The Protests in Lebanon Three Months After

By Moe Ali Nayel and Lamia Moghnieh   November 7, 2015 published first on New Politics. Click here for original link.


A reading of police coercive strategies, emerging social movements and achievements


By Moe Ali Nayel and Lamia Moghnieh   November 7, 2015


In response to the failure of the state to manage and dispose of accumulated trash, a series of protests erupted in Lebanon in August 2015 demanding the toppling of the Lebanese corrupt regime and the basic rights for water, electricity and a clean healthy environment. This article provides an overview of the strategies used by the state to dismantle the protest movements, a class reading of the social movements three months into the protests, and an analysis of the strengths and achievements of the demonstrations.


This regime is bad for: 1-Refugees; 2-Migrant workers; 3- LGBTQ, signed by the popular student movement, Lebanese University (source: Moe Ali Nayel)

The strategies of the state, its police and paramilitary branches in targeting activists and protest movements

The regime adopted multiple strategies to contain and dismantle the protests and shift public understanding of the protesters. These tools, visible in contingent interactions during the protests, in arrests conducted and in political statements, were all undeniably informed by the massive wave of NGO-ization of Lebanese security state institutions and apparatuses after the July war in 2006, and the rehabilitation, trainings, coordination and conferences on security and anti-terrorism issues organized for various Lebanese security sectors by foreign states. Various professionalized and ‘under the counter’ coercive and containment techniques have been adopted in these protests in Lebanon.

The classic trilogy: ‘Ghareeb, Ta’ati, Irhab’ (Foreigners, drugs & terrorism)

In his effort to discredit the legitimacy of the protests, Lebanese interior minister Nouhad El Machnouk relied on a classic trilogy that represented the protesters as drug addicts and non- Lebanese who are manipulating the protests for ulterior motives, like terrorism and implementing a foreign agenda. The irony of these accusations did not go unnoticed in a state that is literally and materially functional primarily because of foreign money and agendas. The interior ministry and its apparatus addressed the presence of moundasseen, or infiltrators, among the protesters, claiming that police have arrested Syrians and Sudanese nationals, as well as ‘drug addicts’ in the protests, while media sources hinted at the presence of ISIS enthusiasts planning terrorist attacks. These familiar categories are how the Lebanese regime understood and treated disobedience in times of social and political anxieties and violence.

The ideology of Al-Ghareeb, or the foreigner non-Lebanese, has been evoked to instigate fear, mistrust and recreate an insider/outsider binary. Al Ghareeb has always been highly racialized in the Lebanese discourse. Al Machnouk’s insistence on the Syrian and the Sudanese as the main infiltrators in the protests should not go unnoticed. Both racialized bodies are refugees and asylum seekers in Lebanon, and have been part of the Lebanese labor force. In recent years, with the influx of Syrian refugees into the country, the Lebanese state have used ‘the Syrians’ as a scapegoat category for almost every occurring problem, from lack of water, electricity, to the dearth of  jobs. Sudanese asylum seekers have been engaging in a strike outside of UNHCR offices which they accuse of racism and discriminatory treatment, under severe conditions and bullying from both UNHCR and the police. Both black bodies — and we use black here inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s deconstruction of blackness in “Between the World and Me” (2015) as a category foremost implicated in the national dream of what it means to be Lebanese and the racialized ideology of the state vis-à-vis its residents– are highly managed and abused by the police and army. Both are not allowed to protest for their rights and are made to be invisible except when evoked as infiltrators. The use of the Syrian and Sudanese bodies works to evoke foreignness and terror, while justifying the excess of force and governance by the police.


Violence and the protests: military courts in a democratic state

Another strategy used by the interior ministry consists of portraying the protests as unsafe and violent, and protesters as irresponsible rioters, to extend its own “legitimate” use of violence in the protests. This was intensified by the coordination with paramilitary forces in the form of armed civilians kidnapping protesters and beating them up. In Akkar for example, armed civilians opened fire to dismantle a protest against the opening of garbage dumps, wounding five people.

More institutionalized and professionalized practices of detainment, such as the opening of temporary detention centers, were adopted, while less familiar maneuvering strategies were employed by riot police during protests, exhausting the protesters and depleting their spirit. However, police violence and detainment techniques seem to suddenly break away into “street violence” in other protests, with videos showing riot police throwing stones at protesters, following them in the street with tanks, and shooting disproportionate amounts of teargas directly at them, instead of into the air. One protester, Mohamad Kassir, suffered from full body paralysis when shot with a teargas canister from a point blank range on the night of the August 23rdprotest. Many other protesters have also been wounded. So far preliminary data show that approximately 250 people have been, arrested, 54 of them were referred to military court for trials. Among these were ten underage protesters. Al Machnouk have justified the excess of violence by claiming that the protesters have a desire to be beaten and arrested.

What is disquieting is the random arrests of protesters and activists convicted and tried in military, rather than civil, courts under the pretext of disturbing “civil peace,” attacking military hardware, and the barbed wire placed to prevent protesters from reaching the parliament and the government palace.

Three months of civil protests: a class reading of civil movements’ strategies, anxieties and of the abrupt fall of the momentum

The protests that engulfed Beirut were met with repressive measures by state security. which sparked and galvanized nationwide popular outrage. However, that revolutionary spark was gradually tamed by the sectarian-capitalist establishment and abandoned by the organizers of the street movement that became known as the Harak (mobility). In order to understand the current stalemate it’s noteworthy to point out how the so-called Harak is governed by middle-class anxieties and privileges that when threatened took on de-escalation tactics and deflated what could have turned into a historical event in the history of modern Lebanon.

Following the brutal attacks by state security against protesters there was a juncture when protests climaxed and became a force capable of creating a dent in the Lebanese political system. At that juncture the Lebanese political sectarian mafia felt intimidated by protesters who in their peaceful persistence turned into a raging fireball that awakened a portion of the dormant Lebanese consciousness. The peaceful method of the protests was a unique phenomenon in a Lebanon governed by daily organized violence.  Thus, the dysfunctional Lebanese state that was being condemned on the street turned into a highly functional and efficient repressive machine orchestrated by minister of interior Nohad al-Mashnouk, funded trained and equipped by foreign aid programs.

By curbing the sentiment on the street from an uprising into a Harak, NGO-oriented activists proved that they were not fit to handle the fireball they had created; their organizational methods were inconsistent with the revolutionary spirit that united people in one protest. As pressure mounted on the streets people demanded a bigger scope of change; to topple the whole sectarian system. But protest organizers were reluctant to move towards such change and settled for merely protest organizing. Furthermore, the most prominent movements: We want Accountability, You-stink and other movements downsized their scope of action and gradually fell back from crude street defiance into flash mob activities and “event” organizers. While the street was fidgety and anxious for more action its energy was drained by the extensive meetings held behind closed doors by the You-stink and We want Accountability movements vying for the forefront of public representation. Nevertheless, the street at this point was still ahead of organizers’ hesitance; to the organizers the street increasingly became too big to handle and seemed like it might really get things out of their hands and shake the sectarian system from its foundations. As a result of not matching the sentiments on the street, the backpedalling started, which created time and space for politicians and state authority to organize their ranks and respond to the rebellion on the streets with calculated coercive and containment tactics. This is when campaigners began their withdrawal from an ongoing street battle to topple the regime, to a battle for recycling trash and finding solutions for the corrupted state whose own corruption led to the trash crisis.

On the 23rd of August was the protest that exposed the classist colours of the You-Stink organizers who betrayed the street calling on state security to clean the protest of agent provocateurs while thousands of protesters stood their ground defying state repression. Approximately two million refugees and migrant workers in Lebanon face the worst forms of daily violence; however the emphasis on the “Gharib” by minister of interior and rumors spread by organizers about “infiltrators” eliminated the participation or even the suggestion of including refugees and migrant workers in protests. The classist aspect amongst protest organizers especially among the You-Stink movement has a) criminalised and alienated protesters who have come from low income areas with vengeance and stood up to police brutality during protests and b) supplied Lebanese politicians a pretext to delegitimize the protest for being “infiltrated by agent provocateurs,” simultaneously blocking the way for participation of migrant workers and refugees and serving further bogiemanization of the latter.

While in privately planned minimalist-protests prominent You-Stink activists acted violently in front of the cameras as they confronted state security; these were celebrated as heroic acts, but when this same violence was taken by ordinary and low income angry protesters they were called “infiltrators” and “undisciplined elements” by You-Stink activists. Then it became clear that you-stink activists wanted any direct action to go through their filters and get their approval: a move to monopolize the public image and representation of the protests, not an unusual occurrence in sectarian Lebanese politics.

When violence was perpetrated by protesters in general as a defense mechanism against repressive state security measures, then the reaction by the whole array of the sectarian polity and their media trumpets was that of shock and bafflement, as if Lebanon was an island of tranquility. The fact that the state has been devolving in a dysfunctional mode for decades is in itself a form of daily violence that led to angry resentments on the streets this last summer. Violence against refugees, domestic migrant workers, LGBT individuals and women is an ongoing violence that doesn’t raise an iota of the outrage voiced against “violent protesters.”

The major achievement of the protests is that it has created cracks in the sectarian bubbles and some people have started leaking out to meet their counterparts andrealize that everything is in fact common, that they are all victims of the same repressive social order. The patriarchal sectarian blinders fell in the street.  That’s why it’s imperative for the street movement to abandon the Harak mentality and return to the uprising mode. Only an uprising could impose a real threat to the capitalist ruling elite and the sectarian lords, while simultaneously creating confidence in the street to empower those undecided citizens still stuck inside their sectarian bubbles, who need to defect and leak out to the street.  That’s why it’s erroneous to wait for a corrupt establishment to come up with solutions or even feel morally pressured by the Harak’s tactics and reform. The make-them-wait-promise-to-keep-them-waiting approach is what the Lebanese have had in the last 25 years; Mafioso politicians will only feel intimidated if their own thievery was directly threatened and when their own timid constituencies find an alternative to their hegemonic sectarian social order.

And so the street movement has sunk into a frustrated feeling of defeat as a result of the Harak’s inaction and de-escalation tactics. The biggest mistake was committed while the climax on the street was at its peak; the organizers who led the protests failed to embrace and organize those outraged on the streets who had just abandoned their sectarian social bubbles. Those dissident individuals who dared to defect from the social hegemony of family authority and broke away from the sectarian political identity that governs their social relations needed a safe Haven.

The Harak’s weakest point is the fact that on an organizational level its ranks are dominated by middle-class activists steeped in an NGO mentality, and as a result the revolutionary mood on the street was taken hostage by their middle-class anxieties.  Seeing that the street swelled with angry protesters making demands beyond the scope of action that was planned by the organizers of You-Stink, the Harak then de-escalated its measures of direct action. Worse, the campaigners switched their modus operandi into exclusive and elitist-looking attempts, seeking media stunts rather than taking the uprising to the next level, thereby nipping in the bud the revolutionary character of the protests. The toxic elitist sentiment lies within decision-making circles that kept on meeting behind closed doors away from the street and missed the chance of establishing an open sit-in at Riad al-Solh that could function as a shelter, a place of belonging, a visible ongoing body of the protest and a safe haven reclaiming public space. Secular activists who have had experience with and a history of street protests and organization have failed to open the doors of the streets or/and secure them – to embrace first-time protesters who flowed onto the streets since August 22. Many young individuals who had just abandoned their traditional habitats at the risk of severing their familial/social-sectarian ties joined their peers in the streets denouncing the defeatism of their parents’ generation. They needed an alternative to embrace them, but that alternative did not match their needs.

It’s precisely this type of middle-class anxieties that reproduce the system within the protest movement itself. The two major movements that were born out of public resentments against trash and corruption,You-Stink and We want Accountability, became the two most dominant movements in the Harak. It increasingly seems that the way in which these two movements operate and politically differentiate themselves from the other have placed them at the risk of slipping into a polarization that resembles the political mode of March 8 and March 14 political blocs, the political alliances that were formed following the withdrawal of Syrian security from Lebanon in 2005.

At present, autumn’s arrival has cooled down the atmosphere in Beirut. The sentiment in the street seems to be back to square one, but not without its symbolic achievements. The backtracking from movements’ organizers into tactical gambling to solve the trash crisis deflated the revolutionary enthusiasm that created a momentary existential threat to the Lebanese political order. Middle-class activists who are at the risk of missing a historical chance to change the lethal Lebanese political equation ought to realize that it’s only a matter of time until their middle-class privileges that they cling to are eventually going to vanish by the political establishment they hesitated to topple.

The shaking of the patriarchal discourse and political cynicism: reconfiguring hope & political action

Perhaps the undeniable strength of the protests so far rests in their ability to put an end to the cynicism and helplessness reigning over conversations and actions for change in Lebanon, thereby producing political hope in the ability to dismantle the Lebanese corrupt structure. The personal-emotive transformations experienced by activists and non-activists alike, and the possibility of imagining something new, have created a stimulating platform for political and social debates. One slogan held in the protests “A revolution on the life we live with (the help of) drugs and pills,” portrays this personal revolution over slow and structural death in a stagnant system.


A revolution over the life we live with drugs and pills (Source: Al Manshour)

The protests have also caused a crack in the discourse and esthetics of power itself. This is visible in the state’s rhetoric and arguments against corruption that are no more convincing. Ministers and state leaders are ridiculed and mocked in the protests. Intellectuals are challenged publically and accused of being paternalistic.

In a counter move, the regime attempted once again to attack the authenticity of the protests on the basis of morals, manners and the esthetics of protesting. They filed lawsuits against name defamation, arrested activists under the pretext of disrespecting the flag and nation. Not everything of course has been challenged. The sacredness of certain political leaders and parties, notably Hezbollah, remained mostly unchallenged and undebatable while protesters try to advance the idea of “All means All,” that everyone is corrupt and needs to be held accountable.

However, social movements have yet to offer new forms of political action and expression. Many of the protests have been incorporated into sometimes outdated and a politically insignificant way of doing politics & protesting. Protests have been turned into a media spectacle, constricted by recycled speeches and old political music that has lost the ability to express the present. A rise in nationalism is also noticeable, where many times there is an intentional forgetting of Palestinians, Syrians and foreign migrant workers and maids who also have crucial demands and rights in the country they reside in and are as affected by the same system if not more severely.

The feminist bloc, a feminist platform for groups and activists that emerged as a result of the protest to provide feminist solidarity and secure a safe space in the protests for women and gender-minority groups to express their opinions and demands, has been marching in the protests under the slogan of “the patriarchal regime kills.” This is a good example of these practices of challenging and revealing what lies inside the Lebanese discourse of power. The bloc’s chant “I want to dance, I want to sing and I want to topple the system” can be read as a double commentary on the freedom of women to occupy the streets, but also as challenging hegemonic male-centered ways of doing politics and protesting, signaling the need to challenge and take back the streets and protests re-appropriated by “the Lebanese male activist” and recycled activist forms of political expressions.


Pianist flees Yarmouk camp for Germany

My latest with Electronic Intifada 

Aeham Ahmed, the Yarmouk camp pianist. Laila Ben Allal
Aeham Ahmed, the Yarmouk camp pianist. Laila Ben Allal


Aeham Ahmed, a young pianist, used to roam the desolate streets of Yarmouk refugee camp — described by the United Nations Secretary-General as the “deepest circle of hell” in Syria earlier this year.

Aeham colored the bleak camp with his melodies. But at the start of September the 28-year-old Palestinian fled the country along with thousands of others, seeking refuge in Europe.

A husband and father of two little boys, Aeham is known as the singing bird of Yarmouk. The camp was home to the largest community of Palestinians in Syria before tens of thousands left the camp after it was bombed by government forces and infiltrated by rebel fighters in December 2012.

The musician has now reached Europe and is planning to continue playing the piano. In the streets and on the stages of his new refuge, he says, he’ll be “singing for Palestine, for Yarmouk and for injured Syria.”

I first made contact with Aeham over Faceook one year ago. Back then, he refused to leave Yarmouk, despite months of siege without enough food, and no electricity or water. He was focused on composing music and writing lyrics urging Palestinian refugees to return to the camp.

One song, “O refugees come back,” goes: “O displaced come back, the travelling has been far too long.”

His songs were a salve to those who were unable to flee. His story was also a beacon of hope outside of Yarmouk, as videos of him performing in the camp’s bombed-out streets were shared widely on the Internet.

Since then the violence in Syria has worsened, and Aeham’s world has deteriorated.

His heart was broken earlier this year as he watched fighters from the Islamic State, who invaded and seized areas of the camp in April, set fire to his beloved piano. They told him that music was forbidden.

This only inflamed the young pianist who persevered and kept the music going.

He resumed playing on a basic plastic keyboard, shouting out his lyrics. Each verse was spat out like a fireball, retaliating against the brutality all around him. Over and over again, he sang songs that were specially composed for Yarmouk, songs that were created to keep some semblance of hope alive.

Aeham and his family ultimately fled to Damascus. After three months of contemplating the long walk to Europe, Aeham entrusted his wife and two boys to extended family in nearby Yalda, south of Damascus, so that they could follow later when he had established himself in Europe.

At the start of September, Aeham’s journey began.

Aeham had to pay a large sum of money to reach Homs, then Hama, then Aleppo in Syria’s north. From there he headed towards Turkey.

“Here is Yarmouk”
On 11 September Aeham posted on Facebook photos of himself surrounded by pine trees. The caption read: “On the smuggling road, O mother, my ties were severed. On the Syrian-Turkish border, here is Yarmouk.”

A week later I wrote to Aeham. To my surprise he replied instantly. Aeham’s voice message was filled with exhaustion and uncertainty: “I’m well, brother, I just need to catch my breath; the road is long,” he said. “I’m in Greece right now and getting ready to leave.”

He was hoping to catch an eight-hour bus ride to Serbia.

Fans and friends in Europe have tried to help Aeham.

Laila Ben Allal is a photojournalist who visited Yarmouk last May but didn’t get the chance to meet Aeham.

Laila is one of numerous sympathizers who had responded to his plight, moved by images of Aeham pushing his piano on his uncle’s vegetable cart in Yarmouk.

On 23 September, Aeham’s voice was heard again. Like his old piano, he was vibrating with hope.

“Aeham has reached Munich,” Laila told me.

Laila met Aeham on the Austrian border as he crossed on foot into Germany. Full of excitement in the back seat of the car, the piano player sang his first song in Europe. He celebrated by saluting Yarmouk camp and its displaced residents.

He sang: “From Munich, Yarmouk loves you O brother
To the one living in New York, Yarmouk loves you O brother
And to those who are still steadfast in Yarmouk may God be with you O brothers.”

Muslims across the world recently observed Eid al-Adha. It was the first time that Aeham spent the holiday away from his family.

On such occasions it is the custom for elders to give children a gift of money to spend in celebration.

Aeham’s gift this year was that of hope: for a safe and stable life when he reunites with his wife and children.

Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. Follow him on Twitter: @MoeAliN.

الراب في شوارع بيروت

Arabic article I wrote for Ma3azef مقالي الاول في الكتابة العربية نشر على موقغ معازف 


في الثامن من شهر آب/ أغسطس الماضي، أُقيمت حفلة شد عصب على خشبة مسرح مترو المدينة. قصدتُ الحفلة تلك الليلة مدفوعاً بفضول حول اختيار عنوان الحفل، ومتسائلاً عن الفكرة التي جمعت الرابرجية السبعة: من لبنانالراس (طرابلس)، وناصر الدين الطفار (بعلبك). من سوريا السيّد درويش (حمص)، ووتر من (دمشق)، والأصلي (دير الزور). ومن مخيم اليرموك فتحي رحمة الملقّب بـ ال محراك، ورائد غنيم ، الأصغر سناً بينهم. في حديثي معهم عبّر الرابرجية عن حاجة لشدّ عصب الروح الجماعيّة، في وقت تخيّم فيه الخيبة والشعور باليأس على الشباب العربي. انتقلت لطرح الأسئلة على جمهور الحفلة الذي تجمّع خارج صالة مسرح المترو. أجابت فتاة في مطلع العشرينيّات: “أنا نصف سوريّة ونصف يمنيّة، وكان مفهوم الهويّة والانتماء مُعضلة بالنسبة لي، لمْ أستطعْ تقديم إجابة واضحة لأحد. لكن، حين دخل الراب العربي إلى عالمي، تكلّم عن ذات الأفكار التي كانت تدور في رأسي، وعجزت عن صياغتها. الراب العربي منحني مفهوماً واضحاً لهويتي”. ثمّ أضاف شاب، كان في جوارنا، يشف البيرة ويسترِق السمع إلى ما قالته الفتاة “بسمع راب لأنّه كلمتين نضاف أحسن من ميّة جريدة وسخة”.

El-Rass's lyrics and other hip-hop artists took over the walls of down-town Beirut during the protests.
El-Rass’s lyrics and other hip-hop artists took over the walls of down-town Beirut during the protests.

بدأ الحفل ولساعتين متواصلتين، كانت الصالة ممتلئة، تهتزّ وتتموّج مع كلّ أغنية. في نهاية الحفل وصل الجمهور إلى قمّة اندماجه، لتتحوّل الأمسية إلى مظاهرة صغيرة. وفعلاً، في اليوم التالي انطلقت مظاهرة في بيروت تنادي بفساد الطبقة الحاكمة، وفشلها بالتعامل مع أزمة القمامة التي اجتاحت شوارع لبنان. لا شك أن جمهور حفل “شد عصب” أكملَ مظاهرته الصغيرة مع حشد اليوم التالي.

تتابعت الأحداث في بيروت، واشتدت أزمة النفايات؛ لتكون سبباً في ارتفاع وتيرة التظاهر والاحتجاج، حتّى وصلت إلى المطالبة بإسقاط النظام السياسي_المالي_الطائفي. وحينما توسعت شرارة الامتداد الثوري في الثاني والعشرين من شهر آب/ أغسطس، قامتْ السلطات بإفلات قوى مكافحة الشغب، المدربة على يد الأمريكيّين – كبرنامج ضمن برامج المساعدات التي تمنحها الولايات المتحدة للبنان –  لقمع التّظاهرة في وسط البلد1 بوحشيّة. كانت النتيجة أن توافدت أعداد كبيرة من المتظاهرين في اليوم التالي، متحديّة السلطة، رافعة شعارات الاستنكار، لقمع المتظاهرين.

في ذلك اليوم، كان الراب حاضراً بقوة. أمّا ذلك الجدار الإسمنتيّ، الذي أقامته قوات الأمن، للفصل بين المتظاهرين ومقر الحكومة، فلم يكن سوى جداريّة فنيّة للمتظاهرين، حيث كُتبت أيضاً عليه عبارة “حي على خير الشغب” المقتبسة من أغنية الدرويش وناصر الدين الطفار وهلوسايكليبو.

وعلى حائط في وسط البلد ذو الطابع البورجوازي، تم رش غرافيتي “الأرزة بلها وشراب ميتها دم” من أغنية الراس وناصر الدين الطفار لبنان ٢.

أما المشهد الذي عبّر عن ثِقل وأهميّة تأثير الراب العربي على وعي الشباب، وتقاطعه بشكل جذري مع صوت الشارع، كان برأيي مجموعة مؤلفة من أربعة شبان مراهقين، بعد احتداد وتيرة المواجهة بين المتظاهرين العزل وقوى مكافحة الشغب. إذ التفتوا، وسط انهمار قنابل الغاز المسيل للدموع، نحو مجموعة من شرطة حماية مجلس النواب، وصرخوا بكلمات ناصر الدين الطفار: “لما بدك تحكي بالناس الجوعانة جوع مرّة، قاتل إسرائيل لنصدق بدك رجوع، في حراميّة بتسترزق من الثورة وحراميّة عالمعس تنطر دورها”.

يمكن لهذا المشهد أن يلخّص مشهد الراب العربي، كطريقة تدفع الشباب العربي إلى الثورة ضد الأنماط المتوارثة من جيل أهالينا. خصوصاً إذا وضعناه بالتّباين مع الأغاني الثوريّة من حقبة الثمانينيّات، والتي لم يكن مرحّباً بها في تظاهرات بيروت الأخيرة. طريقة تعبير هؤلاء الشبان عن أنفسهم في وجه السلطة أكّد لي، وبعيداً عن انحيازي للراب، أنّه ثمّة طريقة لتبديل المستهلك، خاصة من خلال استعادة أهميّة اللغة العربيّة عبر استنباط التقليد الشعريّ ووضعه بتصرف الجميع.


Roundtable On Refugee Crisis: Historical Legacies, Political Context, and Legal Mechanisms

Took part in a Jadaliyya round table on refugees click here for original link.


Seemingly overnight Europe is confronted with a phenomenon already being experienced in Amman, Damascus, Beirut, Gaziantep and other cities in the Middle East: large numbers of desperate refugees fleeing war, destruction and economic destitution.

The policy response of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to this influx has come under deserved scrutiny. Still, whatever their faults these countries have hosted millions of refugees despite, in the cases of Lebanon and Jordan, strained resources and weak infrastructure. Fifty-five percent of the world’s refugee population today resides in the Middle East, making it home to the largest concentration of refugee populations globally. These include Palestinians, Sahrawis, Syrians and Iraqis, as well as Yemeni, Sudanese, and Somali refugees.

The response in much of Europe has been radically different than that in the Middle East. Several European states have shut their borders, forcing refugees to re-route elsewhere, and in some cases even halted domestic public transport networks to prevent refugees from traversing their territory. Together with the dramatic and horrifying images emanating from the shores of the Mediterranean, these policies have put the policies of governments and international organizations alike under increased scrutiny, and led to greater public pressure to provide a meaningful response.

To obtain further clarity on these issues, Jadaliyya asked four specialists on refugee issues to put recent developments in context and offer their views on how this crisis should be addressed. 

Lebanon winter 2014, Beqa'a Syrian refugees camp
Lebanon winter 2014, Beqa’a Syrian refugees camp


Susan M. Akram is a Clinical Professor of Law at Boston University School of Law. Her academic interests include immigration law, refugee law, and domestic and international refugee advocacy. She worked as an immigration lawyer before joining Boston University’s faculty in 1993, serving as the founding executive director of Boston’s Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project and the immigration project at Public Counsel, a public interest law firm in Los Angeles. She has taught as a Fulbright Scholar at Al-Quds University’s School of Law, and as a visiting professor at the American University of Cairo’s Forced Migration program. She has guest-lectured at Birzeit University’s law center, at the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre, and at the Graduate Institute at the University of Geneva. Her publications includeInternational Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Rights-Based Approach to Middle East Peace, (S. Akram, M. Lynk, I. Scobbie, & M. Dumper, eds. Routledge Press, 2010).

Yazan al-Saadi is a native of the West Asian (Middle East) region. Based primarily in Kuwait, Yazan has lived, studied and worked in three continents. He is a freelance writer and researcher with interests in a number of subjects from pop-culture to politics, sociological issues to economic theories. He is currently an editor and writer for the online blog Kabobfest and a correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper, Al Akhbar English. Yazan holds a Bachelor’s (Honors) degree in Economics and Development Studies from Queen’s University, Canada and a Masters of Arts in Law, Development, and Globalization from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon.

Angela Joya is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Department of International Studies at Oregon University. Dr. Joya’s research focuses on the impact of economic globalization on the Middle East and North Africa with a particular focus on Egypt and Syria. Her articles have appeared in academic journals such as: Review of African Political Economy, Research in Political Economy, and Middle Eastern Studies. She has contributed book chapters to Confronting Global Neoliberalism: Third World Resistance and Development Strategies (edited by Richard Westra, Clarity Press, 2011) and Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan (edited by Jerome Klassen and Greg Albo, University of Toronto Press, 2013).  She is currently preparing a manuscript tentatively titled The Political Economy of Egypt under Mubarak: Accumulation by Dispossession, Land Relations and Class Reconfigurations. In other research, Dr. Joya is examining the role of Islamist opposition parties and their struggle for power in Egypt and Syria. She has conducted fieldwork in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Turkey.

Jadaliyya (J): Has there been a real surge in refugee outflow to Europe or is the media only now paying attention to an ongoing issue?

Susan Akram (SA): The flow of forced migrants has been ongoing into Greece and Italy for several years, but there has recently been a spike both in numbers and in the westward flow of forced migrants and refugees. Almost 500,000 people have crossed from the Mediterranean into Europe so far this year, and have defied efforts by peripheral European Union (EU) states, primarily Greece and Italy, to detain and prevent them from going farther into Europe.

Angela Joya (AJ): The world witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of refugees and displaced people since the nineties, however there has been a recent increase in the number of refugees linked to an escalation of the conflicts in Iraq and in Syria.

The Syrian conflict has added four million refugees to the 2014 global total of 11.6 million, bringing the number of refugees to over fifteen million . As a result, the number of asylum cases to Europe in 2014 increased bytwenty-five percent compared to 2013. At the same time, over the past year and a half, there has been a sharp rise in the number of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean during attempts to reach Europe. The recent shocking images of lifeless bodies of children on the shores of Turkey and Greece have forced the media to pay serious attention to the refugee crisis, and generated pressure on governments and policy makers to produce a response to the crisis.

Moe Ali Nayel (MAN): The recent focus on refugees fleeing to Europe is the result of a combination of factors. First, the media only truly woke up to this phenomenon during the summer tourist season in Greece, with some British media outlets conveying condescending inconveniences voiced by British tourists.

Then the crisis became a ratings race so that even Lebanese media, whose coverage has generally overlooked the plight of the 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, sent correspondents to Hungary to cover the flow of refugees to the European Union (EU). One Lebanese correspondent sent to cover the chaos had just made a bigoted comment the day before saying, “I want to see Lebanese people in Lebanon.” So while part of the current media focus has to do with television ratings and viewer traffic, it is also a historical event of massive human migration that cannot be ignored.

Yazan Al-Saadi (YAS): The recent upsurge in refugees to Europe is both real and a matter of the media finally spotlighting the story. Let me explain.

There is a very real increase in refugee populations heading to Europe. The available data shows that by mid-2015 the number of refugees heading to Europe, estimated at 350,000, had already surpassed the estimated total of 280,000 for all of 2014. So while the increase is real, the numbers also indicate this has been an ongoing phenomenon. The recent iconic picture of the drowned toddler captured media attention, and we’ve seen an abundance of stories about refugees/migrants going to Europe. But the problem is that this is being presented mainly as a new or unprecedented crisis. This does not match historical and recent records. There have been refugees and migrants going to Europe for a variety of reasons for many years. At least for now the Syrian crisis brought this marginalized story into the foreground.

J: Are Syrian refugees fleeing directly from Syria or from neighboring countries where they previously sought shelter? Is it primarily Syrians that are migrating or are there significant numbers of refugees from other countries?

SA: There are several factors that explain the two phenomena (greater numbers and westward flow from the EU perimeter states): the first is that the capacity of frontline host states to provide assistance to refugees from Syria has been exceeded. The second is that Italy and Greece can no longer accommodate the Dublin regulations, which require processing claims for asylum in the territory of the first EU member state entered by a refugee.

On the first point, it is important to remember that Turkey has registered 1.9 million refugees from Syria; Lebanon, 1.13 million; and Jordan 700,000–these figures reflect registered refugees, while the actual number in each of those countries is estimated to be much higher. The absorption capacity of each of these countries to provide assistance and protection to refugees has been far exceeded–even in Turkey, which is the largest and most economically stable of these host states. Jordan is among the most water-stressed countries in the world, and does not have the basic infrastructure to house more refugees. In Lebanon at this point, almost one in four residents is a refugee. The Syrian refugees are moving from these host states– where their needs can no longer be met, they are unable to work to support themselves, and their children and youth face a bleak future–to the states that offer the best prospect for safety and a stable life. Unfortunately, that means taking perilous journeys to move beyond a region that is unable or unwilling to provide what they need in the medium to long-term, and heading to a few states in Europe that are promising a future, primarily Germany and the Nordic states.

On the second point, the framework created by the 1985 and 1990 Schengen agreements, and the Dublin Conventions, particularly Dublin II (2003), have created a situation where the EU state in which refugees first arrive is obliged to process their asylum claims on its territory. In the Schengen states, the asylum process is placed on one member state based on certain factors. This framework has created what is often called “Fortress Europe,” in which the peripheral states bear the bulk of the refugee burden, preventing refugees from moving elsewhere even for reasons such as family reunification. The Dublin/Schengen obligations have created enormous tensions between the peripheral and central EU states because the peripheral states cannot absorb the numbers that are entering EU territory by themselves. This explains the responses of countries like Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovenia, which are trying to stop the flow from Serbia (which is not an EU member) and Croatia (an EU member that is not part of the Schengen agreement), in order to avoid the obligations to process asylum claims in their states.

Finally, the forced migrants are not just from Syria, but also other states with unresolved conflicts that are continuing to create refugees: Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the top refugee-producing countries after Syria. These non-Syrians have been hosted in the Middle East region, as well, but have also been unable to secure adequate assistance and protection, and are leaving the region for much the same reasons as Syrians.

AJ: According to the Economist, there were at least sixty million persons displaced due to conflict in 2014. In the period between 2013 and 2014, the number of refugees globally grew from 11.6 million to 14.4 million (a figure excluding 5.1 million Palestinian refugees). Forcible displacement of populations and refugee crises are the outcome of civil wars in Africa and Central America, and direct or indirect military interventions in the Middle East, namely in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Refugee crises in the Middle East spiked as a result of the military interventions carried out as part of the so-called global war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. As of 2013, three million Iraqi refugees have left the country due the escalation of violence and lack of security. The number of Syrian refugees has now surpassed that of Afghanistan’s 2.59 million, reaching four million. In addition to refugees who have left Syria, there are an additional eleven million who are internally displaced.  Of the four million Syrian refugees, the majority are in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.   To reflect the scope of the global refugee crisis, many now describe it as an unprecedented “mass exodus” of people across the globe.

Most refugees look to Europe as their final destination with prospects for work, a better education, a health care system and, above all, safety. However, due to the very large numbers, many cannot apply for asylum at the embassies of EU member states in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon, forcing those who want to move to Europe to take their chances by various sea or land routes: the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey and Libya to Greece or Italy, and into eastern Europe on foot. Refugees trying to reach Europe are faced with physical hardships, crossing countries on foot, dealing with human smugglers, facing unfriendly borders and hostile border guards, and a real chance of being deported. With social media, images and videos of refugees’ struggles to get to Europe have become a daily reality that cannot be simply ignored. Concerned with refugees plight, many citizen-led campaigns (i.e. #WelcomeRefugees) in support of refugees have been launched globally, welcoming refugees, in spite of their governments’ efforts to block refugees’ entry. The public campaigns seem to have pressured governments and forced policy makers to address the crisis.

MAN: The most recent refugee flight to Europe started in 2012. Before that, it flowed  gradually and then suddenly spiked. The largest number of those seeking refuge are Syrians but there are many other nationalities as well. I think we have a continuous rise of push factors and a sharp rise of pull factors. One pull factor is the realization that the chances of staying in countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden are actually rather good. Less than perfect communication from European, including German,  immigration agencies has contributed to this perception. Thus people have gradually found out which countries are good to go to; someone knows a friend who made it to Sweden or Germany and got a free house and stipend and people start thinking of going there because it’s natural for people to seek better life conditions.

Other reasons also played into the growth of the critical mass movement to the EU. New routes were discovered; people share travel tips and advice; smugglers set up Facebook pages advertising their services; refugees who successfully obtain asylum display the stable living conditions they have achieved on social media. Others of course follow in their footsteps and the flow increases exponentially.

The wave of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe was exacerbated by the strict measures Lebanon introduced to stem the entry of more Syrian refugees into its territory. The kafala (sponsorship) system introduced at the beginning of 2015, for example, made residency and mobility for Syrian refugees in Lebanon extremely difficult. Syrian refugees in Lebanon who have been depending on paltry assistance from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are experiencing extremely harsh living conditions. As their residencies expire they need a Lebanese sponsor to avoid getting arrested or deported. They have to tiptoe around curfews and endure being overworked and underpaid in order to survive from one day to the next. In addition, most of the poorest Syrian refugees took shelter among the most wretched and marginalized communities in Lebanon.

Inside Palestinian refugee camps with their already cramped living conditions, the influx of refugees from Syria exacerbated conditions for Syrian refugees, Palestinians from Syria, and Palestinians from Lebanese camps. Because of this, Palestinians from Lebanon have been increasingly taking the so-called “death boats” to Europe in the hope of finding a decent life. For Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon these days the quest for the bare minimum, which has gradually vanished or became unattainable in Lebanon, is all they contemplate.

This past summer, the situation in Syria made the situation hopeless for Syrians who had believed the war would be over soon. The economy continues to fail, and as a result a substantial number of people from government-controlled areas are fleeing Syria. Of course it goes without saying that the mass exodus of refugees walking to Europe on foot is not exclusively composed of Syrians but also includes Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Afghans and many countries across Africa.

YAS: There are multiple reasons for this “upsurge.” First, Syrians within Syria are fleeing the increase of violence. In many areas, the last couple of months have experienced the worst types of violence and destruction since the uprising began in 2011. Repression remains a fact of life for Syrians throughout Syria, and that forms an additional major motivating factor to leave. Moreover, Syrians are seeking better work and life opportunities since the country is going through massive economic instability due to sanctions, the war itself, and the continual forms of restrictions and corruption in both regime and opposition-held territories. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria make up the largest chunk of the Syrian refugee population, and I think they are starting to believe that they cannot continue as IDPs in this environment and are leaving in droves; first to neighboring countrie and, then elsewhere. After nearly five years, Syrians –those who are economically destitute as well as the  better off – are reaching the conclusion that the war in their country will not end anytime soon. They previously had hope that they would go back, but as the war has dragged on they are coming to terms that their circumstances in host states is not sustainable.

Secondly, Syrians outside of Syria, and especially those in neighboring states, are deciding to leave because they have been residing in exceedingly hostile spaces. I think it is in this context important to point out that such hostility is mainly promoted by host country governments and elites. There are increasing restrictions on refugee mobility and access to the labor market, along with growing difficulties in receiving aid.

Thirdly, and in my opinion most importantly, Syrians have no one to turn to for protection and representation of their interests and needs. No one is communicating with, coordinating with, or organizing the Syrian refugees, neither the Syrian regime nor the Syrian opposition. Neither the Syrian regime nor the Syrian opposition have challenged or condemned the abuses facing Syrians in host countries. Neither the Syrian regime nor the Syrian opposition have provided any type of support infrastructure. This lack of true representation for Syrian communities has left them to fend for themselves. Even worse, the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition have only added to the problems, such as Syrian regime media recent fear-mongering about terrorists going to Europe, and the blatant silence of the Syrian opposition regarding Arab Gulf countries’ restrictions on asylum for Syrian refugees.

To date, Syrians form the largest proportion of those heading to Europe. Last year they constituted over seventy percent and this year they comprise over fifty percent of the migrating population. They are followed by Eritreans, whose dismal plight is completely ignored by the media and “international community.” This serves as a reminder that it is not simply about Syrian refugees; even though they are significant in terms of numbers this sea of humanity includes Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghanis, Sudanese, Somalis, Libyans and others. I expect that Yemenis will contribute a significant number of migrants to Europe over the next few years as well, considering the horrific levels of violence unleashed against Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition over the course of the past six months.

J: How do you assess the policy response of the European Union, United States, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to the refugee crisis?

SA: EU leaders have proposed accepting no more than 160,000 refugees between them as part of “mandatory quotas”, which if accepted would be a very small step in the right direction. Taking into account the huge numbers that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have been hosting since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011 this number, to be allocated amongst the far larger and wealthier EU states, represents a tiny percentage of the Syrian refugee flow of about four million. The EU states are overwhelmingly parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention and a series of refugee, subsidiary and temporary protection directives that require responsibility sharing amongst them for refugees and persons in “refugee-like” situations which prohibit their deportation to their home countries. It is unclear to me why the EU bodies have not triggered, for example, the EU 2001 Temporary Protection (TP) Directive, which would require all member states to accept persons meeting the criteria for at least one year under the TP framework, and provide them the right to work and assistance pending resolution of the conflict.

AJ: Responses to the global refugee crisis and the recent surge in Middle Eastern refugees has been at best half -hearted. While Middle Eastern countries (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon) have accepted most recent refugees, Europe, North America and Australia have avoided opening their borders or considering accepting large numbers of refugees.

Within Europe responses are varied. Southern European countries Italy and especially Greece, being the point of entry to the EU, have had to deal with thousands of refugees on a daily basis despite their own harsh financial circumstances.

Northern European countries have reacted positively to the refugee crisis by opening their borders and welcoming refugees. For instance, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced the acceptance of up to 800,000 refugees. However, in addition to slashing benefits and adopting tough measures to facilitate deportations, as of 12 September 2015 Germany closed its borders. Sweden started taking in Syrian refugees in 2013. In 2014 it accepted 100,000, and continues to remain a welcoming place for refugees. It is a different story in the case of Central European countries such as Hungary and Romania. The journey through these countries to get to Germany or Sweden remains perilous.  Central European countries are acting as gatekeepers for Europe’s Schengen area (within which EU citizens can move freely without passport checks). The treatment of refugees in run-down World War II era camps and cages in these countries is raising serious concern about the human rights of refugees and the responsibility of EU member states, the United Nations (UN) and North American governments to protect refugees. What is even more alarming is the xenophobia and anti-Muslim discourse of officials who openly state they will not accept Muslims or allow them to pass through their territory. Hungary sees its role as the protector of a Christian Europe.

With Sweden, Germany and Greece remaining the exceptions, most other countries in the EU and North America view refugees, especially those from Arab and/or Muslim countries, through the lens of the war on terror and thus treat them as unworthy victims. The Anglophone countries (the United Kingdom, US, Canada, Australia) have a bad track record when it comes to refugees’ treatment and acceptance rate. The UK government for instance initially refused entry to refugees despite public pressure. The government has publicly defended this policy by shifting attention to their aid policy for refugees in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Under pressure from the EU and the United Nations, the UK has agreed to absorb 20,000 refugeesover the next five-year period. A reflection of its anti-refugee policy, the UK’s most recent response has been to deploy a Royal Navy frigate to “board, seize and divert” refugee boats in the Mediterranean. This will make refugees’ life more difficult, forcing them to pursue land routes.

The hysteria of European leaders against refugees is completely misplaced given the low numbers that have applied for asylum in EU member states.  Only 0.25 percent of Syrian refugees, or 250,000, have applied for asylum in the EU. Denmark has engaged in an aggressive anti-refugee propaganda campaign and policy reforms to discourage refugees from arriving. France too has embraced a policy of limiting refugee access to services and amenities in France.

Shifting the focus back to the Anglophone countries of Australia, US and Canada, their collective response towards refugees has been dismal and pathetic. The US, which has been directly involved in military interventions that have produced the uprooting of populations in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, has not been welcoming to refugees from these countries.  Given the size of its economy, the US could easily absorb a significant number of refugees. Faith-based groups have started campaigning to bring 100,000 refugees to the US. Global pressure and coverage of the plight of refugees has forced even the US to reconsider their refugee policy. However, the most recent decision of Barack Obama, to admit 10,000 Syrians over the next year, falls short. Since the beginning of the Syria conflict in 2011, the United States has  accepted only 1,700 Syrians.

The Canadian government’s response was brought to the fore with the death of Aylan Kurdi, whose family had expressed a desire to resettle in Canada. The Canadian government changed its laws, which made it very difficult for refugees and asylum seekers to be accepted in the country, ranking Canada fifteenth in terms of treatment of asylum seekers. The Canadian government had agreed to admit 11,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017, but public pressure after the death of Aylan forced the government to increase that number by another 10,000.

Australia’s response to the global refugee crisis has been to erect camps on its own territory as well as in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Refugees whose asylum cases are rejected are then deported from these camps. Refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran, Sri Lanka and Iraq arrive by sea, many losing their lives and falling into heavy debts. Australia refers to refugees as “illegal maritime arrivals,” a phrase that not only criminalizes them but also takes away from the urgency of their circumstances and their need for asylum. Concerns have also been raised by critics about Australia’s treatment of refugees in detention camps.

In the Middle East, GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have been heavily involved in the Syrian conflict through their support for the Syrian opposition, have decided to keep their borders closed to refugees even though financially these countries can easily accommodate large numbers of Syrians and Iraqis. Instead, Saudi Arabia has stated that it will do its part by providing humanitarian for other Arab host countries.

Until recently, most media have represented refugees as poor, helpless individuals and families who want to settle in Europe and live on welfare, fanning xenophobia, racism and intolerance against refugees. The truth, as many of the refugees themselves have indicated, is that what draws them to Europe is the opportunity for work, a better education system and a future for their children. Restricting the free movement of people, whether they are fleeing war or economic hardship, will not make the problem go away. Desperate people will continue to risk their lives to get to Europe and secure a better life.

MAN: The EU and US responses have reflected their general approach to Syria since 2011: confused and contradictory. Germany has welcomed large numbers of refugees and pledged to accept more, only to recently shut its borders to manage the flow. Sweden by contrast was and continues to be considered a welcoming destination. Each European country has different policies. They don’t know what to do and the crisis is overwhelming them.  It bears recalling that the EU was considering preventing refugees from crossing the Mediterranean by bombing smuggling boats docked on the Libyan coast. Since 2012, Italy has stopped registering refugees and allowed them to continue to other EU states.

Given the way the refuges crisis is developing, we shouldn’t expect a common EU response to materialize anytime soon. Every country has different needs and absorptive capacities, and differing socio-political trends that may be more or less welcoming to refugees. Greece is financially bankrupt and Greeks might even soon join the stream of people flowing from Asia and Africa towards northern Europe.

As for the GCC countries they also bear responsibility in creating this massive refugee crisis; the millions of petrodollars they poured into the Syrian conflict displaced millions of Syrians. GCC funding of the war in Syria is disproportional in comparison with their contribution to aid and relief programs. Their reluctance to take in refugees reflects the fact that GCC countries have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and, thus, place severe restrictions on any foreign resident, refugee or otherwise.

YAS: In assessing the policy (non-)responses of the European Union, United States, and GCC, the first thing that strikes me is the incredible similarity of the anti-refugee discourse in all of these regions.  They all speak of the various “threats” the refugee/migrant population pose to their societies, from security to economic to cultural.

The misery and destruction that fuels “refugeeness” cannot be disconnected from the political, economic, and military policies pursued by the EU, US, and GCC. This does not mean the Syrian regime and its allies do not share responsibility. They do, big time. But let us concentrate on the EU, US ,and GCC. What should be clear by now is that their policies towards Syria have prolonged the war in that country, while they have sought to ensure the fallout (in whatever form) does not reach their neighborhood. This is why, for example, they are obsessed with emphasizing the “large” amounts of aid they have been supplying to Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey.

This question actually touches on what should be very important issues for the twenty-first century: identity; the sustainability of borders and freedom of mobility for people; the need to scrutinize foreign policies consumed by militarization and the war on terror; and the destructive nature of the international capitalist system among other pressing questions. These questions have either been avoided on account of vested political/economic interests, or have been shelved due to incompetence or lack of political will.

What should also be noted is that the policies of the EU, US, and GCC are not really that new. They have always been hostile towards hosting refugee populations, thereby placing most of the burden on the “Global South”.

J: What should the international agencies such as Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and others be doing differently to address this crisis moving forward?

SA: Our report, Protecting Syrian Refugees: Laws, Policies and Global Responsibility-Sharing, discusses in great detail the obligations of states signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and other refugee and stateless instruments, towards refugees from Syria and elsewhere the region. The Report examines the laws and policies in place in the host states, in the EU, in Canada and North America, that require a range of admissions–temporary and long-term–to be provided for protection of the Syrian refugees. The report calls for initiating a Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), that would incorporate temporary protection, EU-based subsidiary protection and other forms of humanitarian admission and sponsored admissions, as well as an expansion of refugee resettlement directly from the region. The CPA framework is familiar to governments and migration experts, as it has been used in many similar refugee crises from the 1970s onwards. It helped resolve, for example, the Indochinese refugee flow during the 1970s and 1980s; the Central American conflict-induced refugee crises of the 1980s, and the Balkan refugee flow of the 1990s. The UNHCR Commissioner-General Antonio Guiterres and the UN’s Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, Francois Crepeau, have been among the prominent UN voices also calling for instituting a CPA. In fact, given the scope of this crisis–the Syrian refugees present the largest single refugee population since WWII–a CPA, with various forms of admissions possibilities and global responsibility-sharing is the only way forward.

AJ: A three-pronged response is required to deal with this crisis. Within the EU, an agreement needs to be reached for the safe transportation and relocation of refugees in member states. The period after the discontinuation of the Mare Nostrum Search and Rescue Services in October of 2014, which was replaced by Operation Triton, a program set up to act as border security for Europe and funded through voluntary contributions by European countries, witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of deaths in the Mediterranean. Reinstating Mare Nostrum or setting up a similar search and rescue effort funded by the EU would be a corrective and necessary first step to avoid more refugee deaths. To facilitate the resettlement of refugees in Europe, there is a need to change the existing laws related to refugees’ movement within Europe.

The recent call by the European Commission’s Jean-Claude Junker for a refugee quota among EU member countries is welcome and should be seriously considered. Given the uneven distribution of responsibility for refugees among EU members, there is a pressing need to discuss resource sharing and to support Greece to help with the refugees, their transportation and resettlement.

Second, the refugee crisis cannot be resolved by more bombing. Any bombing campaign is bound to cause more death, destruction and displacement. Instead, a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict through dialogue and diplomacy and through involvement of all parties to the conflict should be pursued. There are some signs of movement in the direction of diplomatic negotiations between US, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In the absence of a political solution the worst of the Syrian refugee crisis is yet to come.

Third, the current refugee crisis and the opening of space to debate policy on this issue should be viewed as an opportunity to construct a new policy that deals effectively with this crisis. A global policy is needed to address rising levels of global inequality and poverty rooted in decades of neoliberalism, and of military interventions, and their relationship to the increasing number of global refugees. This shift in policy could start in the short term by facilitating the safe transit of refugees, setting up offices with the capacity to process asylum claims within the Middle Eastern or other countries that are refugees’ first point of arrival, and pressuring governments European and North American governments to accept more refugees. To tackle the rising xenophobia and intolerance against refugees in Europe and to create a more welcoming attitude in North America, public awareness campaigns about the causes of displacement and the responsibilities of wealthier countries need to be promoted by the media.

A parallel effort should include an increase in the flow of humanitarian aid inside Syria to meet the urgent needs of those who are too poor to pay human traffickers to escape the country. This effort could also be supported by an increase in funds for groups such as Doctors without Borders who offer health services under very dangerous conditions.

MAN: It’s crucial that humanitarian agencies start drafting programs for long-term solutions and stop functioning as managers of bodies and calories. A transition toward a new model of organizing refugee support is desperately needed: a five-year plan should be drafted on how to transform refugees into productive participants in deciding their own fate and that of their countries. The UNHCR has a maximum eight-month planning horizon, in some cases less. But this needs time, perseverance, commitment and resources that are currently available but poorly managed and unfairly distributed. Refugees should become the champions of their own cause. They know what they want, but self-agency, it seems, doesn’t fit the “humanitarian” framework and political agendas governing the UNHCR and other NGOs.

YAS: There is a clear crisis within the international aid/relief system and how international agencies like UNHCR, UNRWA and others have been operating. We shouldn’t have been surprised about this crisis when taking into account the historical Palestinian experience with UNRWA.

Among the many problems of this system and these agencies is how they perceive and treat refugees. They inherently see them as one-dimensional victims. Yes, they are victims and are vulnerable. But they are not one-dimensional. These people have expertise, sentiments, ideas, needs, and desires that are being completely ignored. They are simply provided the barest and most basic forms of aid, and while this is undoubtedly important, they require much more.

This means that there needs to be a real reconfiguration of our understanding of who refugees are and what displacement means. We need much more sophisticated solutions that rely on input from the refugees themselves and that can be driven by refugees. This also means that the de-politicization of refugees and other vulnerable communities must be stopped, and they should be allowed to play an active role in solving their own problems. In the case of Syria, why not set up an organization for refugees by refugees that has a seat in the negotiations in Geneva or wherever, especially considering that neither the Syrian regime nor Syrian opposition are actually representing them?

Overall, there needs to be a transformation of the ideological underpinnings and practice of the international aid/relief system, and this region – the West Asian and North African territory – should be playing a major role in challenging and defining the contours of alternatives. I write this because our region has become the biggest source for refugees and migrants in the world, and has become heavily affected by the international aid/relief system (on top of the usual foreign military interventions, support for local repressive authorities, etc.). So how can we not play an important role in defining this system?

Quick Thoughts: Moe Ali Nayel on Lebanon’s Garbage Crisis and Protest Movement

With Jadaliyya

[On 22 August 2015, what had in previous weeks been a small protest against the breakdown in garbage collection in Beirut turned into a major anti-corruption demonstration calling for fundamental political and economic change in Lebanon. The protesters have been met with escalating repressive violence, and the movement has thus far caught both coalitions of the severely polarized political establishment by surprise. Jadaliyya asked Moe Ali Nayel, a Beirut-based journalist, to explain the background and current dynamics of the protest movement and the reactions of various groups.]

" Nohad Machnouk (minister of interior) thinks he is Chuck Norris"
” Nohad Machnouk (minister of interior) thinks he is Chuck Norris”

Jadaliyya (J): How and why did Lebanon’s “garbage crisis” develop, and why has it not yet been resolved?

Moe Ali Nayel (MAN): On 17 July 2015, the Lebanese government’s contract with the Sukleen company, which gave it exclusive rights for garbage collection in the country, expired. As a consequence trash collection services ceased. The Sukleen contract with the Lebanese government has its origins during the 1990s, in what many consider a non-competitive bidding process. Nevertheless, this contract has since been renewed several times, each time at a higher cost. This summer the government did not renew the contract on the grounds of excessive pricing. While the government has “considered” alternatives to Sukleen, it has yet to decide on one. There is an ongoing struggle between Lebanon’s various political blocs to promote business interests affiliated to them. Political maneuvering over whose company is going to win this lucrative contract is sustaining government inaction.

The above notwithstanding, business interests and political corruption are not the only roots of the crisis. Alongside the absence of a new government contract for garbage collection is the problem of waste management and disposal. Since 1997 garbage from Lebanon’s two most populous regions, Beirut and Mount Lebanon, has been dumped in an area known as Na‘ameh—a coastal town about twenty minutes south of Beirut. Since last year, area residents have been demanding the closure of this dumpsite on account of the ecological damage and health hazards it poses. Despite official promises to find an alternative to Na‘ameh, and its original designation as a temporary site, the government has not really done anything in this respect. So this summer residents of the Na‘ameh and surrounding villages blocked the road to the dumpsite.

In the wake of the crisis, Beirut’s trash is currently being dumped near the city’s harbor right next to the country’s wheat silos, and near the airport. Since these newly created garbage mountains attract flocks of birds, the flight paths used by airplanes to approach Beirut airport have had to be changed for safety reasons. Outside Beirut, trash still sits in piles on sidewalks and streets, or is being surreptitiously dumped in some of the country’s most marginalized areas. The most recent suggestion, by Interior Minister Nuhad Mashnuq, to dump Beirut’s garbage in the Akkar region of northern Lebanon in exchange for one hundred million dollars in development funds, backfired. It galvanized Akkar’s youth to stage a protest under the slogan, “Akkar is not a dumpster.”

J: What is the “You Stink” campaign, who leads it, and what is it seeking to achieve?

MAN: The “You Stink” campaign started out as a reaction to the most recent manifestation of the trash problem, when garbage piled up on the streets of Beirut in particular and Lebanon more generally. The movement was organized by civil society activists who have a stronger presence on social media than on the street. Nevertheless, their call for a protest campaign resonated with the public at large, and people responded by taking to the streets to denounce government paralysis and corruption. Up until 22 August, the campaign focused on a meaningful solution to the trash epidemic. But on 22 August people took to the streets of downtown Beirut in much larger numbers than before. The impetus for this was videos that went viral, showing scenes of police brutality against a demonstration on 19 August. That footage mobilized a new set of protesters, some of them part of the original protesters’ social milieu but others part of a very different milieu—one that was all too familiar with state violence in Lebanon. Protestors found strength in unity and spontaneously raised demands beyond garbage collection. They began to call for the resignation of specific ministers, the entire cabinet, and even the toppling of the entire political class. The “You Stink” framework was superseded by people calling for the removal of the government, but by default this campaign remained the public mainstream representation of the protests.

On 23 August, the “You Stink” campaign effectively abandoned the Beirut protests. It did so just as demonstrations were reaching their peak in terms of numbers and demands. The broader context of this was the escalation in government violence and the ensuing confrontations between some protesters and both the riot police and army. Once the government further escalated its repression of protesters on 23 August, the “You Stink” campaign announced via its Facebook page that it was withdrawing to Martyrs Square. Instead of taking responsibility for a protest movement that had turned from a peaceful gathering into a mass of people standing up to state authority, some of the organizers announced their withdrawal and called upon the authorities to crack down on the protesters and “clean the streets of agent provocateurs, hooligans and thugs.”  Various individuals affiliated with the campaign began to claim that there we thugs sent by the Amal movement who were armed, had infiltrated the protesters’ ranks, and were planning to sabotage the nonviolent nature of the demonstration. In the face of escalating government violence and attempts by some protesters to defend themselves, the move by “You Stink” was basically abdicating its responsibility. The following day, on Monday 24 August, the “You Stink” campaign officially called off the protest scheduled for the next day, Tuesday 25 August, citing concerns of infiltration and violence by protesters. However, protesters continued to turn out in large numbers on Tuesday further proving that the “You Stink” campaign no longer represented the reality of protesters and dynamics of the demonstration. That day, protesters held signs that read, “I’m a thug” and “I’m an agent provocateur,” basically denouncing the “You Stink” campaign’s opprobrious move. It was then that the “You Stink” campaign organizers began apologizing for demonizing the protesters and called for “forgetting the past” and “moving forward.” Yet the campaign had stigmatized itself and, despite a continuous presence on the street by protesters, the campaign cannot claim the same any more. The “You Stink” campaign has lost significant support, because it exposed and indeed represents a real rift within Lebanese society.

J: What is the relationship between the “You Stink” campaign and those protesting in the streets over the past few weeks? Has that relationship changed over time?

MAN: The “You Stink” campaign’s calls for protests, which began in late July 2015, created space for those from a different social class than those who created the campaign. Since the first protest, youths from marginalized and poverty-stricken areas continued what they had previously been doing alone, without any social media campaigns. These youths do not generally function in the orbit of so-called civil society organizations but have been protesting on their own initiative since last summer’s severe water and power cuts. This summer, their protests escalated in reaction to the garbage crisis, and their proximity to the downtown area made it possible for them to join the demonstration called for by the “You Stink” campaign. While burning trash and blocking the streets leading to downtown Beirut during the first protest, these youths exclaimed, “We are with you, but this is our way of protesting.” It was then and there that they simultaneously expressed their anger toward the government’s security measures, power cuts, and water shortages.

J: How has the government responded to this campaign and to the protests? 

MAN: The Lebanese government has responded to the campaign with its usual stalling tactics. It is trying to sweep the rubbish under the rug, literally taking trash from the streets of the capital and dumping it in obscure locations around the country. As the protest movement’s demands expanded beyond resolution of the garbage crisis, and thus exceeded those of the “You Stink” campaign, the government gradually escalated its repressive tactics, and even erected a concrete wall between the protesters and the Grand Serail where the Prime Ministry is located. The protestors dubbed it “the wall of shame” and remarked on its similarity to the Baghdad Green Zone.

During protests on 22, 23, and 25 August, the government deployed personnel from the various security apparatuses, who conducted themselves with severe brutality. On the night of 25 August, protesters were chased out of the downtown area by waves of riot police followed by the military. They pulled people out of taxis and ambulances, and proceeded to beat them in the streets. They kidnapped young men from the streets of Hamra, Gemayzeh, and other areas surrounding downtown, carrying them off to different police stations across Beirut. One of those arrested was severely beaten up; his face was fractured. There were many more instances of repressive government measures, and this produced a snowball effect. Since then, dozens of lawyers have volunteered to defend the arrested protesters, and many have taken protesting at police stations.

To put it simply, the protest that sparked violence against state violence was not an act of “thuggery” by “saboteurs” who were told to do so by Amal movement leader and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. People who allege such dynamics do not recognize the daily economic abuse the majority of Lebanese have been enduring for years. It was a whole bouquet of angry Lebanese who found unity and struck back against a state that has been failing them in all aspects, and a state security apparatus that has been particularly brutal in the year since Mashnuq became interior minister. The most marginalized youth, those from Dawra, Burj Hammoud, Khandaqal-Ghami’, Sabra, Tariq Jdideh, and Shiyyah, were those who struck back with all the vengeance accumulated in their bitter souls against state authority. These are the victims of the same social order that has their brothers languishing in jails without trial for simply smoking a joint, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Two young men I spoke with told me, “We are on the street, jobless, and with no place to go. We pop pills to forget the shit we live in.” The scooter they had purchased on credit was confiscated by the government because they could not afford to register it, yet they needed it to work and earn money. These disenfranchised young men see the law being used to punish them for being poor. All this while a small ruling class cruises around town in its fifty-thousand-dollar SUVs, drives in convoys with tinted windows, running over, beating up, and sometimes killing anyone who stands in its way. This latter group is given state security protection and legal immunity. One group of angry teenage boys were rounded up two weeks ago and brutally beaten up by the Internal Security Forces (ISF), only to be told the next day that it was a case of mistaken identity. They weren’t even given an apology.

Thus, on the night of 22 August, and as a response to this violence and neglect, an unusual sense of solidarity exploded and a revolutionary spirit reached a climax that manifested itself in the large numbers on the street the next day. The trajectory of the protest thus far is one of inclusion. It is bringing together different strata of Lebanese society in an unusual way to confront an exploitative economic and political system.

J: How have Lebanon’s various political forces responded to this campaign?

MAN: They have responded to this campaign in one of two ways. Some have tried to co-opt it to serve their own agendas or ride the wave of angry protests to benefit from it. Others have sought to criminalize and sectarianize the protest movement, and denounced the campaign as a premeditated conspiracy against Lebanon. Some in the latter camp have gone so far to claim that the protesters where trained by foreign intelligence agencies. This is of course a preposterous claim that reflects the fears the protest movement has created among some of the political elite. However, the protesters and youth have been vigilant thus far. It is really important to recognize that the demonstration now represents a fusing of the garbage crisis, dilapidated public services, and socioeconomic marginalization, all under the banner of a corrupt and ineffective political class. They have pushed back and ejected every politician who went to the protest hoping to take advantage of popular sentiment.

J: What is your sense of the different trajectories this campaign might take, and what do these trajectories hinge on?

MAN: Since we are affected by the region, we must realize that this movement could fail and could even open a path to military rule. However, there seems to be a consensus building among grassroots protesters that the street will be occupied until this corrupt ruling class falls. All that seems to matter on the street right now is to shatter the status quo that has long held Lebanon and its people prisoner.

If we can call this an uprising, then it is important to look at the dynamics on the ground: the street and the forces that reclaimed it. Many Lebanese at this particular moment are breaking away from the confines of their social-sectarian boxes. To understand the core of this protest movement, one ought to be where the leading sentiment of this rebellion exists. It is a mix of anger and vengeance by jobless, impoverished, socially alienated youth from different sects; LGBT individuals and activists who have been subject to violence and harassment by a patriarchal state; a variety of grassroots leftist movements; feminist activists and networks that have become increasingly active and visible in recent years; young mothers and fathers who struggle to provide an adequate life for their children.

Lebanon’s youth has followed one uprising after another in other Arab countries, recognized its possibilities, and yearned for real change. So far, this campaign appears to be the one and only opportunity that has—thus far—managed to unite us outside the political straightjacket of the March 14 versus March 8 political blocks, demanding the downfall of their politics. It is precisely this sentiment, this sort of anger, that we need to focus so as to further develop, and thus deliver a blow to the status quo.

Scared simply for being Syrian

An observation led to the anxious realization of feeling Lebanese privilege while witnessing the daily plight of Syrians (refugees) in Lebanon.  

Syrian plight
Syrian refugee camp Bekaa Lebanon spring 2014

Driving back to Beirut from a nice lunch in J’bail suddenly the motorway traffic comes to a halt; it looked like a checkpoint was set up in the middle of the motorway (what a stupid idea). In front of our car are two men on a motorcycle. The driver slows down abruptly and in a frenzy jumps off the bike and without speaking hands it to the man riding behind him. Then he zigzags between cars and runs away. At this, policemen emerged, five of them running after the fleeing man leaving the one holding the scooter behind. The fugitive sported white shirt blue jeans and flip-flops in his feet clapping as he ran then in two seconds he was gone; jumped the road barrier and fled to the other side in a suicidal cut between bullet like cars speeding north. His friend, who was handed the bike, was still there baffled, and dumbfounded, looking around in panic, attempting to run away but struck at the realization that it was too late. A massive policeman grabbed the little man on the bike, still holding into the handlebars his eyes wide-open, from the back of his neck like a subdued dog and walked him away towards the checkpoint. Both were Syrian men and probably without residency papers (or scared simply for being Syrian men in a hostile Lebanon) which explains why the first man booked it when he glanced the police checkpoint.

Beirut’s bullet-riddled Holiday Inn

My first with GU


The once-plush hotel stands empty as a reminder of the city’s brutal civil war, while the surrounding districts are swept up in glitzy redevelopments

Though Lebanon has been swept by a gentrifying and disfiguring development rush, some older monuments still stand tall. Strolling downhill from the Clemenceau neighbourhood for a coffee on the seaside Corniche, you’ll see the towering building of the Holiday Inn: bullet-riddled and rocket-pierced.

The once-plush hotel, which opened for business just two years before the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, has remained in Beirut’s collective memory – not for its glamour or architectural design, but as a front-line, a demarcation between east and west, and a symbol of war.

The Holiday Inn represented an affluent time for the city: the building became part of a luxury developmental bubble at a time when Beirut’s banks were growing fat on deposits from the region’s petrodollars. However, the civil war obliterated the hotel’s ambitions of becoming a social hub, with cinemas and restaurants crowned by a rooftop rotating restaurant towering over the district.

In October 1975, just months into the Lebanese civil war, the hotel became part of an epic battle dubbed “the war of the hotels”. It lasted until March 1976 and mobilised around 25,000 fighters from both sides, resulting in more than 1,000 dead and 2,000 injured.

The Holiday Inn was the biggest in an area already jammed with hotels – an area that became strategically important because of its proximity to the sea: it was located between the coastal neighbourhoods of Ain el-Mresi and Mina al-Hosn, on top of a hill overlooking the city.

As the civil war began to polarise the city into east and west, the two main antagonists – the Lebanese Front (Christian rightwing militias backed by the Lebanese army) and the National Movement (Lebanese leftist parties backed by Palestine’s PLO) – raced to capture the district.

Seen by militants as a strategic military asset, the Holiday Inn became a trophy in the battle. “We descended on the hotel district from three directions,” recalls Abu Ali, 66, a veteran of the war on the side of the National Movement. “The battle to take the Holiday Inn dragged on. That building felt like an unshakable castle. The Christian fighters who had raced us to it managed to create supply lines that kept feeding their fighters barracked in the hotel, and positioned their snipers on the upper floors and rooftop.”

Heavy artillery was fired from surrounding rooftops, pounding the Holiday Inn and creating the damage that is still visible today.

“Shortly after the battle, hordes of scavengers entered the building and stripped it down to its bones,” Abu Ali said. “The Holiday Inn was then sold on the streets of Beirut: beds, silver spoons, curtains.”

Later, after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut – in the second phase of the civil war – the Holiday Inn building was once again disputed turf, this time between former allies; with the al-Mourabitoun losing control of the building to the Amal Movement.

These battles were, in a sense, an introvert war fought by the city’s occupants who turned their own homes into an open battleground – a war fought from alley to alley, building to building.

Since the conflict’s end, the shareholders of the bullet-riddled building have been locked in a dispute over its future. The Lebanese partners Compagnie Immobiliere Libanaise wanted to renovate the building and set up luxury lofts for rent or sale. However, the Kuwaiti group that owns half wanted to demolish it, and build a new tower block similar to those in the surrounding downtown area.

 Today, entry is forbidden to the public. The building’s 24 floors are desolate: shrubs sprout from the concrete floors, the grey mouldering walls still bearing scars of countless bullet holes and political graffiti from a bygone era. Its Lebanese and Kuwaiti owners recently declared their intention to put the building up for auction.

Many years after the fighting ceased, the building has become a popular site for underground dance parties. On a Saturday night in 1998, many Lebanese mingled in the same building where 23 years earlier their parents had fought each other. I was one of the revellers: we snuck out of our parents’ homes and drank and danced until the early hours on a site still vividly synonymous with the 15-year civil war.

In spite of the postwar efforts to resurrect Lebanon’s elusive golden age, the country once more teeters on the edge of an abyss. Lurking in the background of the glitzy, redeveloped downtown district, the disfigured façade of the Holiday Inn stands as a reminder that Lebanon’s civil war politics are far from resolved.