I am thrilled to announce that my first academic article in Brazilian Portuguese is out in the Revista Interdisciplinar da Mobilidade Humana. It is open access!
Ethnocracies of care and humanitarianism in Lebanon
Resumo. Neste artigo, discuto a tendência do sistema humanitário de fornecer serviços às pessoas necessitadas em áreas afetadas pela crise baseando- se na nacionalidade. Através de dados coletados em pesquisas de campo com refugiados sírios, iraquianos, sudaneses e palestinos realizadas entre os anos 2011 e 2019 no Líbano, mostrarei como a hospitalidade pode ser empregada tanto como prática quanto como discurso. Neste último caso, explicarei como isso pode se transformar, de maneira problemática, em uma força de “etnização” na prestação de ajuda humanitária. Como resultado, de um uso conservador do discurso da hospitalidade, apresentarei o conceito de “humanitarismo compensatório” que atende aos habitantes locais como uma consequência da presença de refugiados. Contra esse pano de fundo, finalmente mostrarei como o sistema humanitário atual está longe de ser intergrupal, apesar de seus esforços para tornar os programas nacionalmente mistos. Na verdade, o humanitarismo simplesmente propõe programas mistos para, presumivelmente, dissipar as tensões intergrupais, revelando, portanto, uma neo-etnização das ajudas.
Abstract. In this article, I discuss the tendency of the humanitarian system in areas affected by crisis to provide services to people in need on a national basis, by using Lebanon as a case study. Through the research I conducted with Syrian, Iraqi, Sudanese and Palestinian refugees between 2011 and 2019 in Lebanon, I will illustrate, first, how hospitality can be employed both as a practice and as a discourse. In the latter case, I will explain how it can problematically turn into an “ethnicization” force in humanitarian aid provision. As a result of a conservative use of the hospitality discourse, second, I will introduce the concept of “compensatory humanitarianism” that caters for the locals as a consequence of the refugee presence. Against this backdrop, I will finally show how the current humanitarian system is far from being inter-group despite its efforts to make programs nationally mixed. Indeed, it simply proposes mixed programs to presumably dissipate inter-group tensions, therefore revealing an actual neo-ethnicization of care.
Ten years on and the Syrian war remains one of the defining conflicts of our time.
Its impact has been most acutely felt by the Syrian people whose lives have been changed beyond measure.
But the events of the last decade have also had a huge effect on neighbouring countries and far beyond the Middle East.
March 15th 2011 is generally acknowledged as the date on which the war began, though of course at the time no one could have anticipated the events that lay ahead.
Syria was watching as its neighbours underwent rapid change in the form of the Arab Spring. Beginning in Tunisia and spreading to countries like Libya and Egypt, there was a series of anti-government demonstrations and protests.
One of the early slogans of the movement was “the people want to bring down the regime”.
It was a message that spread fast, and one that was soon scrawled on a wall in the southern Syrian city of Daraa by a group of 15 young people.
Leaders across the region eyed the events of the Arab Spring with increasing alarm, witnessing men like Muammar Gadaffi and Hosni Mubarak fall from power under the force of a public opposition that was taking to the streets. In Syria, President Bashar Al-Assad was also watching.
His family had ruled the country for almost five decades and when the revolution reached Daraa the reaction was swift. The teenagers who had written those words were detained and tortured.
The brutal way in which they were treated led even more people onto the streets in protest. If Daraa had lit a spark, the flames spread quickly, with protests soon taking place in cities across the country resulting in a rapid descent into civil war as hundreds of factions with an array of motivations became involved in armed conflict.
So what of the situation now in Syria? Who controls what parts of the country?
Nada Homsi is a freelance journalist and producer with NPR based in Beirut who covers the Syrian war.
As Nada Homsi points out, while the level of violence in Syria may have fallen in the past year, conditions have worsened considerably.
“Less people are dying, but less people can afford to live also,” she says. In the government held part of the country, the effect of international sanctions and the economic crisis in nearby Lebanon has severely impacted the economy.
People struggle to make ends meet, with severe shortages of basics such as bread and fuel. UNICEF says that in the last year the price of the average basket of food has risen by over 230%, highlighting the impact this has had on Syria’s children.
Over half a million children in Syria under the age of five now suffer from chronic malnutrition. Last month the World Food Programme said the situation had never been worse.
WFP Country Director in Syria Sean O’Brien said that “after ten years of conflict, Syrian families have exhausted their savings as they face a spiralling economic crisis” in a country where basic foods now cost far more than the average salary.
With an estimated 83% of the population now living under the poverty line in Syria, the economic crisis also means that funds are not available to rebuild the infrastructure damaged in the war.
It’s estimated that Syria’s per capita budget has declined by 70% in the last decade. It is a situation described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “a living nightmare”.
Displacement and the refugee crisis
Adding to the humanitarian crisis is the displacement of people in Syria that has happened over the last ten years. Many families have been forced to flee their homes not just once, but several times, in order to avoid violence. Will Turner is the Médecins Sans Frontières Operational Manager in North East Syria.
Since the war began an estimated 13 million people, which is more than half of Syria’s pre-war population, has been displaced. Over 5.5 million Syrian refugees have registered in neighbouring countries as people leave a country ravaged by a war with no end in sight. Aid agencies working in Syria have called the protracted displacement crisis the worst since World War II.
And it has impacted the entire region. Estella Carpi is a Research Associate at University College London. As a social anthropologist her work focuses on the forced migration that has occurred in Syria, and the impact that it has on host countries across the region.
Estella Carpi says the impact on neighbouring countries that have seen a substantial influx of Syrians in the last decade is complex and layered. Local infrastructures in many are put under added strain.
This is particularly acute in countries like Lebanon where public infrastructure was already in difficulty. It is also important to remember the diversity of refugees, something that Estella Carpi says can often be forgotten in the media portrayal of the crisis.
Gender, class, ethnicity – there are a wide range of people from a wide range of circumstances who have been adversely affected by the Syrian war and have been forced to leave their homes as a result. Many have gone to cities in neighbouring countries in the hope of finding work but with severe economic crises in countries like Lebanon this has not always been easy.
For those who are living in refugee camps aid agencies like Médecins Sans Frontières say the situation is incredibly fragile.
Will Turner says the human toll of the war has been appalling, but now there is an added factor – Covid.
As the biggest global news story of the past year, the pandemic is cited by many as a reason that news from Syria has slipped from the headlines. But it is an issue with which Syrians are ill-equipped to deal. Will Turner points out that refugee camps are already incredibly difficult places to live, with overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.
Eight or nine people living in a tent are completely removed from any ability to socially distance. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who recently tested positive for Covid-19, has implemented coronavirus measures in government-controlled areas of the country, including travel restrictions and a curfew.
Official numbers suggest that Syria has had far fewer Covid cases and Covid deaths than other countries in the Middle East, leading to a lot of scepticism about the accuracy of the official statistics.
As the world battles Covid, Syria battles both Covid and a decade-long war that shows little sign of coming to an end.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that the path to a resolution of the conflict remained open. Security Council Resolution 2254 endorses a “road map towards a Syrian-led political transition”.
Mr Guterres was asked if the UN and the Security Council had failed the Syrian people.
“It is clear”, he said “that if a war lasts ten years the international …. governance system we have is not effective. And that is something that should be a source of reflection for everybody involved.”
During the Syrian war, which has now raged for a decade, the attention of scholars, media commentators and activists has primarily focused on human displacement. More than 60% of the world’s refugee population – over 30% of which are victims of internal displacement – reside in the Middle East, mainly due to large-scale armed conflicts. The Syrian war, which began following a popular uprising in spring 2011, has led to half a million deaths (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), nearly seven million displaced people – 70% of whom still live in the Middle East – and 14 million in need of assistance.
Due to the tragically large scale of human loss, the destiny of fauna during the war in Syria has been under-explored, and any emphasis on it has often been frowned upon in informal conversations I had throughout the years with international researchers and opinion-makers working on this geographic area. With this post, I encourage readers to reason beyond inter-species hierarchies, which instil unproductive ways of thinking, such as that a species per se is more or less important than another. The haste to set up such existential hierarchies between animals and human beings derives from a human-focused understanding of animals that share our natural habitat as well as our built environment. In this sense, animal care becomes either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in response to our personal habits, our everyday culture and, importantly, our social and economic capacity of care. Indeed, in Western societies, the care for animals – especially pets – has widely been associated with the lifestyle of global middle and upper classes, who are able and keen to feed, care and cater for animals. So to speak, the “bourgeoisization” of animal care – where the latter is frequently viewed as the care provided by wealthy people equipped with time and resources that enable them to think beyond human survival – and the critical reactions to it have ended up influencing our external gaze on human conflict and migration and have dangerously legitimated the exclusivity of human care. To look at the entirety of this multi-species ecosystem of war and forced migration reveals a complexity that goes unheeded as a result of an anthropocentric gaze.
I encourage readers to reason beyond inter-species hierarchies, which instil unproductive ways of thinking.
Animals affected by war have mainly been discussed in terms of human survival and sustainability, but with pointed exceptions. For example, in 2012, Reuters news agency dedicated a photo galleryto animals, such as turtles and cats, that were trying to survive bombings, seeking food in almost depopulated areas and, sometimes, receiving it from armed groups who lived, occupied or briefly stopped in these neighbourhoods destroyed by war. To expand on such snippet views, I focus on the animals’ fate during the Syrian conflict and the discursive and logistic use of animal-fare in war narratives.
The omission of animals’ fate in today’s journalism and academic scholarship on armed conflict has led to ignoring a fundamental element in the lives of refugees who had to leave Syria: the incurable existential harm caused by the need to abandon their pets or, for those who had a rural lifestyle, their livestock, as it has been noted in forced migration history. In many cases that I have witnessed throughout years of research on Syrian displacement in the Levantine region, the abandonment of their animals – even a cow kept for milk or poultry kept for eggs – has generated pain and emotional disorientation in the lives of the displaced. Such abandonments are experienced as an inevitable sacrifice when leaving the war-torn country and building a life elsewhere. Indeed, most of the Syrian refugees I have met in northern Lebanon’s villages – and who often work in Lebanese farms – have a rural background. They often remember the cattle they owned and how they looked after them when they lived in Syria. Many of them say they regularly ask their neighbours about the fate of these abandoned animals; most of those who were not resold died of dehydration, starvation and disease.
The abandonment of their animals has generated pain and emotional disorientation in the lives of the displaced.
Despite this, animal displacement has been approached from the angle of the survival and proliferation of humans and the importance of exhuming Syrian agricultural production, which used to rely on the export of livestock before the conflict, making up 15% of the internal agricultural workforce. But what was the fate of these animals? Domestic, pack and farm animals alike were often killed as spoils of war, smuggled into the neighbouring countries, or were stolen, displaced, bombed or sold. As a consequence, the rate of private ownership of livestock within the country has dropped to 60% since the beginning of the conflict. Many breeders have had to abandon their profession and lifestyle and leave the country or migrate to other locations in Syria in search of new livelihoods.
Animals and animal violence have been widely discussed as a soft power strategy for shaping relations between political actors, and as a tool for gaining credibility in local and international communities while morally discrediting political enemies. For example, there is some Arabic media material illustrating this trend, with videos showing the leaders of the shabbiha – thugs loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – throw a ‘thoroughbred’ Arab horse to their lions for food, as written in the Tweet of a Syrian political opponent included in an al-Quds article. Many of these videos, accessible on YouTube, show the killing of livestock by armed groups or the theft of livestock in some Syrian regions. Some accusations are not expressly aimed at either government militias or opposition groups, but they are used as such for political propaganda. Beyond the authenticity of this type of media material, which is continually the subject of journalistic debate, the treatment of animals plays a fundamental role in shaping the political rhetoric of each of the parties in conflict. The same happens with the recent government decree, No. 221, through which Bashar al-Assad assigns the Ministry of Education to the directorship of the ‘Animal Protection in Syria’ project.
Animals and animal violence have been widely discussed as a soft power strategy for shaping relations between political actors, and as a tool for gaining credibility while morally discrediting political enemies.
As I wrote with Samira Usman in the past, the humanitarian mantra of ‘human dignity’, according to which every human life must be respected and protected, has indeed shed light on the importance of ensuring legal and social protection for refugees. However slow this has been to materialise on a global level, it has emphasized the importance for refugees to have their dignity recognized. In this vein, the rhetoric of human dignity, over-used by the international community as well as by activist groups, ended up ignoring the historical fact that war causes dramatic consequences to other species too. It is emblematic that only a small number of humanitarian projects (for example, Animals Lebanon) approach human beings as part of an entire ecosystem that is being destroyed by conflict, therefore actively subverting anthropocentrism.
Animals have also long been an object of debates among Muslim communities worldwide. There is a longstanding belief that Muslim-majority societies have little respect for animals, which has led scholars to speak of Islamic environmentalism only in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, namely, in the so-called ‘Global North’. In this regard, some fatawa (plural of fatwa) in the Sunni Muslim world have warned Syrian internally displaced people and refugees not to kill or eat cats, donkeys and dogs, even in situations of famine and hardship. Such fatawa generate extensive internet discussions focussing on the precepts of Islam and serve as a spiritual, legal and social consultation space for believers. Some religious authorities have denounced the act of killing and eating animals without a valid reason, while others have allowed the act of eating them provided that these animals have already been killed by bombing. Yet, this has at times become a practice in today’s Syria, owing to the famines and hardships that the conflict itself has caused. At the same time, the care and provision of food to animals, such as cats, is indeed praised and appreciated by God. The topic remains an element of animated discussion within the Muslim world.
Only a small number of humanitarian projects approach human beings as part of an entire ecosystem that is being destroyed by conflict.
The animals that have accompanied human beings during their flight and that have shared their conditions of forced migration are often unspoken; for instance, many refugees crossing the Syrian–Lebanese border brought along sheep, goats and cows, which had not been vaccinated due to their sudden departure to flee war, violence and the resulting poverty. Since 2011, some Syrian refugees in Wadi Khaled (north-east Lebanon) have told me that they crossed the al-Kabeer river connecting the two borders on the back of a donkey. They later had to abandon the animal because it fell ill and they did not have the means to maintain it, having paid a large amount of money to smugglers.
However, the ethical discourse underlying human displacement has sometimes been at odds with environmental and animal ethics. The areas where refugees are resettling are taken from the local fauna; human settlement and methods of mass-producing food often lead to deforestation and erosion of the surrounding habitat. As in such paradoxical situations, only either of the two vulnerable conditions can be protected within the ecosystem, the defenders of environmental and animal rights find themselves in tension with those who advocate for human rights. This was the case of one million Rwandan Hutu refugees, who, in 1994, relocated to the Virunga National Park of neighbouring Congo, where ten gorillas were killed after the territory was plundered. Similar to what is happening in Syria, in the case of Virunga National Park, the refugees who went to live in the protected area, considered a heritage site of humanity, were accused of committing violence against the territory. It is instead the refugees’ presence that becomes a favourable source of chaos, and some people take advantage of such chaos to carry out raids, using the refugees’ presence for dissimulation.*
The defenders of environmental and animal rights find themselves in tension with those who advocate for human rights.
In the context of the Syrian conflict, animal displacement is still a history yet to be written. I consider it important to highlight not only the anthropocentric and violent use of animals in conditions of forced migration but also the emotional bond that some refugees had with the animals they had to abandon, due to protracted political, economic, social and political instability. Remembering animals is often part of the stories told by refugees themselves; in some cases, animals explain refugee and internally displaced people’s attachment to their home back in Syria. In order to fully understand the effects of conflict, violence and deprivation on mobile ecosystems, it is indeed inevitable to unravel these important inter-species relationships.
Crisis discourse traditionally omits the relational history with animals in forced migration narratives, while human beings – both refugees and political actors, as mentioned above – often remember, thrive on, or instrumentalize animals in the real world. As long as the biodiversity of crisis goes unheeded, our knowledge of the ‘politics of living’ in displacement also remains maimed. In this sense, disrupting anthropocentric understandings of human-made crisis is not only an ethical issue, as animal-rights activists remind us through campaigns, but also an intellectual and epistemological one.
Remembering animals is often part of the stories told by refugees themselves.
This research has been conducted in the framework of the project “Analysing South-South Humanitarian Responses to Displacement from Syria: Views from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey,” funded by the European Research Council under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation agreement no. 715582.
*Others use the presence of refugees in these territories as an instrument for political negotiation. This is also the case for some Syrian archaeological sites; the ruins of Idlib, a cultural heritage site, have become temporary shelters for local displaced people, who could not find alternative places for protection and survival. The Antiquities Center of Idlib is in charge of this issue.
While the “refugee crisis” in Europe and other western societies has often made the headlines, the vast majority of nearly seven million Syrian refugees still remain in neighboring countries including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The legal status and the diverse financial capacity of these refugees often determine and impacts the decision-making processes decisive of their faith. In this article, I will first discuss the living conditions of these refugees, still living in the countries neighboring Syria. I will then provide some thoughts about the legacies left by the Syrian conflict and the subsequent humanitarian crisis, now ten years old.
While refugee diversity is increasingly marked by gender, ethnicity, and religious belief, the professional, financial, and class differences of refugees still goes unheeded in humanitarian and media accounts. Due to economic, political, and legal constraints, internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees in the Middle East are those in the greatest need, having irregular access to basic services such as healthcare and education.
Approximately 30% of the refugees remaining in the Middle East still live in official or informal camps. Most refugees live in cities, where finding employment is generally easier. Nonetheless, refugee support systems, now increasingly faced with budget shortfalls due to the length of time since the crisis outbreak, have not been able to provide adequate shelters. Extensive flooding has damaged poor-quality tented shelters in camps, which refugees are likely to have made and maintained themselves throughout their years of residence. Even as the 2016 Global Compact on Refugees was aimed at prompting the formalization of refugee labor and, consequently, the end of refugee labor exploitation, working conditions are still very bad for the few capable of accessing regular salaries by working in the cleaning, agriculture, and construction sectors. Indeed, most of the refugees who presently live in the region are from working-class backgrounds and are either financially unable to access smuggling networks to illegally reach western shores or are unlikely to be prioritized in humanitarian corridors and global resettlement programs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also raised the issue of inadequate healthcare given that humanitarian agencies only generally cover medications and healthcare up to 80% of expenses, and only in the case of non-chronic diseases. Refugees have therefore mobilized themselves to support each other and put in place safety measures to fight the pandemic across the region. The long-term timeframe of the crisis has also made the difficulty of access to education an important concern. Ten years on, providing Syrian refugees with formal, high-quality, and internationally recognized education is the focus of significant effort.
Moreover, while the spotlight has mainly been on refugees and on the daunting impact of the crisis on the infrastructure, social cohesion, and security of receiving countries, scarce attention has been paid to IDPs. Numbering more than six million, IDPs also live in poor conditions, suffering from food insecurity, unemployment, and lack of access to basic welfare, especially in the previously “liberated” areas, subsequently regained by the Syrian government. The depreciation of the Syrian pound and the current dramatic economic situation have worsened living conditions in a country devastated by a decade of war and destruction.
In this framework, the international humanitarian community has failed in providing effective protection to refugees by not preventing deportations and evictions, and return is not an acceptable scenario if minimum humane conditions are to be guaranteed: some people who did return were shortly afterwards reported detained or missing. International humanitarian agencies have too often shied away from providing advocacy since they either lack a suitable legal mandate or because they do not intend to endanger their relationship with the host government. What has gone unheeded in discussions around return to Syria is the issue of indirect forced returns. For instance, some refugees report threats to their families by the Syrian regime if they do not return and join the army. Many of the stories I have heard in Lebanon’s informal tented settlements have dangerously passed for “voluntary returns”.
It is noteworthy that Syria has been in and out of the news over the last decade, which has not enabled external spectators to grasp how things have changed on the ground during that time. The Syrian crisis, in this sense, is an example of how quickly humanitarian and forced migration history slips out of public memory. As a result, we have also lost track of other contemporary crises and how they relate to the Syrian.
The way in which media representation contributes to the sweeping away of historical information points to three main mistakes that continue to be perpetrated. First, a lack of respect for the diversity of refugees is indicated by the fact that aid, too often, is not accompanied by advocacy. Advocacy, however, cannot be enough if humanitarian assistance is not to be mistaken for a solution to politically grounded violence and injustice. Second, the lack of focus on advocacy constitutes a significant failure by international humanitarian agencies to provide refugee protection. Third, we need to shift the gaze from refugee victimhood to the civic responsibility of local citizens. Programs involving the inclusion and integration of refugees inadvertently remain politically conservative: there is an urgent need for local citizens to learn about forced migration and what refugee reception involves. Political conservativism thrives exactly on such partial views, which fail to understand human mobility as an everlasting process involving all social groups, with no need for the latter to physically move in order to learn, receive newcomers, and progress.
Last March 1, 2021, I and Dr Chiara Diana (Universite’ Libre de Bruxelles) have presented our chapter The Right to Play versus the Right to War? Vulnerable Childhoods in Lebanon’s NGOization for the volume edited by Kristen Cheney and Aviva Sinervo (More information about the book Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Intervention: Processes of Affective Commodification and Objectification can be found here: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030016227).
For those who would like to review the webinar or who registered and were unable to attend, here is a link to the video of the event: https://youtu.be/IM17PpE2aFE
One of the questions that came up during the webinar was regarding the ethics of doing research with children. Here is the website (as well as an attached PDF) recommended by María Claudia Duque-Páramo in response to questions about the ethics of doing research with children: ERIC Ethical Research Involving Children: https://childethics.com/ To learn more about the AAA Interest Group on NGOs and Non-Profits you can visit our website http://ngo.americananthro.org, like the IGNN on Facebook and follow @ngoanthro on Twitter.
… Everyone was there and wanted their logo to be known… it’s a brand. And in the July 2006 war [of Israel on Lebanon] there were definitely more international brands than ever. (Author’s interview with the Manager of the Social Development Centre, Office of the Ministry of Social Affairs, ash-Shiyyah, Beirut, October 30, 2011)
The visuality of symbols, buildings, and icons can powerfully mark spaces and make such spaces political, culturally oriented, spiritual, and even human. In times of crisis, it is particularly employed to exhibit the presence of humanitarian work. However, such a visuality can take different forms, and humanitarian logos are only one means of expression. Humanitarian logos communicate to the public that the labelled organizations are there assisting the needy, alleviating their predicament, witnessing human suffering, or rescuing lives. During the years I spent researching aid in Lebanon (2010-2020), people have often spoken of the ‘war of logos’ to emphasize the competition between different humanitarian actors intervening in crisis-stricken areas.
In such areas, where migrants and refugees often reside, new local understandings of physical space have arisen. However, aid-marked spaces across Lebanon are not only relevant in the time of war or post-war. In this blog post, I show how they can become stable hubs of human trust and reciprocity, a normal part of everyday life, inviting dwellers to rethink these spaces of coexistence. Aid, therefore, going beyond official humanitarianism, turns out to be a politics of space, changing people’s perceptions of the places they have known for long and inducing them to rethink their spatial margins.
After the arrival of refugees from Syria (2011), the aid coming into Lebanon from the Arab Gulf increased, involving both in-kind assistance (i.e. food and school material kits) and cash-based programmes. Traditionally, Islamic charity work objects to iconic politics, adducing Prophet Mohammed’s hadith “the left hand does not see what the right hand gives” (la ta‘lamu shamaluhu bima tunfiqu yaminahu). However, some Arab Muslim philanthropists provide humanitarian aid by making their relief provision visible and, at times, even displaying their own face, their national flag, and their logos. Individual philanthropists in the Arab Gulf often opt to show the national flag and the faces of charity founders.Aid distribution by Khalaf Ahmed al-Habtour Foundation (United Arab Emirates) in an Akkar village, North Lebanon. March 2019.During my most recent fieldwork for the Southern-led Responses to Displacement project in North Lebanon, many Syrian refugees emphasised that they do not support the politics of some foreign governments in the Syrian conflict and, at times, are reluctant to accept the donations. A Syrian refugee friend told me in Bebnin in the spring of 2019, “We’re using the plates with the Saudi logo to show you we are given this stuff… but we normally don’t like using them as we don’t think Saudi politics helped Syrians in any way…”. Saudi Arabia NGO’s plates for Syrian refugees. Bebnin, Akkar. March 2019.Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s symbol on jumpers. Kweishra, Akkar. April 2019.School bags distribution from Saudi Arabia. Al-Bireh, Akkar. March 2019.NGOs and UN agencies from the ‘global North’ similarly use logos to mark their humanitarian space, although the space is often shared with other humanitarian actors. I often met refugees who stressed how ephemeral and punctuated (appearing, disappearing, and reappearing over time) humanitarian assistance is: humanitarian logos always remain there, while aid workers show up to provide help only once in a while. Beneficiaries generally interpret logos negatively, as a sign of an increasingly prominent humanitarian-business nexus where assistance needs to be branded to be funded and supported. Yet some refugees I spoke to view the logos positively, as they visually convey the politics that relegate their lives to the margins and make their living conditions precarious and unjust. Such acts of ‘self-visibilization’ enable people in need to battle against the discriminatory and unequal politics of some aid providers.UNICEF’s and Solidarités International’s logos on the toilet of an informal tented settlement (one for more than a hundred people) in an Akkar hamlet. March 2019.UNHCR tarp covering construction material in front of al-Bahsa new mosque in Akkar, North Lebanon. March 2018.Logos also inform us about the cooperation between humanitarian agencies which, generally, we would not associate with each other, such as Polish Aid and Australian Aid co-funding a dispensary for Syrian refugees and vulnerable local residents in the village of al-Bireh in North Lebanon. Ophthalmology clinic in Bireh, Akkar. March 2019.Spaces of aid are usually remembered by the nationality of the funders, whose logos – often displaying their national flag even for non-governmental funding – are placed on street signs, entrance gates, and indoor walls. Turkish government-funded clinic in Kweishra, North Lebanon. March 2019.In the sign above it is evident that the funding for what is commonly known in Kweishra (Akkar) as the “Turkish hospital” (al-mustashfa al-turki) is a donation from the Turkish state to the Lebanese state. However, the local residents and Syrian Arab refugees point out that only Turkmen Syrian refugees and a small number of Turkmen Lebanese have access to this clinic.
The Kuwaiti NGO “The Doors of Goodness Foundation” (jama‘iyyat mu’assasat abuwab al-kheir), assisting Syrian refugees, shows the national flag. Halba, North Lebanon. February 2019.
Beneficiary communities sometimes speak about humanitarian symbols with criticism and question their aid and service provision. A Syrian refugee woman from Homs who relocated to a border village in Lebanon highlighted that rent and medications were the primary needs of her family and community in Lebanon. At a time when e-food ration cards had not been introduced yet, she told me with sarcasm, “I came from Syria to get packages of bread in Lebanon… I don’t give a damn about their ‘grains of hope’: it’s 2,000 Lebanese Lira… I can pay for it. Why don’t they provide medications and cash for rent instead? They provide what is easier for them” (Wadi Khaled, January 29, 2013).
Mercy Corps bread distribution in Wadi Khaled, Akkar. November 2012.
New local understandings of physical space have arisen in areas newly inhabited by migrants and refugees. For instance, in the economically disadvantaged district of Dinniye, local residents told me they used to identify the Emirs’ Castle Hotel (Funduq Qasr al-Umara’) as the luxurious holiday resort for tourists from the Arab Gulf. From 2012 onward, with the arrival of Syrian refugee families, local people conceptualised the area as a hotspot of “relief for the left-behind” (al-ighatha li’l ma‘zulin), where refugees collect aid provided by the Arab Gulf and are temporarily accommodated.
Aid distribution for Syrian refugees at the Qasr al-Umara’ Hotel, Dinniye, Lebanon. April 2019.
Aid-marked spaces across Lebanon are not only relevant in the time of war or post-war: they can remain stable hubs of human trust and reciprocity, a normal part of everyday life. The Beit Atfal as-Sumud in the Palestinian refugee camp Shatila in Beirut’s southern suburbs represents a point of call for Palestinian dwellers, providing education, play activities, and medical support and referring beneficiaries to other NGOs and specialistic services. During my visits since 2011, I realized the employees are more trusted than the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA)’s services. The Beit is the spatialization of the most effective aid in the neighbourhood, as known by other migrant and refugee groups who inhabit the area.
Entrance of Beit Atfal as-Sumud in Shatila, Beirut. September 2011.
A large number of Syrian refugees in rural and peri-urban Lebanon reside in informal tented settlements (ITS) built on pieces of land on the side of public roads, which they need to rent from landowners, rent apartments or occupy empty depots in urban settings. Sometimes, families who were not even acquainted to each other before arriving in Lebanon end up living in the same household to be able to share expenses and make ends meet. A Lebanese resident from the city of Halba contended, “Once we know in which buildings the refugees live, we tend to avoid those areas.” We thus see new borderscapes (Lebuhn, 2013) in the making, where new margins, although not physically marked, emerge in the environment. Building rented to Syrian refugees. South Lebanon governorate. July 2016.Some spaces are neither marked by NGO logos nor emerge as official spaces of aid provision in the public sphere. Yet, within local communities, they are understood as places where aid is likely to be given. Hairdressing and beauty salons for Ethiopian migrant workers became important points of call to weave support networks and exchange resources between Lebanon and Ethiopia or other African countries. Indeed, in Bourj Hammoud, African migrant workers from different national backgrounds said they frequent the same places where it is possible for them to gather information and seek support from other social groups or their countries of origin, beyond their own national belonging.
Ethiopian hairdressing salon in Bourj Hammoud, Beirut. February 2019.
Football in Lebanon is known to be an activity people are passionate about, a way of connecting them to the world outside, and also a reason for gatherings and social mingling. National flags of other countries are often used to show support to national football teams. However, during my research in Lebanon, I realized there is sometimes a more complex story about the different national symbols exhibited in public space. A Lebanese Armenian family in Bourj Hammoud told me how they not only support Brazil in football world leagues, but they also cherish the generosity of their relatives who resettled in Brazil in the 1970s and sent material and moral support during the Lebanese civil war (1975-90). Showing the Brazil flag outside their balcony became a way to show their gratefulness.
Brazilian flag outside the balcony of a Lebanese Armenian family in Bourj Hammoud, Beirut. February 2019.
Similarly, a taxi driver, in the municipality of Minieh in North Lebanon, spoke of Argentina not only as his favourite football team in the world leagues, but also as the place which welcomed and supported him, his family and friends during the 1980s. After returning to Lebanon after the end of the civil war, he still preserves his childhood memories of Argentina and hopes his own children will get to know the country at some stage.
Sticker of Argentina on a taxi cab in Minieh, North Lebanon. April 2019.
Humanitarian aid, ultimately, turns out to be a politics of space. It changes people’s perceptions of the places they have known for long and induces them to rethink their spatial margins. Moreover, the material manifestations of aid are not exclusively to be found on logos and brands that indicate distribution spots or offices. Symbols, material objects and shops can give rise to different aid imaginaries. While those who believe in a no-profit humanitarianism commonly criticize the logo-marked bond between aid provision and business, alternative spaces of aid do not need to be marked by logos, as they are the result of entangled stories, personal relationships, and transregional trajectories of human support. Intimate memories do not need logos to have their presence acknowledged; it is generally in people’s mental spaces that they are preserved.
 At the outset of the Syrian refugee influx into Lebanon (2011-12), many of the ‘global North’s’ humanitarian actors were reluctant to provide cash assistance to refugees, preferring to prioritise the delivery of food, medical, and other items. In 2013 e-food ration cards began to be distributed to refugee households, replacing the old food vouchers. Also, over the last few years, especially after the 2015 Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, NGOs and UN agencies agreed on reducing the delivery of in-kind assistance in order to enhance cash assistance. Nowadays, Arab Gulf funded NGOs in Lebanon mostly provide material aid, such as mattresses and food, and, during Ramadan, iftar baskets and dates.  Established in 1984 after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres.
 UNWRA services are seen as decreasingly sympathetic with the Palestinian cause.
 An independent municipality located at the East of Beirut, historically marked by the Armenian forced migration, and today populated by different migrant groups.
* This research has been conducted in the framework of the project “Analysing South-South Humanitarian Responses to Displacement from Syria: Views from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey”, funded by the European Research Council under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation agreement no. 715582.
Estella Carpi is a Research Associate in the Migration Research Unit (Department of Geography) at University College London, where she works on Southern-led responses to displacement from Syria in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. She received her PhD in Anthropology of Humanitarianism from the University of Sydney in Australia (2015). After studying Arabic in Milan and Damascus (2002-2008), she worked in several academic and research institutions in Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates. She is an instructor of Humanitarian Studies and Anthropology of the Middle East at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan. She is the author of Specchi Scomodi. Etnografia delle Migrazioni Forzate nel Libano Contemporaneo, published in Italian with Mimesis (2018). Estella is a 2020-25 Global Young Academy Member. She can be contacted at: email@example.com.
You can now read open access my article with Chiara Diana on the social impact of play and sport activities organised by INGOs and local NGOs in a Tripoli neighbourhood in northern Lebanon during 2015, 2016 and 2017. The humanitarian system has increasingly been investing in ludic activities during the Syrian humanitarian crisis; but what do local and refugee groups think?
Focusing on the 2011–2014 forced migration of Syrian refugee children into northern Lebanon, this article examines the child protection strategies of two international and one local NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in the Tripoli Governorate. It explores the psychosocial care programmes and play activities that are meant to heal and integrate the refugee children. It shows how programmes for crisis-affected childhood and the sport-for-development formula predominantly remain universalised models, failing to incorporate local specificities despite increasing campaigns to promote contextualisation approaches.
Mobility and Forced Displacement in the Middle East edited by Dr Zahra Babar, from CIRS-Georgetown University in Qatar and published with Hurst/Oxford University Press, has now been published!
This book is a project based on a series of meetings in Doha with the 2016 grantees. You can read my chapter on the borderwork of humanitarianism in northern Lebanon and Southeast Turkey and the identity politics of livelihoods, which I have uploaded on Researchgate:
What does it happen when local residents of the Beirut southern suburbs speak of the Lebanese state offering Lebanon “on a silver tray” and Syrian refugees in the northern region of Akkar mention the Lebanese state as a repressive political actor allied with supposedly neutral humanitarian agencies which manage their everyday life?
In this article, just published in the main Canadian Anthropological journal Anthropologica 61(1): 83-96 (University of Toronto Press), I rethink liminality in anthropology and I identify in liminality the behavioural politics of the Lebanese state, whose enmity is perceived by refugees and local citizens, both frustrated by failed attempts at befriending the central state throughout Lebanon’s history.
Here below you can find the abstract in English and French, as well as the link from where to access my article.
Abstract: Drawing on the July 2006 Israel–Lebanon War in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Syrian refugee influx into the villages of Akkar in northern Lebanon, I suggest that the Lebanese state aspires to officially assert itself as a liminal space in a bid to survive crises and preserve its political capital, therefore aborting the attempts made by citizens and refugees to leave such liminality. I look at how professed state liminality meets with humanitarian neutrality, which is a principle of several international humanitarian agencies that assisted the internally displaced in 2006 and Syrian refugees from 2011 in Lebanon. Although in anthropology liminality has mostly been approached as anti-structural and an embodiment of the mar-gins, by proceeding from people’s perception of state enmity and their frustrated aspirations to befriend the state, I suggest that state liminality rather captures the structural peculiarity of the Lebanese state’s agency and violent presence, made of repressive and neglectful politics.
Résumé : Partant de la guerre israélo-libanaise de juillet 2006 dans la banlieue sud de Beyrouth et de l’afflux de réfugiés syriens dans les villages du Akkar au nord du Liban, j’émets l’hypothèse que l’État libanais cherche à s’affirmer officielle-ment comme espace liminaire afin de survivre aux crises et de préserver son capital politique, faisant ainsi échec aux efforts de citoyens et de réfugiés pour quitter cette liminarité. J’exa-mine l’intersection de la liminarité étatique proclamée et de la neutralité humanitaire, ce dernier principe étant mis en avant par de nombreuses agences humanitaires internationales qui ont assisté les déplacés internes en 2006 et qui accompagnent les réfugiés syriens au Liban depuis 2011. Si en anthropologie la liminarité est généralement abordée comme un phénomène anti-structurel et comme une incarnation des marges, je m’ap-puie sur la perception qu’ont les gens de l’inimitié étatique et de leurs aspirations frustrées à se rapprocher de l’État pour avancer que la liminarité étatique permet plutôt d’appréhender la particularité structurelle de l’agencéité et de la présence violente propres à l’État libanais, lesquelles sont marquées par une politique conjointe de répression et d’abandon.
Mots clés : réfugiés, Liban, humanitaire, protection sociale, ONG
My chapter with Chiara Diana (Université Libre de Bruxelles) is now published in Kristen Cheney and Aviva Sienrvo’s “Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Interventions”, Palgrave MacMillan, 2019. Look it up!
In the wake of the massive human displacement from Syria (2011–), some international NGOs (INGOs) have intervened in Lebanon to prevent Lebanese and Syrian youth from “radicalizing” and joining armed groups. In the framework of international humanitarian assistance within the “Global South,” while refugee adults are expected to become self-reliant, children and youth are often addressed as objects of universal concern and rarely as aware subjects of decision-making. Drawing on interviews conducted between Spring 2015 and Autumn 2016 with INGO workers and child players and their parents, we consider INGO play activities in contexts where political violence is widespread and longstanding, such as the Tripoli governorate in northern Lebanon. This chapter first aims to unpack the INGO discourse on children’s vulnerability. Second, we analyze INGO discourses and practices in a bid to critically examine the humanitarian and developmental attempts at providing politically neutral spaces for refugee and local children. We therefore build a threefold analysis focusing on the dehistoricization of political violence in the Arab Levant, the employment of the “Sport for Development” formula as a path to social cohesion, and the weak cultural literacy of INGOs in regard to contextual adult-child relations. Thereby, we argue that while INGOs tend to commodify the child as an a priori humanitarian victim, the international assistance community should rather strive to provide children with alternate avenues for political engagement in order to counter war recruitment.