Posts Tagged With: Humanitarianism
“Lebanon Facing the Arab Uprisings. Constraints and Adaptation” is the newly issued volume on Lebanon edited by Dr Rosita di Peri and Dr Daniel Meier (copyrights: 2017).
Here below the abstract of my book chapter “Rethinking Lebanese Welfare in Ageing Emergencies”, pp. 115-133. You can find here all contributions: http://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781352000047#aboutBook
A cycle of internal displacement and influxes of refugees in Lebanon has led local care providers to cooperate and partner with the international humanitarian apparatus. By using welfare as an explanatory screen of social relations, identifications, and frictions, this chapter highlights the blurred lines between welfare and emergency programmes in Beirut’s southern suburbs after the July War of 2006. This chapter first discusses how social order is sought out in humanitarian and welfare systems of care in order to maintain stability and guarantee their practices. Second, it unearths the individual and societal processes that beneficiary subjects experience in response to policies of provision. Finally, it seeks to assess the notion of nationhood in Lebanon, where the lives of long-term refugees and local communities are increasingly enmeshed, as are the beneficiary categories that they represent.
This essay explores the relationship between Syrian refugees and local Lebanese. In particular, it discusses the dominance of the discourse of ‘hospitality’ in the international media depiction of this relationship and in the humanitarian response informed by it. As this essay will show, these tendencies have resulted in the ‘hospitality’ discourse informing and reinforcing the international response to the Syrian refugee influx into and presence in Lebanon.
More specifically, the essay unpacks the dominant ‘hospitality discourse,’ which rests on three interrelated notions. First, hospitality employed as a social order instrument characterizes the relationship between refugees and local Lebanese as defined chiefly by the latter’s generous offers of sanctuary. Second, hospitality as a media narrative and epistemic construction portrays Lebanon as a country straining under the weight of the refugee burden, depicted as “existential problem.” Finally, hospitality as a local way to respond to the official declaration of emergency crisis has allowed the “hosts” to “other” the refugees and instability threats.
Syrians in Lebanon: A Pre-Refugee Sociology
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of June 2016, there were more than one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon. However, this massive influx is not the first ‘encounter’ between Syrians and Lebanese.
In the framework of an ambivalent Lebanese-Syrian nationhood in Akkar, which is used to sharing moral, social, and political capital across a historically porous border, hospitality has paved the way for a process of differentiation from people who did notused to be “the Other.” It is legitimate to wonder why this differentiation process, in a sense, needs to happen. Hence, what is the sociology underlying such a need to differentiate oneself from the economy of the Syrian refugee, while paradoxically making space for it? For a partial answer, we need to get back to the conflicted politics of gift and exchange and the tension, put forward by Derrida, that characterizes the never exclusively voluntary act of hosting. Hosts must have power over the domain in which they host, as well as power over the guest. The tension remains, and a people’s collective morality is evaluated according to the accomplishment of charitable acts. However, self-sufficiency—which the earlier Syrian laborers of Akkar certainly did not lack—is still demanded by the hosts. The legacy of the Syrian presence in Lebanon and Akkar in particular (1976–2005), as well as the common nationhood that ties the two peoples together, unearths the inappropriateness of a discourse built on the traditionallimits of hospitality and assimilation, which are in fact generous acts activated within society, “as long as one leaves Otherness behind.”
Historically, Akkari hospitality goes beyond the politics of “spare couches.”
Historically, Akkari hospitality goes beyond the politics of “spare couches.” And to distinguish the non-economic migratory status of Syrian nationals from economic migrants has become even more nonsensical after March 2011, the start of the uprising in the main Syrian cities and the subsequent regime’s repression. Some Syrian nationals, in a sense, were also Akkaris, insofar as Akkaris themselves strived to get access to Syrian welfare, crossing the border to reach the nearby province of Homs rather than driving all the way down to Lebanon’s Tripoli to benefit from a scant welfare system. The lack of hospitals, schools, and means of transportation has long since rendered this region hostile to comfortable inhabitation and detached it from a modern state that was originally crafted as Beirut-centric. Moreover, it has encouraged foreign investments in the third sector rather than reinforcing basic services.
Hospitality, when spontaneously offered in the first months of the Syrian crisis, was in fact conceived and enacted at a grassroots level as a religious and cultural duty, a “sacred commandment of charity” to assign strangers a place in a community whose functioning was already guaranteed by demographically hybrid forces of labor.
Since 2012 international humanitarian organizations have financed some local families to enable them to host the refugees temporarily. This ended up “internationalizing” the tacit and unmediated Syrian-Lebanese relationship. By thus interposing themselves, humanitarian agencies have played a key role in shaping social relations; for example, by ensuring that particular local resources are prioritized over others that are less functional to humanitarian global governance.
With the intervention of the humanitarian agencies and the “neoliberalization” of local hospitality by paying local families to host Syrian refugees for a limited period of time, usually over a maximum period of a year, hospitality has gradually become an aid toolkit item to be temporarily delivered. Yet, the sociological character of local hospitality does not fade away with the “humanitarianization” of the act of hosting, as the Albanian experience of hosting Kosovar refugees has proved.
Scholars and newsmakers have therefore used hospitality as a lens through which to understand the entanglement of Syrian-Lebanese relations over the past five and a half years. As such, it has repeatedly been defined as “limited” due to the massive influx of refugees, with Lebanon referred to as being “under strain.” Socio-economic accounts of the prosperity of Lebanese landlords and employers and the increase in productivity thanks to lower workforce costs have sought to turn the sword tip of blame toward Lebanese greed in an effort to alleviate the Syrian “guests” from the burden of being scapegoated at a national level and becoming targets of disdain for having a “large number of children” and a “different culture and mentality.”
Unpacking the ‘Hospitality’ Trope
The common international media portrayal of the relationship between Syrian refugees and Lebanese tends to ‘hype’ the phenomenon of hospitality. Commentators have sometimes seen the local hospitality phenomenon in Lebanon as turning a vertical power system into a horizontal one, despite the risk of neglecting the feudal societal fabric of northern Lebanon’s hosting villages, which rely on wealthy and powerful families. In this region, the privileges of a few people contrast with the overall inadequacy of services and infrastructure.
Refugee-refugee—also called “South-South”—hospitality has recently entered academic studies and finally re-consigned dignity to unofficial acts of coping with crisis and helping others to cope. The hospitality provided by local refugee communities in Lebanon opens up new spaces of recognition. It sheds light not only on refugees’ agency—which certainly does not wait for “northern” recognition in order to exist in practice—but also on new phenomena of alienation among “uninsured people,” whose self-reliance is inherently unachievable.
Lebanese hospitality is neither simply a case-by-case negotiation to tackle the everyday refugee crisis nor solely a generous or interested act of offering shelter to communities that Lebanese feel proximity to refugees in several respects.
More specifically, Lebanese hospitality is neither simply a case-by-case negotiation to tackle the everyday refugee crisis nor solely a generous or interested act of offering shelter to communities that Lebanese feel proximity to refugees in several respects. Hospitality is also the narrative that local and international media and the humanitarian enterprise weave together. The idea of a “hosting Lebanon”—a country already struggling under the weight of its economic and political crises—is positioned in the space between historical truth and the necessity to maintain social order. In this sense, the idea delivered to the public is that of a Lebanon strained by the “refugee crisis” per se, where the humanitarian structures, in concert with the central government, are efficient actors calming local tensions and flattening historical complexities by promoting accounts of generosity and victimhood.
To clarify how hospitality is also an epistemic construction, it is necessary to highlight how the Syrian conflict and the refugees are conceived and spoken of at an official level. While the US government conceives of Syrian refugees as people fleeing shelling and persecution due to their sectarian or ethnic background, the refugees often mention that no one helped them change their political condition when they were still inside the country. Indeed, international humanitarian agencies traditionally deal with deserving humanitarian victims rather than victims of human rights violations.
“We cannot bear this burden; they should go back to Syria and resettle,” was the political proposal of Antoine Chedid, Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States. To make people resettle in Syria by setting up camps inside the conflict-ridden country— “which is 18 times bigger than its Lebanese neighbor,” as Chedid pointed out—is a way of re-domesticating the conflict and the management of the conflict and an attractive alternative to opening borders to the displaced. By contrast, the international humanitarian machine, which represents the Geneva-based international community, has contributed to internationalizing the Syrian conflict through programs and policies. Humanitarianism, which supports local hospitality and renders it sustainable, is increasingly employed as a conflict resolution force aimed at triggering friendships and social ties that surely preceded the crisis. It is therefore employed to pursue international security agendas as well.
The idea of generosity, hospitality, and its limits implicitly accuses the Syrians of having overstayed their welcome, insofar as it foregrounds the chronic predicament of the Akkar region, the decrease in local employment due to the presence of cheaper menial labor, and the increase in the cost of living and housing owing to the newcomers’ influx. Hospitality therefore came to be described as an existential problem for Lebanon. Discourses of greed or grievance, as sparking enduring conflicts and war economies in the Middle East, are growing louder and louder, and have gradually silenced more important narratives.
In a nutshell, at a rhetorical level, Lebaneseness is stigmatized as generous in order to uphold humanitarian practices, which associate the importance of social order with their mission of being a conflict resolution force. At a historical-material level, local communities, whatever their social status, attempt to protect wealth accumulation or basic livelihoods through the act of hosting either for free or for pay to be able to host.
Hospitality on the Borderline between Normality and Crisis
Hospitality and hostility are two sides of the same coin, marking an undecided and ambivalent space between proximity and distance. If hospitality implied an unconditional law, an absolute openness, it would be impossible to organize it into a law or politics; moreover, it would destroy the host’s mastery of the home, which enables hospitality in the first place. Rather than a home, we would be left with an indeterminate space that could offer nothing determinate, and hospitality per se would be ineffective.
That being said, in a country where intermarriage has always used to be a common social practice, why is 82 percent of the Lebanese population now reported to feel uncomfortable with the notion of marrying a Syrian? And why do Syrian nationals claim to be mistreated, to the extent that they are now trying to change their accent in order not to be marked as “Syrian refugees” and undergo discrimination? The process of “othering” the Syrians in Lebanon took place during the process of refugeehood as an improvised way of dealing with the influx and marking the territory as theirs, that is to manage and control “the home.” In a geopolitical scenario officially declared as a “state of emergency,” safeguarding the home comes into play, along with as a responsibility toward the Other, as an in-crisis strategy of local self-determination. This has led local Akkaris to reinvent their relationship to the pre-existing presence of the Syrian nationals in response to the announced crisis.
In this way, in-crisis hospitality has produced spaces to which some inhabitants belong—insofar as their sense of belonging has been reinforced by their act of hosting—while others do not and instead turn into temporary guests. Indeed, before the crisis, Syrian nationals used to inhabit the same space mostly in the capacity of unskilled cheap laborers, marking the continuity of the sovereign Akkari host lord. In this sense, the social construction of hospitality has not only fed the political rhetoric of “Lebanon the bountiful” but has also acted as a societal fragmentation force, undermining the previous relations that these laborers used to hold in Akkar before moving to Lebanon with their own families due to the full-scale conflict.
In other words, as a form of unwilling humanitarianism, hospitality made the traditionally porous borders between Lebanon and Syria socially meaningful. The collective act of producing an outside has served the purpose of Lebanese Akkaris to prevent the spillover of violence and preserve relative social order. The absence of a well-bounded “Syrian community” in Akkar, “melting like sugar in tea,” facilitated the task of “othering” the refugees.
Anywhere it takes place, Derrida’s “hostipitality”—a combination of hospis and hostis, of hostility and hospitality—characterizes contexts in which transit and permanent resettlement slip beyond individual and family acts of decision. The unsustainable limitlessness of hospitality has turned narratives on Akkar’s spirit from those of grievance to those of greed, acting as a force of global compassion toward the Syrian crisis. In settings of displacement and uncertainty, it becomes even more important to re-consign such ambivalence to hospitality, which goes far beyond unconditional receptiveness, regardless of historical conditions and trajectories.
We need an explanatory politics that combines daily struggle with calculation strategies-something both the hosts and the guests (including humanitarian agencies) are familiar with.
 U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR),http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122.
 Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies(London: Routledge, 1990).
 Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality (Stanford, CA: Stanford California Press, 2000).
 Brian A. Watkins, “Asylum-Seekers, Spare Couches, and the Politics of Hospitality.” Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association, Denver, Colorado, November 20, 2015.
 Sahar T. Issa, Irna Van Der Molen, Manal R. Nader, and Jon C. Lovett, “Spatial Variation of Vulnerability in Geographic Areas of North Lebanon”, European Scientific Journal 2 (2014): 261-273.
 The Old and New Testaments and the Koran have many references to the commandment to shelter strangers.
 Heidrun Friese, “The Limits of Hospitality,” Paragraph 32, 1 (2009): 51.
 Author’s conversation with a Lebanese resident. ‘Ebrine, Northern Lebanon, April 2016.
 Doreen Abi Raad, “Lebanon strains under weight of refugees,” Catholic News Service, January 7, 2016, accessed October 23, 2016,http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2016/lebanon-strains-un….
 Helen Mackreath, “Cosmopolitanism in Akkar? Why the Role of Host Families Is Significant,” E-International Relations, May 28, 2015, accessed October 23, 2016,http://www.e-ir.info/2015/05/28/cosmopolitanism-in-akkar-why-the-role-of….
 Julia Pacitto and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh “Writing the ‘Other’ into Humanitarian Discourse: Framing Theory and Practice in South-South Humanitarian Responses to Forced Displacement,” Working Paper Series No. 93, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, 2013.
 Mark Duffield, Development, Security and Unending Wars: Governing the World of Peoples (Cambridge, UK: Polity Publications, 2007).
 Speech delivered by Antoine Chedid at the Wilson Center, Washington, D.C., October 29, 2013.
 Chedid himself rejected the specifically Lebanese responsibility of a conflict that is increasingly becoming regional by pointing out that the crisis is not of their making; rather, it is international. See conference recap webcast athttp://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/humanitarian-crisis-impact-syrian- refugees-lebanon.
 Mark Duffield, Development, Security and Unending Wars: Governing the World of Peoples (Cambridge, UK: Polity Publications, 2007).
 Heidrun Friese, “The Limits of Hospitality,” Paragraph 32, 1 (2009): 52.
 Jacques Derrida, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides – A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in G. Borradori, (ed.) Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003) 129.
 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2002) 364.
 Cathrine M. Thorleifsson, “The Limits of Hospitality: Coping Strategies among Displaced Syrians in Lebanon,” Third World Quarterly 37, 6 (2016): 1079.
 John Chalcraft, The Invisible Cage. Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).
The Bartlett’s Development Planning Unit (DPU), University College London and the Humanitarian Affairs Team at Save the Children UK have embarked on a research programme at the intersection of urban, humanitarian and forced migration studies. The project aims to inform humanitarian action and policy makers in urban contexts of protracted displacement.
As protraction of crises increasingly becomes a long term drive for urban change and a challenge for city governance and infrastructures, this research project focuses on “urban-itarian” settings: that is the interactional moment between the urban and the humanitarian, when cities have become home to humanitarian actors and de facto refugees, and urban and humanitarian infrastructures provide and negotiate basic services and livelihoods. The project investigates how human, social, and economic relations, exchange and consumption experiences can better inform humanitarian policies and practices, both of which regulate access and relations to services, labour, and resources.
Taking the perspective that markets of commodities, labour, and housing can be studied as social practices, it uses the notion of the “market” as the sociological field of investigation. As such, the research looks at the site where daily practices of informal and institutional actors are enmeshed, changing the urban environment they inhabit and share. The project looks specifically at cities where large numbers of de facto refugees have relocated over time, and where there is a presence of humanitarian agencies addressing ‘refugee crises’.
Through an analysis of the socio-economic behaviours of refugees, local residents, and humanitarian actors, this research seeks to improve understandings of how local struggles and opportunities for livelihoods, and daily habits, collide. More specifically, in the material and symbolical space of the “urbanitarian” moment, it analyses informal processes of self-recovery or self-support. Our programme intends to combine different empirical research examples, which shed light on the relevance of “theories of practice” for improving assistance provision policy and understanding urban transformations.
“Temporal reasoning” and intentionality are used as case selection criteria to understand how receiving cities are initially approached, often as mere transit areas, then becoming places of permanent resettlement. The collective and individual intentions of de facto refugees – shifting from going back to the country of origin, moving onwards to a third country, to staying – challenge the temporal character of policy-making and humanitarian assistance regimes, which have often been conceived with the specific intention of rendering human flows provisional.
The research is informed by a steering committee and an external advisory board, which include both academics and practitioners. Outputs will include analytical commentaries on online platforms, working papers based on field research, a comparative policy brief and an edited series of essays. The published material will also be translated into the local languages of the researched areas as far as possible.
Our primary research objectives are:
– To develop a more robust understanding of the contribution of humanitarian actors to urban transformations and their relationship with unconventional self-recovery mechanisms.
– To increase urban governance actors understanding of how the mechanisms they put in place intersect with humanitarian practices and policies.
– To identify and contextualise social and economic opportunities and challenges for refugees inhabiting the “urbanitarian” systems.
– To suggest more appropriate strategies and policies for urban and humanitarian actors, in order to cope with rapid urban changes and assist local and refugee populations.
Research team and partners:
This project has been developed by The Bartlett’s Development Planning Unit, University College London (DPU) and the Humanitarian Affairs Team of Save the Children UK (HAT).
The team of the project is composed by Estella Carpi, jointly based at DPU and HAT.
The Humanitarian Affairs Team seeks to inform the development and implementation of Save the Children strategy, offer proposals to improve policy and practice within the organisation and across the humanitarian sector, and foster opportunities to translate these proposals into practicable plans of action. Housed in Save the Children UK’s Humanitarian Department, the HAT provides insight into the conceptual and theoretical questions that underpin humanitarian practice.
Flussi migratori e compassione europea: a quando informazione e sostenibilità? (by Estella Carpi, October 2015)
Sembra esser stata soprattutto la foto di Aylan, il bimbo siriano di origini curde affogato nelle acque turche sulla spiaggia di Bodrum il 2 settembre, insieme alle ondate di profughi che tentano il passaggio dall’Europa orientale – provenienti soprattutto da Siria, Iraq e Afghanistan – ad avere finalmente ridestato il pubblico occidentale dal suo torpore rendendo spaventosamente tangibile il limite umano al quale ci hanno condotti le crisi politiche transnazionali e le controversie dell’assistenza umanitaria “nord-sud”.
Sull’onda degli studi di Lili Chouliaraki, il fenomeno che abbiamo di fronte è quello che potrebbe essere definito come l’emergere di un nuovo “spettatore ironico” della sofferenza altrui; l’utente del vocabolario compassionevole del “Facebook like”, che auto-celebra e pubblicizza i propri atti di carità, e scambia il consumo etico per solidarietà informata e sostenibile. Ancora una volta, la solidarietà effimera coltivata nell’ambiente mediatico, e la compassione di massa verso l’astratta moltitudine dei “disperati”, troppo raramente reclama la storicità degli eventi, e racconta le loro tristi storie per attivare le nostre intenzioni e difenderle.
Ancora una volta, la solidarietà che poco s’interroga sul perché del rapido passaggio dall’indifferenza alla compassione pubblica è promossa in termini di stile di vita, e non di una mentalità civico-politica davvero informata e reattiva.
Dopo la diffusione dell’immagine del corpo esanime del piccolo Aylan, i media europei hanno dato maggior spazio alla discussione degli aiuti informali e formali che le popolazioni forniscono ai profughi, e le proteste civili organizzate per esprimere lo spirito di solidarietà e accoglienza presenti nell’Unione europea. Iniziative che, finché l’emergenza colpiva soltanto il panorama mediorientale, non erano state attuate a pari livello.
La compassione pubblica suscitata dalla “crisi dei profughi” – un appellativo,peraltro, capace di coprire insieme cause politiche e responsabilità esterne alla radice di tale crisi – si è ora per fortuna trasformata in motore di assistenza transnazionale, oltrepassando la mera compassione da spettatori in poltrona.
Un’educazione “sentimentale”, come la chiamava Richard Rorty, sarebbe forse utile nelle scuole europee per coltivare un sentire condiviso nelle nuove generazioni e offrire un terreno comune di condivisione ed empatia. Se da un lato, infatti, è indispensabile che la sensibilità verso la differenza non sia data per scontata e che ci venga dunque insegnata, dall’altro lato, come si può evitare che la cultura dei diritti umani, di cui il cosiddetto “nord globale” si fa paladino, resti effimera tanto quanto l’interesse pubblico verso il disperato fenomeno di esodi e dispersioni? La sponsorizzazione dei diritti umani, che ha già da tempo assunto la fisionomia del liberalismo di stampo occidentale e paternalismo terzomondista, stenta ad offrire una migliore spiegazione delle ragioni alla radice di tali crisi nel marasma mediatico odierno.
Il cittadino europeo medio ha dimostrato ancora una volta di mobilitarsi e affrontare il proprio incontro con i profughi/migranti in termini squisitamente umanitari e in relazione a uno stato di eccezione ritenuto temporaneo, restando tra l’altro restio ad affrontare la fase successiva fatta di richiesta di diritti.
Nel caos dei mesi di agosto e settembre, il temporaneo ripristino dei controlli di frontiera in Germania e Austria, la costruzione del muro al confine serbo–ungherese, e lo sgambetto teso a un profugo siriano dalla giornalista ungherese Petra Laszlo, sono segnali evidenti di un rafforzamento delle frontiere non solo materiali, ma anche morali nei paesi più toccati dalle ondate migratorie. Tali episodi sembrano significare ben più che un’ingente “crisi di profughi”: sembra trattarsi piuttosto di una vera e propria crisi delle interazioni e degli incontri umani.
Inoltre, i recenti sviluppi hanno dimostrato che i paesi Ue non possono far fronte da soli a tali flussi migratori, e l’impegno da parte dell’Onu diventa quindi sempre più radicato al loro interno. La sfida maggiore consiste nella necessità improvvisa di integrare la convenzionale risposta umanitaria, offerta all’interno di strutture di accoglienza popolate da residenti intenzionati a divenire stanziali, con percorsi per l’accoglienza di quei migranti che a volte restano per pochi giorni, o addirittura per poche ore, prima di proseguire verso la destinazione desiderata. La gestione di quello che potremmo chiamare un “transito d’emergenza”, specialmente in Italia, Grecia, Serbia, e Ungheria, è ancora un ambito ignoto alle organizzazioni umanitarie europee, e ha richiesto l’apertura di nuove sedi locali di alcune grandi organizzazioni non governative internazionali come World Vision, Islamic Relief e Action Aid.
La vera sfida in ambito europeo è riconsiderare radicalmente l’approccio verticale nord-sud e comunque ‘occidente-centrico’ perpetrato nel nome degli storici stendardi della responsabilità internazionale morale, che ha gradualmente ridotto le politiche umanitarie e di cooperazione allo sviluppo a meri strumenti di sicurezza internazionale. L’altra sfida è quella di capire di essere tutti quanti soggetti e attori di uno stesso ordine geopolitico integrato. Prendere atto di tutto questo non solo risparmierebbe molte vite, ma potrebbe probabilmente evitare molti degli “effetti collaterali” dei ciclici conflitti internazionali.
La realizzazione dei diritti di asilo e protezione in materia d’immigrazione, in quanto diritti umani convenzionalmente riconosciuti, non dovrebbe dipendere dal carattere effimero di sfuggenti e non sempre pienamente informate solidarietà sociali. La vera scommessa sarà continuare a sostenere e implementare tali diritti quando l’attuale compassione di massa verrà meno dopo la foga ‘emergenziale’ di questi mesi.
(Picture taken by Estella Carpi in Wadi Khaled, Lebanese-Syrian border, 13th December 2012)
The alliance of media and humanitarianism in Lebanon
With the growing Syrian refugee crisis, media entrepreneurs seem to care more about protecting the orthodox morality of humanitarianism, with the excuse of preserving social order – as conceived by them – rather than educating the public.
International media, closely connected to humanitarian agencies, often hasten to show North Lebanon’s ‘outstanding’ hospitality of Syrian refugees, arriving in large numbers to flee destruction, scarcity, repression and chronic fear. However, unlike the idyllic scenario humanitarian practitioners usually provide, such hospitality is actually part of a larger picture. At the same time, the media, while providing positive accounts in an alleged bid to pacify further social frictions, paradoxically rely on ethnicised desciptions – in this specific case, Lebanese versus Syrians.
A few months ago, some Lebanese threw stones at humanitarian workers during the distribution of food kits for Syrian refugees in Akkar, the northern most region of Lebanon and host to the majority of Syrian refugees. The episode was considered an outburst of tension by local people themselves with the sudden massive presence of humanitarian organizations in an area of little political interest, often neglected by state and non-state actors. Non-state actors have always been more localized in Beirut and the south of the country, concentrated on the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli occupation and the subsequent aggravated local impoverishment.
The humanitarian agencies operating in that town decided not to let journalists report on the episode at the time. Some published about it instead by contending that local people in North Lebanon would stop ‘hostilities’ and warm up if aid was provided to them too. The main reason behind the omission of the episode would seem to be the preventing further inflammation of tensions between the local community and Syrian refugees.
The humanitarian phenomenon of hospitality however serves the interests of aid providers in showing that they are acting in a responsive and compliant environment. Local hospitality in north Lebanon is often used in the media to express the ‘truly humanitarian essence’ of Northern Lebanese identity – as stated by aid providers politically affiliated to the March 14 coalition, presently allied with the Syrian opposition. Such a politicization of aid was similarly used by March 8 political coalition (that counts among its most important members the Hezbollah and Michel Aoun alliance), during the 2006 war with Israel.
Except for mixed families that host Syrian relatives who have escaped the war, such hospitality very often relies on financial returns through house rents paid in cash by humanitarian organizations to Lebanese landlords, as in the case of Taiba, a Saudi NGO in Halba. Other refugees, unable to access the housing refurbished and provided by agencies, end up paying, at a minimum, 100 USD to Lebanese landlords just to rent a piece of land or receive a tent.
News reports covering the area intentionally disguise these local money circles that renew classic patron-client relationships in Akkar, reflecting its social roots. This is often done in an illusory attempt to protect the moral reputation of north Lebanon’s people. Media coverage thus ties morality to the local material (in)capacity to host and welcome refugees.
Indeed, the role of the media should be to highlight the desperate fight for economic survival in Akkar, whose people have been chronically neglected in the years since the French mandate (1920), the post-National Pact State (1943) and the post-Taef Agreement State (1990). Nowadays, local residents of the northern region must still deal with a twenty-hour power cut every day, lack of drinking water and scarcity of public schools and local hospitals.
Media entrepreneurs seem to care more about protecting the orthodox morality of humanitarianism, with the excuse of preserving social order – as conceived by them – rather than educating the public. On the one hand, it advertises north Lebanese hospitality to maintain the international image of the welcoming Akkaris, as prompted by humanitarian workers; on the other, whenever it decides to distance itself from the humanitarian mainstream, it portrays Akkar’s people as greedy beings getting profit from the Syrian humanitarian crisis.
Humanitarian organizations should realize by now the infeasibility of intervening in an empirically ‘empty space’, ideally void of social frictions, expectations, paybacks, resentment and mutual mistrust. The implementation of humanitarian projects, hence, should take these conditions into consideration. Further research is needed on how failure and success of humanitarian projects can grow within an organization and gradually affect social history, regardless of the good intentions of the working staff.
National and inter-community relations seem to be the only media narratives to explain the social frictions in Akkar. This obsession for categories is unluckily a common trend of international journalists attempting to grasp violence outbursts in the religiously mixed Akkari villages. As a result, individual reasons and disputes, therefore, go totally unseen.
The media directly connected to humanitarian organizations omits the kind of information that we, international philanthropists and middle class locals working in the humanitarian sector, would feel uncomfortable with. Such unpleasant truths might undermine the nature itself of our ‘for-the-sake-of-mankind’ work. All the ‘side effects’ humanitarian work engenders – as it normally occurs in any enterprise – need to be disguised in the name of its survival.
The intellectual effort to explore the historical reasons for the present social frictions to avoid the oversimplified ethnic lens between ‘Syrian-takers’ and ‘Lebanese-givers’ is dangerously left to the public. By adopting arbitrary descriptive terms in the media, such as civil war, sectarianism, terrorism, Islamisation and so forth, and by ‘ethnicising’ the explanation of social facts, we have already created human imaginaries of Lebanese against Syrians and Syrians against Lebanese.
About the Syrian Revolution: bio-politics, state failure and security (by Estella Carpi – June 2012)
Estella Carpi: The Syrian Revolution and Global Inaction
In the wake of the putative failure of the Syrian political opposition and the debates that this sort of political miscarriage engendered, an element of the international think-tank has insisted further on the need for securing the Syrian state and its “Axis of Resistance” with Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, in a bid to advocate for Palestinian rights and regional balance.
The world looked to the UN Security Council to take action, but members of the Council, yet again, failed to agree that large-scale systematic violations of human rights committed against its own people by a government intent on maintaining its power was no longer an endogenic matter of state sovereignty. Despite the hype surrounding the “responsibility to protect”, the international community remains substantially inactive when faced with mass atrocities.
Such global inaction has often been disguised by a pool of off-the-cuff news analysts, and the US factual passivity, even in light of current mild UN steps, has not been tackled.
Therein, new illusive rhetoric has stemmed from the split between a geopolitical and a biopolitical approach: the wellbeing of the state and the wellbeing of people seem to be at loggerheads. To secure the former would imply observation and inaction alongside revolutionaries or, in the best of cases, humanitarian action alongside civilians, victims of anti-regime “armed terrorists” and of the rumoured impending “civil war”.
While human security and dignity have not been pursued as aprioristic goals in the political agenda of international players, with the recent armament of rebels and the consequent massacres from both the regime and resistance fighters, everyone apparently now cares for human security in the country.
The security of citizens should be the responsibility of their state. When the state does not play this role, or even menaces the wellbeing of its citizens, the responsibility to protect passes to the so-called international community. This time, however, the need to secure humans for their benefit has not attracted a great deal of policy or humanitarian interest.
The reluctance to intervene in the Syrian crisis also denounces the increasing politicisation of non-state networks of aid and relief: the principle of protecting human security is increasingly used, abused and neglected at will.
In such a frame, political realists who think that the state remains the primary object to be secured are back on the road. Likewise, when contingencies of life and unavoidable risks are not meeting international interests, state sovereignty still prevails on the sentimental effort for transnational governance in a world where the principle of non-interference is largely going awry.
By defining biopolitics as a technology of life that operates at the level of the population and promotes human security, the biopolitical concern has played a controversial role in the security of the Syrian state and the maintenance of the regional balance in a sadly wide landscape of international journalists, pseudo-leftist activists and scholars, who readily plunged into a Syrian Revolution smear campaign. Rather, to guarantee the security of the State, meant as a concomitantly negotiated contract subscribed by its own citizens, would also mean to assure the security of the Syrian population itself, whatever its stance on the Assad regime. The Syrian case, therefore, should shift future research to the collapse of the state-centred/population-centred security dichotomy.
Shockingly, the time of exclusive state sovereignty seems now to have returned. To consider unreliable the Syrian National Council (SNC) has been the official pretext not to delegitimate the current regime and not to declare Syria a de facto “failed state”, as a result of a suddenly enlightened counter-rhetoric around the biased pathologisation of Middle Eastern governments and societies.
In a similar vein, the awkward nature of some alignments with Assad’s regime at the grassroots level has never been explored. The ongoing support for the Assad regime from a sector of the Syrian population has always been considered socially grounded, and never instead been interpreted as a mere panic-stricken attempt to maintain the status quo and kill the transitional germs that would give birth to a series of traumatic changes – necessarily traumatic as in any other dictatorship that has never given space for political opposition and alternative governmental experiences.
As a result of this blurred advocacy for the regime’s solidity, the state is basically invoked in its abstract and ideological construction as a psycho-social reaction to the fearful absence of points of call that the Syrians should face in the case of Assad’s departure. On this purpose, I would not like to presume the intimate will of all Syrians to topple the current regime, in a bid to bring grist to my own ideological mill. That would mean to play the same cringeworthy game as those who considered the Arab conscience – as though it were a single one – incapable of desiring and struggling for democratic change. To presume an understanding of what masses of people really want would be inappropriate for a researcher not-based in Syria (as I currently am), as well as for someone witnessing the current events.
The requests of marginalised and impoverished Syrians, backed by the calls of several Syrian intellectuals and artists, were initially representing the margins. Today, the Assad’s supporters ideologically strive to preserve the centrality of the regime that is inevitably shifting out and that, paradoxically, is emerging as a new margin of the Syrian state. As Talal Asad would say, the “margins” have been pervading the entire state since March 2011 when protests initially flared up, in the sense that the sovereign force of the regime has been expressed throughout the months in its continual attempts to deny the margins themselves.
In a state that has become its own margins, I wonder how the need for securing people’s lives correlates to the need for maintaining the Syrian state as a political entity.
Then, what should be rehabilitated is the authentic technology of protest, that is to say the political, social, and economic claims for change that had been advocated for since the very beginning of the Syrian Revolution.
But once again, humanitarian sentimentalism produced and supported, deconstructed and denied “humans” at will.
Estella Carpi is a PhD Candidate at The University of Sydney. Contact her at: email@example.com.