Selective and Strategic indifference: Lebanon’s migration and refugee landscapes

Selective and Strategic indifference: Lebanon’s migration and refugee landscapes in the absence of inclusive legal frameworks

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2023 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author, Jasmin Lilan Diab, is the Director of the Institute for Migration Studies, and Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Migration Studies at the School of Arts and Sciences at the Lebanese American University.


Lebanon remains entangled in one of the worst socio-economic crises of the 21st century. Ever since Michel Aoun’s six-year term as president ended in October 2022, Lebanese lawmakers have persistently failed to pick a successor, leaving the country stuck in the most prolonged power vacuum in its complex and conflict-ridden history. While Lebanon’s population struggles to meet their basic needs, secure their livelihoods and access goods and services, policymakers have been unable to elect a president, push for reform, or hold anyone accountable for the injustices the country has endured since 2019, including a mismanaged global pandemic and the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.

Lebanon hosts the highest per capita number of refugees in the world, including some 1.5 million Syrians, 479,000 Palestinians (comprising both people who fled the Syrian conflict and those who were previously present in Lebanon), and more than 12,000 people from other countries. In addition, more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers (MDWs) from African and Asian countries live in Lebanon. According to the European Commission, 80 percent of Lebanese live in poverty and 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon cannot cover their basic needs. According to a 2022 survey, 93 percent of Palestinian refugee households are poor.

Lebanon’s approach to refugees and migrants


Lebanon has never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, instead resorting to ad-hoc agreements with the UNHCR for its operations in the country amid different refugee influxes. Lebanon’s only asylum law is outlined in its 1962 Order 319 Regulating the Status of Foreigners (Article 26), which remains the primary legal instrument for the regulation of the rights and obligations of foreigners in the country. While the 1951 Convention restricts the definition of refugees to individuals facing persecution in their country of nationality based on their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” Lebanon’s 1962 law outlines that “any foreign national who is the subject of a prosecution or a conviction by an authority that is not Lebanese for a political crime or whose life or freedom is threatened, also for political reasons, may request political asylum in Lebanon.” Interestingly, this definition may even be interpreted as going beyond the 1951 Convention’s definition. Not only does it cover a broader understanding of threats to “freedoms” that the 1951 definition restricts to more specific categories under an umbrella of a “well-founded fear”, but it also does not require asylum seekers to frame their persecution under one of the aforementioned “types” to justify their right to seek asylum.

Through the 1940s until the 1960s, Lebanon was a strong proponent for the rights and protection of refugees, as well as an active participant in the founding stages of international refugee law. In 1946, it formed part of a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)-appointed committee of only 20 states that laid the basis for the then International Refugee Organization. In 1949, it helped create the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and was even an active participant in the formation of the 1967 Additional Protocol, which expanded the temporal and geographic application of the 1951 Convention. Lebanon’s moral momentum and its commitment to refugee protection would begin to slowly falter shortly after, largely due to the rising number of Palestinian refugees entering the country following the 1967 Naksa. The country’s civil war, coupled with Lebanese authorities’ unwillingness to integrate Palestinian refugees durably, would go on to shape the country’s refugee policy moving forward and in the long-term. For Palestinians, Lebanon approved the establishment of 12 recognised “Palestinian refugee camps.” According to UNICEF and UNRWA (the UN relief and works agency for Palestine refugees in the near east), these camps suffer from overcrowding, poor infrastructure, poverty and violence, posing significant risks for children and youth. For Palestinians residing outside the 12 official camps, in adjacent areas referred to as “Palestinian gatherings”, conditions are much more dire.

Over a decade after the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Lebanon maintains its position that Syrian refugees within its borders are temporary and in transit. While the Lebanese government would not directly engage through a policy lens with the Syrian refugees between 2011 and 2014, it would go on to develop a 2014 “Policy Paper on Syrian Refugee Displacement” which outlined regulations preventing Syrians from entering Lebanon and restricting their ability to secure residency and work permits in the long-term. Shortly after, in 2015, Lebanon closed  its border and requested UNHCR to no longer register new refugees. In the absence of a national legal mechanism to obtain residency permits, coupled with the inability of Syrian refugees to register with UNHCR, Syrians in Lebanon have long endured arbitrary arrests and mistreatment by local authorities and have lived in an overall state of insecurity in the country. In light of this, only 17 percent of refugees above the age of 15 currently hold legal residency in Lebanon, leaving the overwhelming majority under threat of potential deportation, a threat that has grown amid the country’s latest and ongoing anti-refugee campaign and plan to return Syrian refugees. Lebanon continues to prohibit the establishment of official camps for Syrians, ultimately pushing them to settle in different types of shelters including informal tented settlements.

Migrant domestic workers

For decades now, the Lebanese government has been unwilling, inactive and ineffective in implementing laws that protect migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in the country. With the arrival of African and Asian migrant workers in the 1970s, followed by the evident feminisation of this migrant labour force in the 1980s and early 1990s, Lebanon became home to more than 250,000 MDWs, the majority of whom hailed from countries such as Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Bangladesh among others. Migrant labour was supported by the sending countries due to the foreign exchange remittances that now constituted a significant portion of these countries’ GDPs and alleviated much of their national debts. The recruitment of a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon is conducted through the kafala system,  a sponsorship system used to monitor migrant labourers working primarily in the construction and domestic sectors. It gives private citizens and companies almost complete control over MDWs’ employment and immigration status. The ambiguity of the kafala system in Lebanon has resulted in MDWs enduring legal challenges and violations of their basic human rights. In order to recruit MDWs, recruitment agencies in Lebanon collaborate with agencies in the migrant-sending countries.

Article 7 of Lebanon’s Labour Law excludes MDWs from the standard protections granted to the other classes of both local and foreign employees. MDWs have subsequently been banned from establishing unions and denied the right to freedom of association under Article 92 of the Labour Law. MDWs are thus vulnerable to abuse, trafficking and exploitation. Article 92 of the Labour Law is considered to be in direct violation of Lebanon’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which it ratified in 1972 and which entered into force in 1976. Article 22 of the ICCPR stipulates that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests,” and that “no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Under the kafala system, a domestic worker may be administratively detained or considered “illegal” if they flee the household of their employer or leave without their employer’s consent, as the kafala system stipulates that a sponsor is legally responsible for their MDWs throughout the contract period. Human Rights Watch has said that the kafala system is a form of modern-day slavery, and that it continues to put MDWs at risk of exploitation and abuse across Lebanon, the Middle East and Gulf States, where only minor reforms have been undertaken to improve the situation for MDWs. Their investigation found that every week a domestic worker in Lebanon dies from unnatural causes, mostly from suicide and attempted escapes. Calls to suspend the kafala system in Lebanon and the region have been made by Amnesty International, Anti-Slavery International as well as local NGOs and human rights advocates for decades. A 2020 decision by Lebanon’s State Shura Council to suspend the introduction of a new standard unified contract that would have allowed MDWs to terminate their contract without the prior consent of their employer was the latest blow to attempts at dismantling key exploitative practices under the kafala system.

The impact of Lebanon’s crisis on refugees and migrants

Lebanon’s overlapping socio-economic, political and health crises have had a particular impact on the country’s most vulnerable refugee and host communities. In 2022, the UN’s Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon revealed an ongoing struggle to secure basic needs, with 90 percent of Syrian refugees still living in extreme poverty, and found that negative coping mechanisms, deterioration in the food security situation of families, and living in substandard shelter conditions remain prevalent.

Rates of food insecurity among Syrian refugees sharply increased from 49 percent in 2021 to 67 percent in 2022, while the percentage of households with inadequate food consumption rose from 46 to 57 percent. Over two-thirds of Syrian refugees were found not to have the economic capacity to afford the minimum essential items needed to survive, with 90 percent of the Syrian refugee households surveyed unable to meet their survival needs in remote regions. As of 2022, close to the entire Syrian refugee population (more than 94 percent) had accrued debts to cover their essential food and non-food needs, and 97 percent had resorted to negative coping strategies to meet their food needs, including reducing meal portions and the number of meals consumed each day. The percentage of working Syrian refugees in 2022 stood at 33 percent. However, employed Syrians were found to be unable to adequately cover the costs of basic food and non-food needs without the additional humanitarian and/or financial aid. The percentage of children aged between five and 17 years old who were engaged in various forms of child labour in 2022 stood at just four, with this proportion being dominated by boys.

Almost all (93%) of the 498 Palestinian refugee households that took part in a separate socio-economic survey conducted by UNWRA in 2022 were found to live below the poverty line, as a direct result of the increase in consumer prices stemming from Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis. Some 62 percent of respondent households had reduced the number of meals they consumed, and about half had begun to accumulate debt to secure basic needs. Employment remained precarious in 2022, with 61 percent of those interviewed having been employed for fewer than nine months out of the year, and 50 percent having not had a contract with their employer throughout these unstable periods of employment. As the majority of Palestinian refugees continue to work in the informal economy as a result of the fact that they are not naturalised, Palestinians continue to be denied access to more than 39 professions, including medicine, law and engineering. They are further denied entry to professions that encompass membership in a syndicate or trade union.

In 2021, Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour relaxed labour laws to allow Palestinians to work in managerial, business, tourism, industrial, information, health, education and service sectors, but this right was restricted to Palestinians born in Lebanon, born to a Lebanese mother, or married to a Lebanese citizen. According to UNRWA’s survey, employment conditions of Palestinians in 2022 did not improve over 2021, with only 12 percent of those surveyed having an official written contract with their employer. According to the International Labour Organization, the majority of Palestinian refugees are engaged in low-status jobs that are “poorly paid, insecure and lack adequate social protection.” Decades of marginalisation and exclusion have left the refugee community in Lebanon vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace, insecure contracts, as well as inter-generational poverty. (Less information is available about the realities and impacts of the country’s ongoing crisis on other smaller refugee groups, such as Iraqis and Sudanese).

MDWs have been particularly impacted by Lebanon’s crisis, as they (as discussed above) continue to be governed under a system that deprives them of their basic human rights. The onset of the crisis in 2019, coupled with the limitations imposed by the kafala system, has also led to many MDWs losing their employment, leaving them homeless and unable to meet their basic living needs or the cost of their flight home should they wish to leave the country. For MDWs who were still employed, lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic left them isolated in the homes of their employers, many of whom are mentally and physically abusive. According to multiple local reports, since 2019, MDWs have suffered worsening financial constraints due to being fired from their jobs or facing cuts to their salaries, while a rapid devaluation of the Lebanese pound reduced the purchasing power of wages. Consequently, many MDWs are being pushed into severe poverty, and are unable to secure food and shelter.

Well over half (58%) of migrant workers surveyed for a local NGO’s rapid needs assessment in 2020 reported having lost their jobs since the beginning of the economic crisis, and 49 percent said they wanted to return to their country of origin. Respondents further reported living in multi-dimensional poverty and lacking sufficient funds to send remittances to their families back home. Almost two-thirds (62%) of respondents said they were unable to pay their rent and were at risk of eviction, 61 percent did not have access to the medication they needed, 60 percent had limited access to hygiene supplies, 51 percent had limited access to food and 34 percent had limited access to drinking water.

A 2022 survey of migrant households conducted by the UN’s migration agency, IOM, across all governorates of Lebanon found that close to a quarter (23 percent) of people in respondent households were unemployed and seeking work, and that 26 percent of such households were in debt. In half of these cases, this debt was incurred in order to meet basic household needs. In 60 percent of surveyed households, at least one occupant had reduced their food expenditure, and 12 percent of surveyed households reported moderate or severe hunger. Over one-third of surveyed households reported that at least one member had spent some or all household savings on food. The main forms of assistance received by migrant households were food, followed by cash.

Deportations and returns

In 2019, Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council ordered security forces to begin deporting Syrians entering Lebanon through “illegal border crossings.” The General Directorate of General Security reportedly deported more than 6,800 Syrians in 2019 and 2020, only to halt deportations when Covid-19 lockdowns began. In late 2022, Lebanon’s caretaker minister of the displaced announced a plan to repatriate 15,000 Syrian refugees to Syria every month, insisting that the war in Syria was over and the country had become safe. No clear strategy or official agreement between the Lebanese and Syrian governments has been announced, and Lebanese authorities are not coordinating these efforts with UNHCR. In 2018, Lebanon opened registration for voluntary return for Syrians, which according to Lebanese officials resulted in the return of 21,000 refugees in 2020. According to UNHCR, 76,500 Syrians have returned voluntarily from Lebanon since 2016.

When it comes to Syrian refugee return, in the absence of discussion on different and intersectional forms of persecution, conversations on safety remain difficult to frame. The lack of a comprehensive domestic legal framework for refugees in Lebanon has resulted in a series of directives and decisions that are politically charged and that have frequently changed over the last decade. This has led to a failure to address the protection concerns faced by refugees in all their diversity, as well as in the homogenisation of refugees and the lack of an intersectional approach to refugee management. Alongside reports about Syria by international humanitarian organisations and testimonies highlighting forced conscription, torture and detention, as well as persecution on the grounds of religion, nationality, gender, membership of a particular social group and political opinion, have long formed part of Syrians’ realities. Despite these realities, 168 Syrians were reportedly forcibly returned from Lebanon in April 2023 alone. In April and May, the Lebanese Armed Forces conducted a series of raids and arrests that led to the deportation of displaced Syrians, including people registered with UNHCR, and to “an overall reduction of protection space in Lebanon”.


Presently, there are more Lebanese living outside Lebanon than inside the country. Reportedly, the largest Lebanese diaspora resides in Brazil, with as many as 7 million people there claiming Lebanese descent. Lebanese diaspora networks around the world are vast, and their existence has facilitated regular migration from Lebanon for decades and made the country the most remittance-dependent state in the world. Such departures have picked up dramatically since 2019. Estimates of the scale of such recent emigration vary widely, with one local NGO reporting that as many as 230,000 Lebanese had left their home country between January and April 2021, and a 2022 study—apparently based on General Security data—putting the number of Lebanese emigrants in 2021 at just under 80,000, a more than four-fold increase over the 17,721 who had left the previous year.

A recent research conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in early 2023 with almost 1,000 Lebanese showed that 78 per cent said they were considering leaving Lebanon, with one quarter saying they were also willing to consider migrating irregularly.  The key drivers for those interviewed were economic hardship, conflict, and unmet basic needs.

In 2022, UNHCR reported that the number of migrants resorting to irregular migration from Lebanon across the Mediterranean into Europe doubled for the second year in a row, with 2022 witnessing a 135 percent year-on-year increase in the number of people intending to make these journeys to countries such as Cyprus, Greece and, more recently, Italy. While media and political attention has focused on the Syrian refugees attempting onward movement, the proportion of Lebanese nationals on board the boats attempting to leave the Lebanese coast has been growing—from 12 percent of passengers in 2020, to 24 percent in 2022—creating a textbook example of mixed migration.

This author’s previous research suggested that in the best-case scenario for 2023, a minimum of 7,500 irregular migrants and refugees will leave Lebanese shores in around 50-plus boats. This research projected that at least 10,000 migrants and refugees would leave Lebanese shores on 75-plus boats in 2023. The data has also shown an increasingly mixed nature of these departures with a significant increase in the number of Lebanese migrants in absolute numbers and as a share of all migrants leaving the Lebanese shores. In previous years, most departing refugees and migrants were Syrians, with a limited number of Palestinians also attempting to make the journey. However, every year since 2019 the number and percentage of Lebanese migrants on boats heading out of Lebanon increased. According to UNHCR numbers from 2022, 62 percent of irregular migrants from Lebanon were Syrian, 11 percent were Palestinian, and 28 percent were Lebanese.

Concluding remarks and ways forward

Important conversations on the potential for adequate refugee and migrant integration into Lebanon’s labour force and its positive impacts on the economy are largely overdue. Contrary to the widespread belief that refugees serve as an economic burden to host countries, a 2022 study found no correlation between the numbers of refugees in Lebanon and the deterioration of the country’s economy; on the contrary, the research found refugees’ impact to have been positive, through increased and steady international aid.

Although refugees have had no adverse effects on Lebanon’s economy, host communities have seen increasing strains on the infrastructure in their areas, including schools and hospitals, in addition to competition for scarce jobs and limited resources. As Lebanon’s economic crisis persists, and more Lebanese citizens require assistance, many of them continue to believe that refugees are receiving more support from humanitarian actors, even if certain aid organisations do assist host communities and aim to reduce negative competition over resources between Lebanese and refugee groups. These beliefs have exacerbated tensions between refugees and host communities and have further propagated anti-refugee narratives and sentiments. Nonetheless, until recently, Lebanon upheld the non-refoulement principle for close to a decade, and continues to host the highest per capita number of refugees in the world as states in the Global North continue their selective approaches to refugee and asylum management. Despite these efforts, the deteriorating quality of life in Lebanon has still pushed migrants and refugees to risk their lives on mixed migration journeys.

With their own selective and discriminatory refugee and migrant policies, countries in the Global North continue to claim that refugees are a financial burden and consequently severely restrict the number of refugees they will accept. This approach of course has not been without exception—particularly when viewed by the Global North as a strategic priority or interest. A clear example of this was the European Union’s open-armed response to the exodus of millions of people from Ukraine after Russia invaded the country in February 2022, an approach indicative that when there is the political will to do so, international refugee law can in fact be upheld. Many European governments with a history of uncompromising stances toward refugees from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan in recent years have adopted a decidedly different tone in pledging to protect, integrate, host and support their refugee neighbours, with the EU activating its Temporary Protection Directive in 2021 for the benefit of Ukrainians, the first time the directive had been activated since its adoption 20 years earlier. Ultimately, this raises the question of whether or not the refugee crisis is in fact a crisis of numbers, or a crisis of identity.

In contrast to many international conflicts, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ignited a visible outpouring of support for those fleeing the violence. Despite Ukraine not being part of the EU, in a statement, the European Commission expressed that the EU was “well prepared” to absorb Ukrainian refugees as a matter of “unity” and “solidarity.” This experience has highlighted not only the dimensions of political will associated with the applicability of international refugee law, but also the selectivity of the refugee regime, particularly in the Global North. Importantly, it sheds light on how this impacts broader discourse on humanitarian intervention, conflict management, discrimination, movement and access.

With aid pledges intended to restrict the number of migrants and refugees who reach its shores, Europe in particular has attempted to absolve itself of responsibility for sheltering many vulnerable groups, leaving it to countries in the developing world, like Lebanon, to step up to meet refugee needs to the limited extent possible. As Lebanon continues to adhere to an “invisibility bargain,” whereby refugees and vulnerable migrant groups are present and tolerated in a country so long as they contribute to the economy, do not cause economic losses and remain politically, civically and socially invisible, conversations on durable solutions for these groups remain out of reach. The presence of Palestinians, Syrians, other refugee groups and MDWs in Lebanon for decades has not only economically embedded them into Lebanese society, but has also rendered them as important stakeholders in its ongoing economic, labour and social crises. Marginalising these groups, and the insistence on maintaining aid-centred rather than development-centred approaches to their livelihoods not only prevents Lebanon’s socio-economic standing from advancing, but additionally impacts the country’s host community negatively.

Nonetheless, Lebanon demonstrates what can be done to protect individuals fleeing conflict with very little resources and, importantly, with very little management and vision. Within a mere two months of its invasion by Russia, six million people had fled Ukraine. It took close to a decade for the Syrian conflict to produce the same number of refugees. Yet somehow, Syrians and refugees fleeing the MENA region have posed much more of a “shock” to the EU system. As the Global North continues to grapple with what it has deemed a “refugee crisis” for years now, its actions ultimately exacerbate pressures and therefore the number of migrants and refugees reaching their shores. Meanwhile, the Global South continues to offer a clear example of how the non-refoulement principle is upheld—even when resources and capacities to adequately respond to needs are limited.