Lens: experiences and thoughts post-MSc

A major refugee population has arrived in Lebanon for almost every generation of the last century.

Armenians, then Palestinians, then Iraqis, then Syrians. They arrived on vastly different scales, but all as a result of a violent conflict that expelled a significant number (in many cases, a majority) of the populations of their countries.

Since their arrival, each group has been granted varied legal statuses and privileges as well as spaces within the social and economic fabric of Lebanon. They have come to form a kind of hierarchy in which those who are somehow still displaced—not yet truly ‘from here,’ constantly seek to inch closer to political, economic and social belonging.

Armenian refugees, for instance, and their descendants are Lebanese citizens and enjoy the same legal rights as anyone with Lebanese heritage.

In contrast, Palestinians have very few legal rights in Lebanon. After almost 70 years of exile, there are more than 450,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, over half of whom still reside in overcrowded and deteriorating refugee camps turned concrete slums.[i] They are not allowed to own property, and cannot officially obtain licenses in a number of professions, including those of medical doctor, lawyer, architect and engineer. The Lebanese government has justified such legal discrimination on the grounds that it is upholding the right of Palestinians to return to their homes in occupied Palestine by not granting them Lebanese citizenship or the rights of Lebanese citizens. Yet this pronouncement is merely a thinly veiled attempt to maintain the religious and economic status quo in Lebanon: enfranchising Palestinians would usher almost half a million mostly poor Sunni Muslims into the electorate.

While accompanying a Lebanese friend to an interview in Sidon, a city in southern Lebanon, 10-year-old Ahmad told us that he was often teased and beaten up at school because he is Syrian. To avoid being bullied, he now tells his peers that he is Palestinian. My friend, an experienced educator, was shocked by his story. She regularly hears Syrians trying to make their accents sound more Lebanese, or otherwise trying to blend in and fit into Lebanese society. But in light of their community’s political history, being Palestinian is usually considered the least desirable status to have in Lebanon. Never had she heard of someone feigning that identity.

Ahmad’s account complicates the story of displacement. On a local level, a proportionally large population of Palestinians lives in and around the city of Sidon as it is adjacent to the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Ain al-Hilwe. Over time, the Palestinian community has come to hold considerable power in this particular region.

Despite the marginalization of Palestinians on the national stage for so long, Syrians are the latest newcomers in Lebanon’s hierarchy of the displaced and thus are often relegated to the lowest status. First, the reality of recent displacement means that most Syrians have been unable to find stable employment or establish an economic or social life similar to the one that was destroyed in Syria. In addition, most Syrians do not have legal residency in Lebanon because it is a complicated and prohibitively expensive bureaucratic process that that few families can afford to repeat every year. Without legal residency, Syrians face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, and cannot easily pass the numerous army checkpoints scattered throughout country.

Yet in other contexts, like on the borders of ‘Fortress Europe,’ Syrian nationality has a different status—Syrian passports are in high demand as migrants from around the world fleeing a wide variety of circumstances seek to identify with the nationality that Western governments have designated as the most deserving of asylum.[ii] Terms of hierarchy shift according to the preferences of the governing legal regime in question.

In some respects, Lebanon is an exception. According to UNHCR, it hosts the highest number of refugees per capita than any other country in the world, a figure which also coincides with one of the highest rates of emigration.[iii] It has a unique sectarian political system in which the top posts are apportioned according to religious sect, and the country has remained without a sitting president for over three years. Such characteristics of Lebanon as a ‘host’ country have undoubtedly contributed to the creation of these particular hierarchies of displacement.

Yet, the phenomenon of migration is of course not unique to Lebanon. And neither is its creation of hierarchies. Heated immigration debates in the U.S. center on the entry of Mexicans, and more recently Central Americans, through the southern border, against which a litany of draconian plans have been suggested and sometimes enacted. Yet any Cuban who presents his passport at a border patrol station today is placed on a fast track to becoming a permanent resident within one year. Such policies create a whole host of hierarchies both inside and outside the borders of the country who enacts them.

In an attempt to mitigate the personal, everyday consequences of such policies and legal realities, Ahmad professes to be Palestinian as he tries to jockey for the best spot he can find in this hierarchy.

Emily Johanson is a recent graduate of the MSc in Migration Studies. She currently resides in Beirut, Lebanon.


[i] Where We Work, UNRWA

[ii] Ihring, Diana (2016) Mobility, Class and Country of Origin in the Western Balkans, COMPAS blog | 19/01/16

[iii] Lebanon, UNHCR