Posts Tagged With: Lebanon

Book Review – Humanitarian Rackets and their Moral Hazards: The Case of the Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon (December 20, 2017)

Humanitarian Rackets and their Moral Hazards: The Case of the Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon by Rayyar Marron. Abingdon and New York: Routledge 2016. 188 pp., £110 hardcover 9781472457998, £36.99 paperback 9780815352570, £36.99 e-book 9781315587615

Rayyar Marron’s book provides a critique of how academic and activist accounts of Palestinian refugee camps end up reinforcing the humanitarian narrative of refugee victimhood. By underlining refugee economic and political agency, especially in the camp of Shatila in Lebanon, Marron recounts economic fraud and tactics that not only guarantee refugees’ survival and empowerment, but also seek to suggest a de-romanticised configuration of ‘refugee’ within the Middle Eastern moral economy. The author questions human suffering underlying the formulation of social and humanitarian policy. In this vein, in the scholarly literature, camps are defined not only as “sites of exilic nationalism” (p. 5), but also of resistance (p. 4). In this context, Marron contests how “Palestinianness” is addressed as a mere humanitarian cause, where refugees are passive aid recipients in need of international compassion.

The book is composed of an introduction, seven chapters, and a brief conclusion. The lengthy introduction aims to collocate the book within the framework of the de-romanticisation of vulnerability and of refugee agency: but it struggles to anticipate the core arguments. Chapter 1 intends to show how Palestinian refugees themselves seek to repackage their originally military cause as humanitarian due to the decline in funding, therefore often portraying themselves as “dispossessed peasants” (p. 44). Marron emphasises the identity crisis through which Palestinian refugees in Lebanon passed through when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was removed from Lebanon in 1982. Nevertheless, the chapter loses the opportunity to accurately describe what the author sees as a crucial historical moment, when Palestinians dropped the militant guerrilla culture as a public discourse to embody the exceptional case for assistance. More attention to this historical moment would have unraveled how the Palestinians’ unethical tactics to guarantee everyday life – such as smuggling and political protection rackets – are actually connected to daily grievance. The author, making the important attempt to de-romanticise the refugee category and refugee agency, however ends up focusing only on one side of the coin, providing a predominantly negative representation of camp society. A nuanced approach to examining everyday life would instead have informed the longstanding dialectics between need and greed in refugee economies.

Chapter 2 suggests the emergence of a Palestinian nationhood in connection with the pan-Islamic and pan-Arab cause (p. 50), in a complex framework of foreign state patronages. Marron specifically argues that a Palestinian sense of national belonging precedes the PLO battles, while providing shy hints of this pre-exilic society. This chapter does not provide the specificities of whom, where, and what led humanitarian definitions and practices to a negatively nuanced – but under-explained – everyday racketeering and appropriation.

In Chapter 3, the author argues that the PLO and the Palestinian political movement of Fatah radicalised the political landscape in Lebanon, seeking direct influence from within the formal institution of the parliament (p. 76), or through studentships, as cadres of Fatah enrolled as students in Lebanese universities (p. 78). By conducting robberies and soliciting funding, the PLO and Fatah militarised the civilian refugee community, raising violence in the camps. The author describes the “neopatrimonial” tendencies of Fatah and the PLO in terms of “self-enrichment” rather than the official rhetoric of the “revolution” (p. 87). Marron thus opposes the narratives that depict the so-called Palestinian revolution as an effort against Lebanese sectarian politics.

Chapter 4 highlights the challenges of organising camp society outside of patronage legacies. The pervasive influence of factional politics on refugee lives is in fact mentioned as the most deleterious issue for the Palestinians, rather than poverty or lack of infrastructure per se. On the one hand, the chapter is not too convincing in the attempt to incorporate humanitarianism into the discussion of patronage, where political groups compete for assistance, recruiting their families and allies in the capacity of beneficiaries or employees within humanitarian projects, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) (pp. 93-95). On the other, the author clearly shows how camp dwellers challenge the legitimacy of the popular committees, as they represent the interests of proxy states to the camp society (pp. 103-104). Marron here opposes the tendency of the scholarly literature to separate out the Palestinian oppressive sovereigns from the refugees.

Chapter 5 provides accounts of rent-seeking and illegal housing (p. 111) to shed light on camps as sources of livelihoods and proliferation, by specifying, for instance, that the percentage of Palestinian camp dwellers who own their homes (82%) is higher than Lebanese nationals (68%). Besides, Chapter 5 seeks to approach the humanitarian framework, by mentioning how NGOs are captured by competing factions in the camps (p. 116). Marron, however, is not detailed in showing how ordinary people participate in these dynamics, risking, on the one hand, a new homogenisation of refugees – shaped by negative agency – and, on the other, a new homogenisation of humanitarians, who emerge as victims that are over-burdened with responsibilities, and finding “their path disrupted by amorphous forces” (p. 124).

The role of humanitarian agencies which stems from this chapter is slightly opaque: the attentive reader is left with several questions regarding what humanitarian projects the author precisely refers to until Chapter 6, when Marron finally outlines the political economy of refugee camps and NGOs. Drawing on Horkheimer’s theory of rackets, the author largely draws on her own ethnographic experience as a teacher in a vocational school in Shatila to inform her argument that the protectors in refugee camps are also the sources of violence (p. 126). The experiential anecdote serves to illustrate how factions, influential retired community members from different political constituencies, camp residents, and humanitarians participate in the “racket society”. Likewise, Marron mentions that public services are privatised by camp factional officials to appropriate aid from outside (i.e. waste removal service, electricity grid, etc.). Nonetheless, the author often mentions dynamics of welfare power-sharing, which can surely overlap with humanitarian interventions, without telling us how she frames such overlaps and, furthermore, is too quick to label all of the service providers in the camp as “humanitarian”.

While in the first instance the author depicts the humanitarian system as caught up in the racketeering dynamics as a mere victim, in Chapter 7, she nuances their action as a “moral hazard” (p. 149) in the crystallising refugee vulnerability and as facilitating the amplification of statelessness (p. 146). Racketeering against UNRWA projects is therefore seen as the only means by which camp dwellers can access resources (p. 163). In the effort to normalise refugee camps and dissuade public narratives from ossified victimhood, Marron concludes by asserting the humanitarian exacerbation of camp racketeering dynamics but, at the same time, denouncing how humanitarian failures have been “deflected away from camp society and back onto the Lebanese state and the international community” (p. 171). The author here argues that “humanitarian assistance is not a measure that ensures collective welfare”, but rather an individual entitlement for which racketeering is necessary in order to obtain “fair shares”. I find this the most significant and intriguing argument advanced, which, probably, should have been introduced and developed earlier in the book.

Throughout the chapters, the reader struggles to identify the voices of Marron’s interviewees and her own empirical evidence. Among her second source-based historical accounts around the formation of a camp habitus oppression, the refugee individual, however, is not well visibilised: refugees seem to be given agency through the negative morality of the humanitarian rackets and political neopatrimonialism, while being unable to turn camps into civil societies.
Moreover, to me, the choice of the title remains unclear, as the humanitarian discourse and practices are not given the largest room for analysis. By the same token, the geography of the camps in Lebanon is not clearly outlined, emerging as an abstract and therefore easily homogenisable space, while most of the accounts and the camp history provided actually regard Shatila exclusively. The book’s overall imprecise structure hinders a still needed in-depth discussion of humanitarianism in camp societies.

While revealing a specific disciplinary approach is not essential in my view, the author could have been more explicit in several sections in defining her positionality while in the field and the local politics of knowledge. The book presents a very large number of key themes which therefore remain hinted at rather than properly explored, scattering the reader’s attention. On the whole, this book is primarily a historical account for social sciences scholars and researchers interested in refugee-related issues, and humanitarian practitioners. I particularly suggest this book to those who engage with the history of Palestinians in the region, and the way camp politics intertwines with the domestic politics of “host societies”. In this regard, the author provides insights from relevant first hand experience and important secondary sources, which inform the current debates on politics, refugeeness, and humanitarian governance.

Estella Carpi is a Research Associate in the Migration Research Unit, Department of Geography, University College London, working on Southern-led responses to displacement from Syria in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. She received her PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Sydney (Australia) with a research project on social responses to conflict-induced displacement and humanitarian assistance provision in contemporary Lebanon. In the past, she also worked as a researcher in Egypt, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates, mostly focusing on humanitarian and welfare systems, forced migration, and identity politics.

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Supporting refugee livelihoods or host stability? The two sides of the coin

For many refugees, the humanitarian programmes focusing on “livelihoods” end up having merely an “accessory” role rather than generating sustainable labour.


Civil defence members and civilians put out fire at a camp for Syrian refugees near the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, July 2, 2017. Picture by HASSAN ABDALLAH/Reuters/PA Images. All rights reserved.


Civil defence members and civilians put out fire at a camp for Syrian refugees near the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, July 2, 2017. Picture by HASSAN ABDALLAH/Reuters/PA Images. All rights reserved.The livelihood component of humanitarian programmes has taken on ever greater importance over the past few decades. It touches on and integrates various NGO sectors, including protection [1], food security and water sanitation and hygiene (WASH). In particular, the strategy of humanitarian livelihoods programming targeting refugees around the world has changed from the care and maintenance of refugees to the self-reliance formula during the 1960s and ’70s.

The challenge of translating the concept of “livelihoods” from English into other languages is noteworthy, particularly with respect to the term’s technocratic implications, and Latin languages have by and large adopted it as a loan wordtout court. In recent interviews conducted with local aid workers in the city of Halba in the Akkar province (northern Lebanon), “livelihoods” was translated into Arabic by using a broader expression, namely “ways to improve life” (subul tahsin al-‘aiysh). Tentative and stunted verbal and conceptual translations of “livelihoods” play a major role in unpacking the standardised and de-historicised way in which livelihood strategies have been exported through humanitarian programming, which has the (paradoxical) purpose of guaranteeing survival on the basis of local specificities.

Regarding the case of Akkar in northern Lebanon, most of the livelihoods programmes currently being implemented among refugees and local hosts are meant to produce temporary, small-scale and – for women – mostly home-based forms of income. According to the Syrian refugees I interviewed in Akkar in February and March 2017, humanitarian programmes end up having merely an “accessory” role: They do not generate any form of sustainable labour and practically turn vocational training into leisure activities. For these refugees, this comes as no surprise. They are aware of the scarcity of job opportunities that Akkar’s economy can provide, of the fickle character of Lebanon’s (mainly de facto) policies regulating their everyday lives and of the legal constraints they face as unrecognised refugees. Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. At present it allows Syrians to work exclusively in the agriculture, gardening, cleaning and construction sectors. These are the sectors in which Syrian migrant workers have historically worked throughout the country.

To analytically understand what refugee interviewees have called the “cosmetic” role that humanitarian programming plays while displacement becomes long-term, the humanitarian discourse around refugee livelihoods in Lebanon – as argued by a UN official I interviewed – has now replaced the “cash for work” formula with the “community support” motto. This is done in an effort to disguise and sugarcoat what the refugee beneficiary may be able to earn and learn in host societies.

The humanitarian intent is primarily aimed at creating and enhancing sources of livelihoods, rather than getting beneficiaries to participate in leisure activities. Nonetheless, the social-affective value of offering physical spaces for collective forms of exchange and temporary learning should not be undercut.

To date, 253,332 Syrian refugees have been registered with the UNHCR in this region in Lebanon. Despite this rather large number, during my latest visit to Akkar I noticed that these individuals were becoming decreasingly visible in the public space. Having moved here since 2011, they are often undocumented, feel unaccepted at the local level and therefore prefer to lead their lives behind closed doors.

Hence, on the one hand, livelihoods programmes have the unintentional positive outcome of providing new experiences of collectivity, where mingling is necessary and legal papers are not requested. On the other hand, vocational training based on small-scale activities and home-based forms of labour aimed at self-sufficiency too often end up confirming unequal economies. Moreover, aiming most of the livelihoods programmes’ to produce self-employment and informal activities, they are mainly promoted to guarantee survival rather than entrepreneurship: Small-scale self-empowerment challenges host governments less and is unlikely to spark local dissent. Furthermore, home-based activities do not call pre-established cultural understandings of gender roles and work tasks into question.

Conversations with refugees and local residents show that the beneficiaries’ expectations of livelihoods programmes are quite diverse and range from having the desire or the desperate need to find a job to approaching training as little more than a leisure activity. The majority of local residents joining the livelihoods programmes affirmed approaching them as potential job opportunities and humanitarian agencies as temp agencies. Although initiated with the ethical goal of rescuing lives and alleviating suffering, humanitarian agencies are increasingly acting as conflict resolution forces; by definition, however, they cannot recognise themselves as job providers, even though they have become an integral part of the local labour markets.

So what is the current role of humanitarian practices in catalysing a symbolic encounter between Lebanese and Syrian nationals if labour can seldom be the ultimate goal and actual achievement? Humanitarian efforts in Lebanon have historically contributed to defining new and old human needs along ethnic and sometimes religious lines. Aid provision to Syrian refugees in the poor Akkar region is no exception as it initially polarised locals and migrants by distinguishing between the needs of the Lebanese and those of the Syrians. Today humanitarian agencies seem to act through compensatory stability mechanisms to deal with social tensions by promoting economic survival for refugees and employment and empowerment among local residents.

Although they provided aid unconditionally and indiscriminately to all Syrian nationals at the beginning of the crisis, humanitarian agencies have gradually targeted refugees and vulnerable hosts in a bid to compensate for the frictions caused by an earlier refugee-centred provision of services in chronically poor areas.

These days, local economic development agendas and humanitarian livelihoods programmes are explicitly intertwined with social stability and cohesion agendas. Rather than having self-reliance as an explicit final objective, the current humanitarian politics of livelihoods in northern Lebanon sets social cohesion and stability as the primary purpose of such programmes by addressing both Syrian nationals and vulnerable Lebanese residents.

Therefore, while tensions and stability are still identified and addressed in ethnically hybrid contexts, humanitarian targeting strategies are decreasingly deployed along ethnic or religious lines and are better inscribed within the area-focused intervention framework. In other words, a geography of vulnerability is replacing an (ethnic and religious) identity politics of need and aid provision. Yet humanitarian cohesion and stability agendas continue to stymie this process by addressing ethnically mixed areas and therefore fantasising ethnocentric regimes of stability.

The protracted nature of the crisis inevitably produces a need to attribute agency to the refugees. Likewise, humanitarians use the language of “resilient livelihoods” by tacitly putting the moral and material responsibility to survive and thrive on the beneficiaries. If humanitarian programmes in Akkar are increasingly self-legitimised by upholding long-term cohesion and the stability of the host society, refugee beneficiaries are also called upon to help maintain such local stability.

Unfriendly legal frameworks and humanitarian agencies sometimes burdened with responsibilities that should be attributed to host governments have been sufficiently discussed. I would encourage practitioners and opinion-makers to look beyond such constraints and to ask how individuals feel when they are provided with new skills, particularly when they are aware they are unlikely to be employed anytime soon. Personal frustration and resignation may offer simplistic and unsatisfactory answers. The fact that some segments of the refugee population reconfigure livelihoods programmes as leisure activities opens up new ways of thinking and idealising the humanitarian system in ageing crises.

[1] “Protection” here refers to the UNHCR definition, that is legal assistance that ensures the basic human rights of uprooted or stateless people in their countries of asylum or habitual residence and that refugees will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they could face persecution.

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Rethinking Lebanese Welfare in Ageing Emergencies

“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:

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.

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Enhanced local coordination for effective aid provision: the case of Lebanon (September 2016)

The Policy brief I co-authored with UN Habitat (Beirut) and the ‘Issam Fares Institute (American University of Beirut) is finally out.

Here below its summary and the link to access it.

Lebanon’s refugee crisis has highlighted the need for much closer coordination among the various organisations and local authorities involved in the response. A new study has laid the groundwork for a series of recommendations, set out in this briefing, on how national, local and international humanitarian actors can work together more effectively to enhance urban refugee responses in Lebanon and perhaps in other countries. In the context of a protracted urban crisis, this briefing argues that humanitarians will only be able to ensure their responses are sustainable and meet needs on the ground if they work closely with local authorities.

Available online at:

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Responding to the Syrian crisis in Lebanon: collaboration between aid agencies and local governance structures (September 2016)

The Urban Crisis Report I co-authored with UN Habitat (Beirut) and the Issam Fares Institute (American University of Beirut) is finally out!

Here below the executive summary and the link to access the whole report.

This working paper seeks to document and analyse collaboration mechanisms between local authorities and humanitarian actors in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis in urban and peri-urban settings in Lebanon. It outlines existing mechanisms of collaboration, analyses their potential strengths and weaknesses, and derives lessons and recommendations for improving refugee responses in Lebanon, and potentially in other national settings. The report focuses on two case studies: the largely hybrid urban district of Bourj Hammoud, one of the main commercial hubs of Greater Beirut, and the peri-urban coastal region of Sahel El Zahrani, located between Saida and Tyre in South Lebanon. The response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon,which broke out in 2011, faced many challenges initially; namely the lack of a solid national response strategy
and weak local governance capacities, which were needed to respond to a large-scale crisis. International non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and United Nations (UN) agencies took the initial lead in responding to the crisis. Local authorities, who were at the forefront of the response, lacked the adequate capacities to respond and thus were involved in a less organised manner. The humanitarian response suffered overall from weak coordination between international actors, the central government, and (in)formal local authorities, resulting in unequal and scattered aid distribution. As the crisis prolonged, the government of Lebanon (GoL) became increasingly involved and eventually, in 2015, led the development of the Lebanon Crisis
Response Plan (LCRP) jointly with UN agencies.
Various ministries took a more proactive role in the response, in particular the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA), which was designated by the Council of Ministers to take on an official role in the response. At the local level, municipalities and unions of
municipalities, despite lacking an official responsibility, made serious efforts to respond to the refugees due to increasing pressures in their localities and based on moral imperatives. International and UN agencies initially targeted Syrian refugees on the basis of the humanitarian principle of immediate alleviation of suffering following displacement. Local host communities, who were impacted by the crisis due
to the increase in the local population and a higher demand on limited basic services, were initially less involved and addressed in the response. This working paper explores the various formal and informal levels of collaboration, or lack thereof, between international and local organisations, UN agencies and local authorities. In Lebanon, establishing successful coordination mechanisms between national and local authorities and aid agencies is politically and logistically challenging. Due to funding constraints and limited programme timeframes, humanitarian organisations find it difficult to maintain a continuous long-term relationship with local municipalities and unions of municipalities.
Moreover, aid agencies often opt to bypass local authorities in project implementation in order to avoid local bureaucracy. Internal politics also create another challenge for coordination with local authorities, as this can interfere with the orientation of aid.
UN agencies and INGOs are now mostly turning short-term relief programmes into longer- term projects for development, and have shown serious efforts to adapt their responses to address local contexts more adequately. However, clearly defining roles among international and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and UN agencies and establishing solid coordination mechanisms remains a challenge and is important to enhancing overall public management in urban crisis contexts.
The research concludes that complementing sectoral approaches by adopting area-based approaches to respond to emergency crises allows humanitarian and development programmes to address the needs of different vulnerable groups, including refugees and local communities, in a more efficient and sustainable manner.
This allows the implementation of more inclusive needs-based responses, whilst also preventing unequal aid distribution and the ‘compartmentalisation’ of society.
Moreover, this working paper highlights the weakness in focusing and adapting responses to respond to urban settings which host the majority of refugees. As such, it is important to raise awareness and develop the necessary tools and coordination mechanisms to optimally address refugees in urban contexts, especially with more refugees settling in urban areas worldwide. Finally, coordination efforts and mutual aid agreements for emergency service provision can provide a solid ground for local actors to know: first, how to turn international aid into an opportunity rather than financial and political dependency or reason for domestic marginalisation, and, second, to learn the advantages of domestic coordination, internal agreement, and develop the capacities to manage foreign aid. Overall, reinforcing the role of local authorities and actors has
proven to be more efficient and manageable in the short-term; however, over time, it also faces political limitations thus challenging the ability to reach a broader consensus on the management of domestic issues. This paper proposes a multi-scalar coordination
approach to respond to crises and address diverse
social vulnerabilities.

The report can be fully accessed here:

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Necro-politiche della disuguaglianza nel sud del Libano (July 2016)

Sarafand cimitero nuovo

(di Estella Carpi, per SiriaLibano). Siamo spesso erroneamente portati a credere che un cimitero ospiti solo morti, ricordi, rimorsi, gioie mai più ripresentatasi e sentimenti di questo tipo.

A Sarafand, la cui origine fenicia è Zarephath – piccola località costiera nella regione di Sahel az Zahrani tra Sidone e Tiro, nel sud del Libano – c’è un cimitero nuovo e uno vecchio. Basta una chiacchierata con gli abitanti della cittadina per rendersi conto che la gestione degli spazi cimiteriali rivela questioni di sovranità territoriale, una diversa dignità morale degli abitanti, e i poteri formali e informali esistenti che decidono della vita come della morte di tanti.

Il cimitero è solo una delle tante forme di politica dello spazio a Sarafand. In una realtà come il Libano in cui, ogniqualvolta si ripresentino crisi politico-umanitarie, la gestione dei servizi pubblici viene condotta da attori in gran parte esterni (agenzie Onu e organizzazioni non governative), la gestione delle morti e il diritto allo spazio e al riconoscimento socio-morale che ne deriva tornano nelle mani delle municipalità locali. E di queste si rispolverano così le croniche carenze amministrative e finanziarie. Questo accade in misura ancora più evidente a Sarafand, dove l’azione umanitaria delle agenzie internazionali si focalizza molto meno frequentemente.

Sarafand è abitata da lungo tempo da lavoratori siriani, spesso impiegati in lavori manuali, nella pulizia delle strade, nel settore edile e agricolo. Alla luce della crisi politica del 2011, migliaia di questi migranti hanno portato in Libano le loro famiglie estese. Il numero dei rifugiati siriani a Sarafand – di cui troppo spesso si fa un fascio d’erba unico – si dice ora superi quello della popolazione locale. Il comune di Sarafand e il capo dell’Unione delle municipalità di Sahel az Zahrani, evidenziano entrambi le difficoltà di trovare spazi per seppellire i morti. Un problema che precede di gran lunga la crisi siriana.

Secondo alcuni cittadini locali, i rifugiati siriani che abitano a Sarafand ormai da qualche anno sarebbero stati sul punto di organizzare un sit-in di carattere politico per rivendicare spazio per seppellire i propri morti. Conversando con i rifugiati di Sarafand, si tocca con mano la frustrazione che la vita nel Paese ospitante riserva ai profughi di guerra e violenze, e la condanna alla morte sociale di queste componenti demografiche. Se in tempo di crisi cibo, medicine, materassi e servizi forniti dalle agenzie umanitarie non possono di certo compensare la graduale perdita quotidiana della precedente normalità, essere riconosciuti come abitanti con dignità al diritto di sepoltura, di ricordo e di riconoscimento sociale post mortem solleva le medesime responsabilità umane.

In seguito a queste rivendicazioni e per evitare che le richieste assumessero infine la tinta di una protesta politica, il cimitero nuovo di Sarafand è stato allargato di qualche ettaro.

Secondo alcuni abitanti libanesi, la comunità palestinese locale è stata disposta a concedere parte del proprio spazio ai nuovi arrivati siriani per la sepoltura dei loro defunti. La comunità palestinese, dal proprio canto, non si è sentita invece interpellata in tale decisione municipale. Una giovane donna palestinese commenta che “essere figli di uno Stato non riconosciuto, di nessuna amministrazione, costringe alla limitazione dei propri diritti… Ci è stato forse chiesto cosa volessimo concedere? Non vi è nessun rappresentante della comunità palestinese né tantomeno nessuno è stato interpellato a questo riguardo… e ancora la definiscono una nostra concessione”.

Molti dei rifugiati siriani di Sarafand vivono in edifici nuovi, apparentemente costruiti per ghettizzare la popolazione non locale in spazi definiti e lontani dal resto della realtà urbana. C’è chi ritiene la municipalità efficiente e disponibile, ma impossibilitata a risolvere la questione dello spazio cimiteriale perché non all’interno delle proprie capacità giuridiche. C’è chi invece accusa la municipalità di riuscire ad avviare progetti ambiziosi di riciclaggio e preziose partnerships con agenzie internazionali, senza voler risolvere la questione dello spazio cimiteriale. “Nessuna speranza per ricordare. Nessuna speranza per morire in pace! La municipalità rifiuta la concessione di spazi per i nostri morti perché spera di liberarsi di noi… Ho provato a cercare in tutto il Libano un modo per non mandare il corpo di mia madre in Siria… Non ritornerò facilmente lì dove son cresciuto… Dovrei lasciarla appassire lontana dal mio ricordo e dalla mia devozione? Non è facile neanche ottenere un’ambulanza per un siriano durante le ore del coprifuoco serale… Il maltrattamento che subiamo all’ordine del giorno non renderà la nostra permanenza temporanea”, afferma in modo significativo un uomo siriano di mezza età.

Secondo alcune voci locali, tuttavia, non sarebbe lo status legale e neppure la nazionalità del defunto a garantire una degna sepoltura e una degna devozione da parte dei propri familiari. È piuttosto lo status sociale a determinare la dignità del vivo come del morto. “L’unica cosa che importa” – mi dice un venditore di schede telefoniche sulla strada principale di Sarafand –  “è che tipo di siriano sei, che tipo di palestinese sei, e così via… qual è il tuo status sociale, insomma”.

Della stessa opinione è un altro residente di Sarafand che accenna al fatto che “per seppellire il corpo di una persona illustre, miracolosamente, lo spazio si trova!”. Una cittadina libanese di Sarafand in modo analogo esclama: “La municipalità aveva appena negato la possibilità di nuove sepolture nel cimitero nuovo anche per noi libanesi, quand’ecco che un imprenditore ha avuto modo addirittura di farsi spazio in quello vecchio!”.

Classe sociale, status legale, wasta locale. I fattori che danno diritto a vivere e morire sono diversi quanto le narrative locali della diseguaglianza che ho dovuto digerire in un solo pomeriggio.

Con sgomento del grande Totò, neanche la morte, a Sarafand, è ‘na livella.

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Crisis & Control, (In)Formal Hybrid Security in Lebanon (July 2016)

The report I co-authored with Marie-Noelle Abi-Yaghi and Mariam Younes from Lebanon Support (Beirut) has just been published: If you wish to access the resulting policy brief authored by Lebanon Support’s partner International Alert, click on the following link:

We have conducted 3-month field research in Aley, Shebaa, and Ebrine in Lebanon.

Here below the executive summary of our research.

This report aims to analyze how formal and informal security providers implement their respective social order agendas through a security “assemblage”. It also aims to inform the debate on refugee protection and security provision in urban settings, in the context of Lebanon’s hybrid security system. The accounts collected illustrate how state security institutions tacitly accept – or even rely on – informal security actors, managing at times to achieve their political and strategic goals through decentralized and/or illegal forms of control. In this vein, local municipalities imposed curfews and street patrols, which, far from being an institutional measure, follow a flexible and unpredictable pattern.1 Three localities have been selected for the purpose of this research – namely Aley in Mount Lebanon, Ebrine in North Lebanon, and Shebaa in South Lebanon. The choice of these localities was driven by their different political and social history, their demographic homogeneity or diversity, and their relationship with surrounding regions. The investigation of the Syrian refugees’ access to security systems constitutes an interpretative lens through which the analysis of securitization processes in Lebanon can be undertaken. The notion of security we will discuss here is polysemantic: it does not only encompass regional or domestic conflicts, but also suggests a particular social form of waiting; a climate of fear portending the worse that is yet to come. As a matter of fact, this climate of fear encourages preemptive security measures and serves as a deterrent against violent outbursts. Therefore, manifestations of insecurity or security threats are often routinized perceptions and, as such, integrated into accounts of ordinary everyday life. Security plays a multifaceted role in the three settings selected for thorough analysis. It builds the cohesiveness of the local communities, while fending off endemic societal fragmentation. This is mainly because local people tend to identify with a single homogenous entity that needs to protect itself against external threats, with these threats being represented nowadays by Syrian refugees, who may become “radicalized” and destabilize the “host” space. And since security goes beyond the exclusion of risk and jeopardy, the official discourse of local security providers entails the protection of refugees. While we draw on the classic normative distinction of security providers into formal and informal, our analysis moves beyond such a rigid differentiation. The formal/ informal dichotomy fades away when security is discussed as a hybrid assemblage of unpredictable and situational forces enforced in particular circumstances. Our findings confirm that formal security is partially implemented through informal local actors, providing a terrain of common interest in the preservation of social order. In addition, security cannot be viewed as a given “social fact”: it is rather a contextual process embedded in multiple power relations that preserve social order in a given space and reinforce social status and community identification.

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Review of Diana Allan’s “Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile” (July 2016)

I have reviewed Diana Allan’s book “Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile” for Anthropological Quarterly (Spring 2016). You can access the PDF file at this link:

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Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories (by Estella Carpi, August 2015)

Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories. The Syrian Kurdish Exodus and the Lebanese Akkaris.

Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories. The Syrian Kurdish Exodus and the Lebanese Akkaris.

August 20, 2015

Social Science Researcher at TRENDS Research & Advisory

Migrants are definable as people who spontaneously choose to leave their country and build a better life elsewhere. Before their departure, migrants are therefore able to ask for information about their destination and what opportunities they may have there. Moreover, they remain free to go back to their home country whenever needed or desired. The United Nations defines a ‘migrant’ as an individual who has resided in a foreign country for longer than one year regardless of the causes, voluntary or involuntary, and the means, regular or irregular. Nevertheless, at the international level, no universally accepted definition for “migrant” exists.

Conversely, refugees have no other choice but leaving their country because they are persecuted, tortured, being their life somehow jeopardised if they remained in their home country. In specific, Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. In such cases, the very reasons behind refugee influxes are political and human rights, safety and security, rather than individual and collective economic upgrading. People’s departure is mostly unexpected and unplanned due to warfare or natural disaster. Their journey towards the so-called “host-countries” is full of risks, yet in relentless search for protection and safety. In most cases, refugees, unlike migrants, cannot return unless the political and social scenario back home changes in their favour.

If those described above are the de facto and legal defining conditions according to which we are supposed to distinguish a migrant from a refugee, the latest flows of people on the move throughout the Middle East point to a less clear-cut category of mobile populations. In the cases of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, and Lebanon, which will be discussed later, the 1951 Geneva’s Refugee Convention has not been ratified by the governments: thus, until the time individuals seeking refuge do not receive their official status from UNHCR[1] (or UNRWA[2] in the case of Palestinians), they are to be legally considered asylum seekers or forced migrants. Even once they obtain the official documentation, refugees fear repatriation and detention, in that UNHCR and UNRWA simply clinched bilateral agreements with most of the Middle Eastern governments hosting the newcomers, as they are not signatories to the 1951 Convention. This explains the chronic indoor life that many refugees, other than the Palestinians, lead to be able to reside in the Middle East.

Yet, international law’s regulations and the orthodox language of the human rights campaigns seem to create more confusion in addressing changing and blurred mobile groups of people, by engendering a gap between real needs, rights’ achievement, and programs meant to addressing social and political issues on the basis of forced and non-forced migrations. It is how “forced” such migration flows are which increasingly become ungraspable. As mentioned above, international law does not contemplate cases in which people who are not subjected to persecution are eligible for such a legal status. However, it became evident that people, even when not directly persecuted or personally endangered, still find themselves in the condition to have no other choice than leaving, as the Syrian exodus is currently proving. Consequently, speaking of and tackling migrants as a different category from refugees – and vice versa – becomes misleading on a pragmatic and a legal level, rather than ensuring rights and meeting needs appropriately.

For instance, in the first instance, UNHCR did not consider external compelling reasons for migration as mandatory criteria for registering refugees from Syria. In Lebanon, the rash policy of considering anyone coming out of Syria as aprioristically eligible – as potentially subjected to persecution by one of the warring parties – led to a daunting and premature shortage of aid which the humanitarian agencies were supposed to provide, as well as to an unbelievable number of registered refugees (now 1,172,753) until the January 2015 tightening of the new Lebanese immigration laws.

Therefore, to make up for resources’ waste, UNHCR subsequently introduced refugee status cancellation policies in accordance with the Lebanese government when registered families or individuals did not collect their assigned aid packages more than three times in a row. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that Syrian refugees often reported the lack of successful communication between them and aid providers. Many of them therefore found themselves in extreme need of assistance after being cancelled from the UNHCR list. In a nutshell, the random registration of refugees at the outset of the refugee crisis, and the consequent UN compensation policy to make aid suffice for all, have unavoidably been perceived as aggressive policies by the refugees, for whom such measures were standing for the carelessness of the international community.

A further example is provided by the paradox that defining an individual as ‘economic migrant’ rather than ‘refugee’ can mean denying her/him access to the process of applying for asylum. Likewise, those who do not have the status of asylum seeker can legally be returned to their country of origin whenever the latter is considered safe. The distinction inevitably leads legal institutions to introduce a list of countries from which either only asylum seekers or economic migrants can come. For example, countries ridden by longstanding conflict like Syria are viewed as merely producing influxes of refugees and not economic migrants. The complexity and differentiation of the types of mobility that the Syrian political crisis has gradually given birth to goes here unheeded.

It is of use to recall that many Syrians were undergoing political harassment and persecution from the side of state institutions in the 1970s and later, who were therefore fleeing to neighbouring and western countries in the capacity of ‘economic migrants’ rather than ‘political refugees’. The lack of officially declared emergencies, and the unwillingness to deal with the Hafez al-Asad regime at an international level at that time, influenced the definition and the management of Syrian people’s mobility in those years, in a bid to depoliticise or simply undercut the matter for the sake of regional and international stability.

A further suitable example nowadays is offered by the North-Eastern region of Syria, the semi-independent area which is co-ruled in practice by Bashar al-Asad’s regime and the Syrian Kurdish Party PYD (Democratic Union Party), despite the highly controversial relationship that these two political actors have intertwined.

Especially in 2013, two years after the outset of the Syrian uprisings taking place across the whole country, Syrian Kurdistan produced big flows of ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ altogether towards the neighbouring Turkey and Iraq. A large number of those who fled into Iraqi Kurdistan (where over 90% of Syrian refugees are now Syrians Kurds) and Turkey – where segments of their families were already living – should properly be defined as ‘economic migrants’, if the very reasons for their migration were considered. Indeed, the traditional inhabitants of Syrian Kurdistan had long been neglected by the central state’s services, and the regime’s politics of meeting the Kurds’ needs and granting Syrian citizenship to many of them only at the beginnings of the Syrian revolution (April 2011), were primarily aimed at averting a greater turmoil, therefore limiting the use of force to curb the popular protests in these areas. Similarly, the regime’s aviation has never bombed the Kurdish-majority areas since 2011, except for the territories presently held by the so-called Islamic State (mainly al-Hasake’s governorate).

Aside from chronic poverty, hence, longstanding lack of social services, schools, and roads, and the decreasing presence of basic goods, electricity, and clean water during the ongoing conflict, Syrian Kurdistan mostly became a region of spontaneous migration rather than refugehood caused by indiscriminate political persecution and bombing against the local population (i.e. the Hama governorate in central Syria). Nonetheless, the life conditions of the average Kurdish Syrian citizen were dire to the extent at which migrations towards an unknown future and a refugee-camp life in Turkey or Iraq were still considered as a better option.

In sum, the Syrian Kurdistan region, called in Arabic “Rojavà”, has long been neglected by the Syrian central state as well as by international media before the Syrian crisis. The mechanic and aprioristic association of Syrians with refugee influxes in the Middle East and elsewhere, operated from outside, has also induced many Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds living in this region to abandon their homes and look for a better life outside of the country. The use of the refugees’ label and the livelihoods at their disposal – the emergency aid supposedly destined only to the war-stricken – have turned out to be great assets for disadvantaged people desiring to find a job and a higher economic status far away from home.

Likewise, many among the older date Syrian migrants in Lebanon decided to leave their previous life of exploitation and social marginalisation to opt for a more hopeful life in Europe or elsewhere. Their Syrian passports have helped them to pursue their mobility purposes and concretely move towards an economic betterment and a “life of dignity” only in times of regional emergency.

The typical phenomenon of viewing refugee status as opportunity, whenever the international community legally acknowledges an emergency and its political consequences, also appeared in recent times with chronically poor Lebanese citizens, especially from the Akkar region, which is deemed as the poorest in Lebanon. Akkar’s residents started “capitalising” the miserable status of Syrian refugees to comply with their own very needs and legitimate desires of migration. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the drowning of seventeen Akkaris from the village of Fneideq who had bought fake Syrian passports in order to be shipped towards the Australian coasts. After the tragic episode, Akkar’s roads were blocked as a sign of “protest and solidarity, to express our frustration… When will we redeem ourselves from chronic poverty and deprivation?!”.[3]

Neither the status of economic migrant nor that of refugee seems to be able, per se, to redeem diversely needy people, as long as such international labels remain embedded in the increasingly laborious applicability of legal definitions, the way in which the latter discipline the material management of people’s mobility, and the predominant political order which is strategically upheld by these labels.

While law should sort out social issues on the basis of social justice and overall security, its recurrent submission to international politics keeps on labeling departures, resettlements, continuous movements, personal decisions, and human lives at its will. Nothing more ungraspable. Nothing more fruitlessly ambitious.

[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[2] United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

[3] Quotations taken from in-depth interviews undertaken 13 October 2013, in Lebanon.

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Revisiting Vulnerability in a Slum of Beirut: when Citizenship Disempowers (by Estella Carpi, July 2015)

Publishing Date:

July 15, 2015
Author(s): Estella Carpi
Refugees in Lebanon have always occupied the lowest level of the Lebanese social pyramid, often denied access to public services, and not even being legally recognized as refugees. From the refugee perspective, citizenship, however produced within a wavering and corrupted state system, seems to be the only tool guaranteeing basic services. The present paper shows how, in particular cases like the Beirut suburb of Hay al-Gharbe—inhabited by refugees, migrant workers, and a small number of disadvantaged Lebanese—citizenship rather than refugeehood is the legal status preventing the vulnerable from accessing any assistance regime in Lebanon. Their chronic vulnerability forces them to make a constant effort to adapt to poverty. The recent gentrification of the periphery and its external stigmatization as wholly vulnerable ended up obscuring internal exclusion and inclusion phenomena, rarely discussed in relation to people’s everyday pragmatics of survival. In this framework, while refugee and migrant workers’ poverties have become the only external interpretative lens to explore vulnerability in Lebanon, a kind of urban poverty, which is neither connected to the political violence of regional wars nor to the flawed refugee regime, will be investigated through ethnographic methods.
Keywords: Chronic Neglect, Poverty, vulnerability, Citizenship, Political Loyalty, Identity Politics

To cite this paper: Estella Carpi, “Revisiting Vulnerability in a Slum of Beirut: when Citizenship Disempowers”, Civil Society Knowledge Center, Lebanon Support, 2015-07-15 00:00:00.

Full text:
Image source: Estella Carpi


Beirut’s southern suburbs, considered the “periphery” par excellence in Lebanon, were named “Dahiye” in 1982 after being called the “belt of misery”—hizam al bu’s—in addition to Southern Metn. Dahiye is located between the agro-industrial area of the district of Choueifat and the municipality of Hadath.1 Nowadays, the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital are mostly administered by the main Shiite party Hezbollah, which prevailed over the minor Shiite party Harakat Amal in the 1990s.

The homogenisation of a desolate and miserable Dahiye has often overshadowed the different causes of local chronic poverty and the emerging forms of exclusion not merely triggered by migration flows, refugee crises, or abstract economic structures, but rather by political issues that remain unaddressed at the domestic and international levels. The 2006 reconstruction of Beirut’s Dahiye has been monopolized by the Waad project designed by the Iranian-funded NGO Jihad al-Binaa, the most successful reconstructor in the areas directly affected by the 2006 July war that are indistinctively viewed as politically marked by Hezbollah’s governance. The reconstruction efforts left unaddressed the areas of Dahiye suffering from perennial vulnerability,2 and generally constituting politically “anonymous” spaces or politically unaffiliated ones.

These Dahiye neighbourhoods, like the illegal settlement of Hay al-Gharbe—subject of analysis in my field research from 2011 to 2013—have actually not been the targets of military attacks and, therefore, have never been declared in a ‘state of emergency’.

I will therefore illustrate how the social milieu of Hay al-Gharbe is discussed by those of its inhabitants who are affected by non-war related vulnerability. This paper also shows how the lack of local welfare affects individuals in areas neglected by both the state and non-state actors when emergency politics govern the social spaces. In this framework, human behaviour is not framed by the structural character of urban poverty, but by the subject’s cultural perceptions,3 which also entails different imaginations and social schemes of poverty within the Lebanese scenario.4 The array of norms and values that underlie such schemes emerge from the human adaptability to the poverty experience. The Hay al-Gharbe study stands in contrast with the only possibility of practical citizenship in the Dahiye area, which is political affiliation to, local compliance with, or non-contestation of the dominant social ethics.

Research Methods

In the framework of my doctoral research, I have carried out approximately 90 in-depth interviews between September 2011 and November 2013 with Dahiye’s residents, who had been beneficiaries or non-beneficiaries of the humanitarian aid provided during and after the 2006 Lebanon-Israel July war — harb tammuz — which caused an unprecedented level of infrastructural destruction in Lebanon. I also conducted 68 semi-structured interviews in different suburbs of Beirut with international and local non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, and local municipalities, which provided humanitarian assistance to the displaced in 2006.

I casually walked into the area of Hay al-Gharbe several months after the beginning of my doctoral fieldwork. Despite being part of the Dahiye area, the majority of my Lebanese friends and interlocutors had never heard of this slum located to the west of Shatila. Since then, Hay al-Gharbe became the litmus paper of my research on the humanitarian programs in the war-stricken Greater Beirut areas.5

In the interpretation of data and analysis of findings, I have privileged a qualitative ethnographic approach in order to experience the answers provided by my interlocutors rather than merely collecting and reporting their verbal accounts. Thus, everyday participant observation — a classical research tool in anthropology — has allowed a more comprehensive understanding of the daily frames mentioned in the present article and is here considered as the primary epistemological source.

As will be evident, a wider qualitative analysis of how social spaces turn into humanitarian scenarios has provided me with the possibility to explore the gray areas of vulnerability lying between refugeehood and citizenship, and therefore unearthing the understudied inequalities of Dahiye.

Hay al-Gharbe: Political Non-Affiliation and Chronic Marginalization 

Hay-Gharbe is an illegal settlement bordering the Palestinian camp of Shatila and the former camp of Sabra — now simply called tajammu‘, “settlement” — under the municipality of al-Ghobeiry, which is administered by the main Shiite Lebanese party Hezbollah. Sabra and Shatila became notorious because of the massacres perpetrated by the Israeli-Phalangist alliance in September 1982 during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).

The borders of this settlement are not merely physical; they are connected to community identities. In fact, its configuration changed during the Lebanese Civil War because of the inhabitants’ migration to the current stadium, Camille Chamoun (al-medina ar-riadiyya), as a result of the frequent bombing of the Palestinian camps at that time, and the fighting between different political factions.

In order to renovate the stadium in 1992, the occupants, former inhabitants of Hay al-Gharbe, were evicted, and returned to the settlement. The settlement has always been distinguished from the Shatila camp for its varied urban composition. Moreover, the residents themselves often expressed their refusal to be associated with the Palestinian refugee camp, as the latter was a frequent target of attacks by various political forces and, therefore, drawing special attention from international politics.

In particular, the Lebanese residents who feared a long-lasting conflict in 2006 or a sharpening of violence in the 2008 Shiite-Sunni clashes had moved away from the area, only to return there later, unable to settle elsewhere in the Lebanese capital.6

The majority of Hay al-Gharbe’s residents are Dom (72%), descendants of nomads who populated the courts of India between the third and tenth centuries, and who are now based in the Middle East. The settlement is also inhabited by Palestinians who have not found accommodation in the refugee camps; regional refugees and migrant workers from Asia and Africa (especially Iraqis, Sri Lankans, and Syrians) also make up a sizeable percentage of Hay al-Gharbe’s residents, and form a marginalized sphere in the multifaceted reality of Dahiye. Hence, Lebanese citizens make up only a small portion of the suburb’s population.

It should be noted that the Dahiye neighbourhood, where Hay al-Gharbe is located, can accommodate up to 80,000 people. In 1995, however, it was already housing 500,000 residents.7 The social groups residing in Hay al-Gharbe — 10,000 people in total — tend to isolate themselves and avoid any interaction with one another, and with the other Dahiye’s residents.8 Moreover, most of the residents are women and children, given that nearly 20% of men are detained in prison. Increased rates of criminality can be attributed to prolonged poverty and the rise of urban violence.9

Because of different national proveniences and cultural habits, and the dizzying rate of urbanization, the aforementioned demographics have never been assimilated into Dahiye’s urban fabric, impeding the formation of a fully integrated urban community. The lack of integration as a result of a surge in urbanization is a generalizable sociological phenomenon in Lebanon.10

In general, the rapid urbanization process that rural immigrants underwent has paved the way to the formation of illegal settlements, the dismantling of which remains difficult in a country where the institutions are too lax and corrupt to enforce rules. The Lebanese government, for its part, has no interest in investing in the development of infrastructural areas that have proliferated illegally.

As evidence of such a feeling of social isolation, Fatma,11 14 years old, showed me her unpaired shoes and exclaimed:

“I never leave the house, I find it humiliating… look at my shoes, they are unpaired and I cannot afford to buy new ones. I have no friends; if you hang out with them, they just talk about what they have. And then, I have nothing to tell… That’s fine, I got used to it. If I didn’t, I would suffer.”

Najwan is a Palestinian woman holding Lebanese citizenship due to her marriage to a Lebanese.12 She told me she had always lived in Hay al-Gharbe because her family had no political connections and, therefore, had no opportunity either to study or to find a job.13

“I would like to send my children to school now, but it’s a damn vicious cycle: with what money could I do it? They will die the same way I will: with no one being there to take care of them.”

It is worth noting that the only accessible aid provision for Najwan’s family was the one to which Palestinians are entitled. This led Mohammed, one of my Lebanese interlocutors, to nationally identify with Palestinian refugees, while feeling betrayed by the Lebanese after he was fired from the Sabra vegetables markets where he used to work, up until six years ago:

“The Syrians stole my job, and my Lebanese boss simply wanted someone more exploitable than me. I transferred the Lebanese citizenship to the whole family, but this didn’t change much for us. We didn’t ‘welcome’ any Israeli missile here in the house. And, with the Hezbollah administration, this is how it works: no physical damage caused by Israel, no help for you. You need to know that the few families that own citizenship in Hay al-Gharbe have pledged their loyalty to local parties, by voting for them in local elections. Candidates promise to provide more affordable generators, manage better garbage dumps, and give good quality water. What we would do for some good quality water! In order not to pay for drinking water, some residents literally enslave themselves to political parties… Can you see my daughter’s hijab? She doesn’t wear it because she really wants it, or because we want that… She wears it because she started losing her hair due to the salty water of the shower!”

Najwan and her family—half-Palestinian, half-Lebanese—did not embody the precariousness resulting from war emergencies, but rather, the vulnerability addressable by long-term humanitarian assistance for Palestinians. At the same time, Najwan’s family is associated with chronic poverty caused and exacerbated by sporadic displacements during the civil war, and discriminatory state (and NGOs) policies.

Wafiq,14 a 40-year-old Lebanese man residing in Hay al-Gharbe, said he was grateful that his mother was Palestinian, in that this ensured his family’s access to the remittances of the Palestinian migrant communities:

“Thanks to the Beit Atfal as-Sumud (‘The [Palestinian] House of Steadfast Children’), we’re provided with livelihoods, which, however, are only sufficient to survive.15Lebanese people like my father never had wasta [useful personal connections], and so we never accessed public services, which are too expensive for us… Can you believe me? What’s the use, then, of the Lebanese nationality! Here we have no drinking water, no electricity; there is only one school and a health service provider in the district thanks to few associations. Yet no national army here protects us, neither the police nor the state… No one cares at all.”

Likewise, Fathi,16 a Lebanese older man who used to lead an indoor life in Hay al-Gharbe because of his extreme poverty, stated:

“I fought with Fatah ad-Dahiye in the ‘war of the camps’ in 1987. At that time, they were making many promises: ‘If you fight, you will receive whatever you and your family need’. I haven’t seen any improvement, any help. I’m just sick of seeing lies parading as revolutions and resistances. My life is so much worse now than in the years of the Civil War.”

Amira,17 a 13 year-old Lebanese teenager, said that after 2008 she returned to live in Hay al-Gharbe with her parents, but

“Nothing belongs to us here. The land belongs to the municipality, and they could evict us whenever they want. That’s why we live locked in the house. Unless we show our face, most of us go unnoticed and get forgotten. And the more we are forgotten, the better. There is no safety. I forget what there is outside, and thanks to this I resist.”

The invisibility of Hay al-Gharbe, even within the outskirts of Dahiye, is due to the longstanding state neglect and the lack of interest of international humanitarian organizations, which tend to intervene in areas that are less involved in global politics.

Indeed, non-governmental structures — which played a great interventional role in Dahiye during the 2006 July war — have neglected areas of severe chronic vulnerability and urban poverty, but not derived from war and violence.18

After the Pyrrhic victory of Hezbollah in the 2006 July war, the party reached its greatest popularity by distributing resources with no sectarian discrimination; the most heavily bombed districts of Dahiye, therefore, reached unprecedented levels of economic development and gentrification (i.e. Haret Hreik and Bi’r Hassan). In fact, the new emerging class of local engineers and architects was largely employed in the reconstruction process.

Nevertheless, as the people’s accounts of their everyday life have shown so far, postwar reconstruction engendered new local inequalities. It is telling that, in the eyes of the local residents, political affiliation and social networks of wasta seem to be the only determining factors for them to benefit from any assistance regime, even for Lebanese citizens.

Acts of assistance and support are designed to serve the average citizen of Dahiye, representing the first stage of a social contract between the citizen and the municipality and its affiliated local organizations, rather than between the citizen and the central state. However, this “local social contract”, inexistent at a national level, is rejected by those citizens of Dahiye who remain reluctant in front of the hegemonic municipal project: the only one able to provide a tangible citizenship scheme in the southern suburbs.

Within the framework of a confessional political system and ethnic-based social inequality, the growing ethnic diversity of Hay al-Gharbe does not facilitate the affiliation of heterogeneous residents with specific political factions, which would be able, in turn, to draw international attention and provide basic services to the neighbourhood.

Hay al-Gharbe, thus, presents itself as the “spectrum of the political”,19 denouncing the neglectful aspects of the central state as well as of Hezbollah’s resourceful governmentality in the Municipality of al-Ghobeiry. The indoor life of these people, whose faces wear the veil of misery in al-Ghobeiry, allows the local governors to get away with their negligence. Should the 2006 war and subsequent reconstruction have re-stratified Lebanese society, the recent lack of direct emergencies in the slum—which usually engender a series of long-term projects and safety nets—has disenfranchised its inhabitants further, in that they were not directly stricken by the Israeli attacks and they did not benefit at all from the reconstruction projects.20

The Hay al-Gharbe case study reveals that Dahiye’s spotted poverty is shaped by identity politics and not only by socio-economic matters. The fact that international humanitarianism tends not to intervene in places where there are no political interests is empirically confirmed by the existence — and chronic predicament — of this illegal settlement.

Most of the humanitarian industry ignored the slum as much as the Lebanese state did. In fact, the major reason for wartime interventions is the official declaration of a state of ‘emergency’, but it should be traced back to the political marker that a territory is vested with. That is the reason for war breaking out in specific places in Lebanon or elsewhere. In this sense, both non-state and state actors are seen as neglecters of a space that is not considered “humanizable”,21 in that it resides outside of their political agenda.

It should be noted that Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention for Refugees, and it is therefore classified as a transit country. With regards to this, Palestinian, Iraqi, and Sudanese refugees, even if they cannot gain a legitimate status that ascertains their vulnerability as refugees, are still classified as de facto suitable for aid, however insufficient and uncoordinated.

By contrast, the Lebanese have-nots who I met in Hay al-Gharbe, and whose voices I have reported here, remain left out of the politics of inclusion that Hezbollah increasingly seemed to foster — particularly after the July war — and which remain unaddressed by the state’s discriminatory policies. The lack of ‘helpful’ ethnic, political, and confessional labels and wastawith the governors engender a life of neglect and indoor one unreachability. In this framework, vulnerability is configured as a lack of social connections, influence, resources, and, in particular, contact with external human capital.22

The territorial politics of Dahiye’s reconstruction project were successful in compensating the war-stricken within a short period of time, and with no confessional discrimination, confirming the continuity between urban destruction due to war, and reconstruction as a reversal of that process in hegemonic spaces. Nevertheless, within the broader Lebanese confessional and ethnic demographics, such continuity is disrupted whenever a urban district contingently lacks political attention due to its less definable social identity.

Aside from the central state’s abdication of responsibilities, Hay al-Gharbe’s persistently dire conditions are a postwar checkmate to the over-celebrated Waad reconstruction project in Dahiye. The Waad project’s redistribution of resources has been deemed as equal and efficient, owing to compensation strategies meant to erase the sense of destruction from the public sphere, and avoid a generalized resentment against Hezbollah in the aftermath of the 2006 war.

Citizenship as a Discourse Strategy: Hay al-Gharbe in the framework of the Southern Suburbs 

Unlike Hay al-Gharbe, the dominant Dahiye, commonly referred to as ad-Dahiye al-mazbuta,23 is well known to outsiders both because of the Israeli bombing that hit the area countless times in Lebanon’s history, and because it is considered in international media as Hezbollah’s stronghold.

The section of the periphery destroyed by the Israeli aviation has been viewed as a place of choice. Seeing as these gentrified districts are the only place where the Dahiye municipalities and Hezbollah-affiliated organizations provide basic services and entertainments,24 people’s desire to become civic members of Dahiye has become much stronger. On the other hand, Hay al-Gharbe is a place where people end up residing out of necessity, but also because they are unwanted and out of necessity, constituting one of the microcosms of citizen exclusions in Lebanon.

Hay al-Gharbe cannot be considered as a “space of choice” in that the inhabitants do not have the opportunity to challenge the predominant narrative of class and citizenship, which contributes to the affirmation of certain social hierarchies. This happens due to the impossibility of ‘public standing’,25 that is to say claiming legal, civic, and social rights in the capacity of citizens in the Dahiye space. The residents, not owning the land, cannot even claim any right to mobilize, as urban residency is normally the basis for mobilization.

In fact, in those areas where public space attracts humiliation and the fear of moving, an indoor life is preferred, and vulnerability remains the mainstream discourse in the classical fields of refugeehood and economic migration. In this scenario, citizenship can be conceived as the mere shadowing and managing of Lebanon’s differences, and is enacted through protection and service provision whenever the underlying power relations express their assertiveness in favour of the beneficiary.

As evidence of the decreasing assistance that politically non-affiliated citizens receive even within the “hegemonic Dahiye”, ‘Abbas, an unemployed Lebanese man in his fifties who got displaced in 2006, while we were having dinner at his place in Haret Hreik, told me:

“The stuffed wine leaves you’re eating are from our yard in the South. After the war I didn’t find any job around here… Our pockets are empty, because we know no one in politics”.26

Similarly, Farah, a young Lebanese baker in Bi’r al-‘Abed, was complaining about the fact that before harb tammuz, Hezbollah used to give more loans to small enterprises:

“Now the cost of living has become unaffordable. Do they think we’re in Dubai? After the war, due to oil shortage, service [shared taxi] drivers increased the ride fee from LBP 1,500 to LBP 2,000 [Lebanese Lira]. It never got back to how it was after then. Life has become impossible. I have no purchasing power.”27

Despite the personal sense of territorial ownership and belonging, Ahmad, a 32 year-old shop owner in al-Ghobeiry, complained about the lack non-dominant ideas:

“If you don’t fit the Resistance, you’re alone, on your own. They take back from you what you were given in times of war”.28

Similarly, Salwa, a young girl in Haret Hreik complained about the local municipalities abandoning needy people, unlike the years prior to the 2006 war:

“Now if you don’t have a martyr or an injured among your family members because of one of Hezbollah’s wars, you are screwed. They’re all charity services for particular categories, to show that the party is engaged and stuff like that…”29

Nawal, a hairdresser in al-Mreije, a mostly Christian district of Dahiye’s suburbs, also told me:

“Don’t fear me [laughing], I have nothing to do with these masters of war ruling the area […]. They know your family better than you! They just give aid to Shiites now, not like during harb tammuz. Anything else you hear around is propaganda. If you’re not engaged with their politics you become no one.”30

In order to discuss citizenship in Hay al-Gharbe and the role of citizens’ legal status in denying them access to welfare regimes, it is useful to mention the eternal anti-state rhetoric present in the southern suburbs of Beirut: a rhetoric which, though inflated by Hezbollah to gain local consensus, is produced by the longstanding state abandonment of the area, and even state hostility, largely perceived at a local level.

This hegemonic project of territorial citizenship is referred to and experienced in opposition to the central state, even when the boundaries between the central state and the party are fluid. With regards to this, it is worth noting that the anti-government rhetoric adopted by the Shiite party remained the same also when the Lebanese Parliament was mainly led by the March 8 coalition, which Hezbollah is part of. Even under the rule of former Lebanes Prime Minister of Najib Miqati’s government, considered to be politically close to Hezbollah, the inhabitants of Dahiye have viewed the central government as an enemy, not protecting its own people from Israeli invasions and destruction.

That said, a reified ideological stance against the central state better serves the citizenship model that Hezbollah has been weaving over the years in Dahiye at the municipal level, which is considered participatory, especially after the end of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon (2000). Within this framework, the notion of citizenship must be understood as a social contract between local citizens and the Dahiye municipalities without a wider national implication.

In light of these considerations, the language of orthodox citizenship struggles to describe the Lebanese scenario in terms of rights and responsibilities, which should be outside of the classic patterns constituting the nation-state. Nevertheless, a pragmatic notion of citizenship can still be a fundamental epistemic tool to identify the new lines of local inclusion and exclusion.

In Dahiye, civic sense, as forwarded by sociologist Robert Putnam,31 i.e. acceptance of the rights and obligations that any citizenship implies, is still viewed as confessional by both locals and internationals, especially by residents who do not identify with the hegemonic territorial citizenship project implemented by the major local governor Hezbollah.

Some of the testimonies that I collected in Dahiye seemed to attempt to challenge a hierarchical citizenship running along political affiliation lines, but still struggle to materialize in political actions which, in turn, would prompt an ideally assertive and well-functioning government to expand its sphere of social justice. This is due to the fact that the socio-economic betterment of a part of Dahiye is relatively recent, and to the instability of these suburbs in their permanent exposure to local and regional conflicts.

As I have illustrated through the people’s own views, social welfare is selectively implemented and improved on the basis of the political ties that every individual or family develops by joining particular social networks. In this framework, I’d like to highlight that political action is still interpreted as an expression of identity rather than a mere Machiavellian strategy deployed to get benefits. Therefore, the stereotype around which the idea of Dahiye has been built throughout the decades—the no-go area hosting miserable Shiites always ‘ready to die’—leads to the interpretation of identity as a political incentive, rather than a performative act resulting from certain social and economic conditions. As a result, abstract Dahiye-categories such as ‘Shi‘a’ and ‘Palestinian refugees’ are arbitrarily used as identifiers of neat political individualities.

The politics of the — not only “Islamic” — Resistance promoted by Hezbollah is still the predominant model of territorial citizenship, functioning as a cohesive factor of the dominant social fabric. The issue of the Resistance has emerged in my discussion since the research respondents have meaningfully associated economic improvement and access to services with the de jure compliance of the citizen with an official ethos woven by Dahiye’s governors in the public sphere. Like in any system of values and beliefs, defined in terms of social ethics, some local residents do not feel represented and therefore motivated to adhere to the ethical and political standards provided by the party. In those cases, de facto citizenship is suspended. This sociological analysis of Dahiye helps us to understand how, instead, the suspended citizenship of Hay al-Gharbe should be tracked down to different spatial and resettlement policies of neglect, which holds social ease and comfort of mobility hostage in the area by championing scant assistance provision for some while bypassing others, in compliance with an identity-driven dictatorship of resource distribution — and researchers’ attention.

Discussion and conclusion

In this paper, the notion of citizenship has been used as a discursive tool capable of unearthing the under-researched inequalities of Dahiye, which have often been rendered either invisible or homogenized by longstanding stereotypes over the history of the so-called “belt of misery”.32

On the one hand, when adopting the perspective of local residents, citizenship is represented as a sense of belonging and in the form of territorial claim. On the other hand, it is also conceived by dissidents of local hegemony as the adoption of ethical values imposed from above. In this sense, de facto citizenship—although here meant as merely municipal—is held by the people who are willing to abide by Dahiye’s dominant ethics. Such de facto territorial citizens contribute to create, so to speak, a dictatorship of privileged or simply enfranchised individuals among the diversely definable vulnerable, and constituting, therefore, the only actual citizens within a still lax state.

My critique of Dahiye’s homogeneization—which is certainly not new to local or international researchers—seeks to foreground how identity politics informs the politics of welfare, and how grotesque the ad hoc humanitarian intervention in Dahiye’s war-stricken districts is, while chronic non-war related vulnerability is neglected. In accordance with the emergency-driven logic of the humanitarian apparatus, any researcher—myself included—tends to approach the southern suburbs as though they were a mere site for writing wartime and post-war patho-graphies. Hence, in the framework of humanitarian assistance and long-term development projects proliferating in Dahiye after the 2006 July war, the heterogenous spaces of exclusion in the suburbs, cut out of the recent process of urban gentrification and hosting citizens whose lack of classifiable vulnerability denies to them access to services, struggle to stand out in the larger social habitat.

Equipped with a larger overview of the suburbs’ environment, it has been possible to illustrate, in relation to citizen vulnerability, the social marginalization of refugee groups like the Palestinian people that I cited, chronically left out of the hegemonic model of citizenship municipally established by Hezbollah, as well as discriminated by state policies. Likewise, it was possible to see how even normative citizenship does not provide the very needy with basic resources, the slum of Hay al-Gharbe being an example. Therefore, politically unaffiliated citizens, inhabiting spaces which do not appear on official maps because they are less politically marked and demographically hybrid, find themselves in the same dire conditions as the (permanent) refugees. In an environment in which vulnerability is not only about exposure to war but also about the politics underlying these wars, if refugeehood and vulnerability too often run parallel by definition, holding the status of citizen can still lead to disempowerment.

Estella Carpi is a final PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Sydney, and a Social Science Researcher at Trends Research & Advisory. Since 2010, she has been conducting research on the social response to humanitarian assistance in Lebanon from the 2006 war against Israel until the Syrian refugee influx. After studying Arabic in Milan and Damascus (2002-2007), Carpi received her master’s degree from the University of Milan. Her dissertation focused on linguistic anthropology in Lebanon (2008). She has worked as a research consultant for the Cairo-based International Development Research Centre (2009-2010), focusing on social protection systems for vulnerable categories in Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Morocco, and Algeria. She has also worked for UNDP-Egypt in the Arab Trade and Development Program (2008).


Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture, Boston, MA, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers, 1934.

Rupen Das and Julie Davidson, Profiles of Poverty. The Human Face of Poverty in Lebanon, Mansourieh, Lebanon, ed. Niamh Fleming-Farrell, 2011.

Lara Deeb and Mona Harb, “Piety and Leisure: Youth Negotiations of Moral Authority and new Leisure Sites in al-Dahiya”, Bahithat: Cultural Practices of Arab Youth, No. 14, Beirut, Lebanon, Bahithat Publication, 2010, pp. 414-427.

Stefan Dercon, “Vulnerability: a Micro-Perspective”, QEH Working Paper Series, No. 149, Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, 2006.

Mona Harb, “La Dahiye de Beyrouth: parcours d’une stigmatisation urbaine, consolidation d’un territoire politique”, in Jean-Charles Depaule (ed.), Les mots de la stigmatisation urbaine, Paris, UNESCO éditions, 2006, pp. 199-224.

James Holston, Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2009.

Karam Karam, Le Mouvement Civil au Liban. Revendications, Protestations et Mobilisations Associatives dans l’Après-Guerre, Paris, Karthala-Iremam, 2006.

Samir Khalaf, Heart of Beirut: reclaiming the Bourj, London, Saqi Books, 2006.

Oscar Lewis, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty, New York, Basic Books, Inc., 1959.

Jennifer Price Wolf, “Sociological Theories of Poverty in Urban America”, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Vol. 16, No. 1-2, Taylor and Francis Online, 2007, pp. 41-56.

Robert D. Putnam, Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y. Nanetti, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1994.

  • 1.Mona Harb, « La Dahiye de Beyrouth: parcours d’une stigmatisation urbaine, consolidation d’un territoire politique », in Jean-Charles Depaule (ed.), Les mots de la stigmatisation urbaine, Paris, UNESCO éditions, 2006, pp. 199.
  • 2.I opted for the term “vulnerability” rather than “urban poverty” to highlight the role that risk and uncertainty play in the residents’ lives. Indeed, they represent the vulnerable as defined by Dercon, that is the exposure to the risk of becoming poorer or remaining in poverty with no possibility of betterment due to longstanding neglect. Stefan Dercon,Vulnerability: a Micro-Perspective, QEH Working Paper Series No. 149, 2006.
  • 3.Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture,Paperback, 1934.
  • 4.Oscar Lewis, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty, New York, Basic Books, Inc., 1959, p. 3.
  • 5.In this regard, I am highly indebted to J. from the Beit Atfal as-Sumoud, who indirectly became the gatekeeper to Hay al-Gharbe and my research experience there, and took me to Palestinian families living in the slum.
  • 6.Rupen Das and Julie Davidson, “Profiles of Poverty: The Human Face of Poverty in Lebanon”, Mansourieh, Lebanon, ed. Niamh Fleming-Farrell, 2011.
  • 7.Mona Harb, “La Dahiye de Beyrouth: parcours d’une stigmatisation urbaine, consolidation d’un territoire politique”, in Jean-Charles Depaule (ed.), Les mots de la stigmatisation urbaine, Paris, UNESCO éditions, 2006, pp. 199-224.
  • 8.‘Abd-el-Rahim, Hay al-Gharbe, October 19, 2012.
  • 9.Rupen Das and Julie Davidson, “Profiles of Poverty: The Human Face of Poverty in Lebanon”, Mansourieh, Lebanon, ed. Niamh Fleming-Farrell, 2011.
  • 10.Samir Khalaf, Heart of Beirut: reclaiming the Bourj, London, Saqi Books, 2006.
  • 11.Home visit in Hay al-Gharbe, January 29, 2013.
  • 12.Hay al-Gharbe, February 11, 2013.
  • 13.For Palestinians with no documents and not registered with UNRWA, like Najwan’s parents and siblings during the civil war years, access to services financed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has always been problematic. The PLO was forced out of Lebanon in 1982, and Palestinians in Lebanon are still not allowed to create associations (Ministerial Decree No. 17561 of 10th July 1962); the organizations that operate for them must include Lebanese staff and be registered in the country. Therefore, after the PLO’s withdrawal, the services for Palestinians were not replaced by anyone, apart from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and UNRWA, which used to mediate with Shatila camp’s Popular Committee.
  • 14.Hay al-Gharbe, January 21, 2013.
  • 15.It was created in 1976 to shelter orphaned children victims of the bombing of the Tel az-Za‘tar camp by former Syrian President Hafez al-Asad.
  • 16.February 15, 2013.
  • 17.Hay al-Gharbe, February 13, 2013.
  • 18.Karam Karam, Le Mouvement Civil au Liban. Revendications, Protestations et Mobilisations Associatives dans l’Après-Guerre (1st ed.), Paris, ed. Karthala-Iremam, 2006.
  • 19.Rupen Das and Julie Davidson, Profiles of Poverty. The Human Face of Poverty in Lebanon,Mansourieh, Lebanon, ed. Niamh Fleming-Farrell, 2011.
  • 20.In this regard, it is interesting to note that a larger number of NGOs and UN agencies have started providing a few services in the slum since the arrival of Syrian refugees, in particular starting 2012. Likewise, everyday crimes has received slightly more attention in light of the arrival of Syrian refugees, often depicted in the media as source of domestic insecurity.  For instance, some male residents of Hay al-Gharbe joined anti-Syrian militias in opposition to Dahiye’s general political empathy with the Syrian regime.
  • 21.Few NGOs still operate in Hay al-Gharbe. The one that has been providing health, social, and education services in the neighbourhood the longest is Tahaddi, collaborating with Terres des Hommes. Tahaddi, however, mostly targets refugees and Dom community members.
  • 22.Jennifer Price Wolf, “Sociological Theories of Poverty in Urban America”, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Vol. 16, No. 1-2, 2007, p. 53.
  • 23.Mona Harb, « La Dahiye de Beyrouth: parcours d’une stigmatisation urbaine, consolidation d’un territoire politique », in Jean-Charles Depaule (ed.), Les mots de la stigmatisation urbaine, Paris, UNESCO éditions, 2006, pp. 199-224.
  • 24.Lara Deeb and  Mona Harb, “Piety and Leisure: Youth Negotiations of Moral Authority and new Leisure Sites in al-Dahiya”, Bahithat: Cultural Practices of Arab Youth, No. 14, 2010, pp. 414-427.
  • 25.James Holston, Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • 26.Haret Hreik, January 27, 2012.
  • 27.Bi’r al-‘Abed, January 23, 2012.
  • 28.Al-Ghobeiry, October 13, 2011.
  • 29.Haret Hreik, October 15, 2011.
  • 30.Al-Mreije, Beirut, October 31, 2012.
  • 31.Robert D. Putnam, Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y. Nanetti, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1994.
  • 32.Mona Harb, “La Dahiye de Beyrouth: parcours d’une stigmatisation urbaine, consolidation d’un territoire politique”, in Jean-Charles Depaule (ed.), Les mots de la stigmatisation urbaine, Paris, UNESCO éditions, 2006, pp. 199-224.
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