by Faten Ghosn and Alex Braithwaite
Based on a survey conducted in Lebanon between May 31 and August 31, 2017, public attitudes in Lebanon towards hosting Syrian refugees continue to worsen. However, levels of support varied slightly, by governorate, sect, gender, as well as income. More importantly, we find evidence that Lebanese who have Syrian friends in Lebanon or know displaced Syrians were also more likely to be supportive of hosting refugees, and less likely to see refugees as a threat to themselves or their family. Evidence suggests that encouraging greater contact between populations may ameliorate the negative trend.
Understanding public attitudes towards refugees within their host communities has become of major interest for host governments, researchers, international agencies, as well as local institutions and/or organizations that work with refugees. Knowledge of such attitudes can help in building better policy responses that take into consideration important economic, cultural, and security concerns of local host communities (Dempster and Hargrave 2017).
Over the last six years, since the civil war in Syria began, the dynamics in the relationship between the Lebanese host community and the Syrian refugees residing in the country have worsened dramatically. At the beginning, many within Lebanon, especially the Lebanese Sunni community, were supportive of their “Syrian brethren” and in fact early on many refugees were housed by local families. However, as the refugee crisis dragged on and as the demand for resources increased, many began to talk about “compassion fatigue.” These increasingly negative attitudes arguably culminated in late June 2017 when five suicide attackers targeted the Lebanese military near Arsal, a town close to the Syrian border.
In 2017, the UNHCR declared that Lebanon had the highest concentration of refugees in the world, with 1 out of 6 individuals in the country a refugee.
In addition to 400,000 Palestinian refugees that have long resided in Lebanon, the country now hosts more than a million Syrian refugees and 40,000 Iraqi refugees (Trad and Frangieh 2007). In 2017, the UNHCR declared that Lebanon had the highest concentration of refugees in the world, with 1 out of 6 individuals in the country a refugee. It stands to reason, therefore, that Lebanon represents an important litmus test for evolving public attitudes towards hosting refugees. One cannot understand the attitudes of the Lebanese towards Syrian refugees without taking into consideration the charged past and current political and economic climate in Lebanon. Given the sectarian nature of the political system in Lebanon that splits political power equally between Christians and Muslims, whereby the majority of the power is held by three sects (Maronite, Sunni, and Shiite), the addition of over a million Sunni Syrian refugees in the country has triggered anxiety among the remaining sects.
In order to explore these attitudes, we ran a survey in Lebanon during the summer of 2017. A major objective of our survey was to gauge the perception of the Lebanese community with regards to Syrian refugees, access to services, and perceived threats to local communities. We constrained our population of respondents to individuals who were old enough to have lived through the Lebanese civil war (40 years of age or older). We did so as we wanted to see how a segment of society who may themselves have experienced a bloody civil war might differ from the same generation of individuals who did not go through similar experiences. Two dominant concerns stood out among the Lebanese in our survey: security and the economy.
Before delving into these two issues, it is important to note that, in the aggregate, 57% of respondents disapproved of Lebanon hosting Syrian refugees, with only 33% supportive. However, levels of support varied slightly, most interestingly, by governorate, sect, gender, as well as income. In fact, Lebanese respondents residing in Bekaa/Baalbek-Hermel region were the most opposed to refugees (75% did not support vs 17% did support), followed by Akkar (71% did not support vs 17% did support). The most supportive region was Beirut (49% supported vs 44% did not support), followed by North Lebanon (38% supported vs 50% did not support). These attitudes map almost perfectly on to the geographical distribution of informal settlements of refugees (i.e., the presence of tents) throughout Lebanon. The three regions with the largest number of tents are Bekaa (102,706), Baalbek-Hermel (83,622) and Akkar (39,072) while Beirut has the lowest number (50). Given that the majority of the Syrian refugees are Sunni, it is perhaps no surprise that about 60% of Shiite and Maronite respondents were less supportive of hosting refugees. However, 54% of Sunnis also disagreed with supporting Syrian refugees. Women were also less likely to support hosting refugees than men (64% disagreed with hosting vs 54% respectively). Individuals that made less than minimum wage (less than $500 per month) were less supportive than those who made more than $1500 per month (62% disagreed with hosting vs 46% respectively).
Public perceptions of risks associated with hosting refugees in Lebanon have worsened over recent years. According to a survey conducted in 2013, 25% of Lebanese surveyed felt unsafe by the presence of Syrian refugees. By 2015, the number of individuals who felt unsafe had risen to 46% and that number continued to rise to 47% in 2016 (Alsharabati and Nammour 2017). By the summer of 2017, when we carried out our survey, that percentage had reached 51%. Despite these intensifying sentiments, nearly all studies, including ours, show that there is individual and regional variation in the perception of safety.
Public perceptions of risks associated with hosting refugees in Lebanon have worsened over recent years.
Once again, regions that had the most informal settlements were more likely to say that they did not feel safe; 83% in Bekaa/Baalbek-Hermel, and 72% in Akkar. However, what is interesting is that 62% of residents in Beirut felt unsafe while only 46% in Mount Lebanon, 47% in South Lebanon, and 45% in Nabatieh. Also, roughly 53% of residents in the North felt unsafe. One plausible explanation for this variation is the spillover of violence from the Syrian conflict into these areas. Akkar, Bekaa/Baalbek-Hermel, and Northern Lebanon are all geographically proximate to Syria. As for Beirut, it has witnessed several suicide attacks and bombings since the civil war in Syria began. In addition, those implicated in the attacks were connected to militant groups involved in the Syrian conflict.
When asked specifically about whether Syrian refugees were seen as a threat, 78% of respondents believed that Syrian refugees were a threat to them and their family, while 85% stated that they were a threat to their community and country. When asked whether Syrian rebels represent a threat, that number jumps to 85% of respondents viewing them as a threat to themselves and their family, and 89% see them as a threat to their community and country.
The economic challenges facing Lebanon are daunting. While the situation was not caused by the hosting of Syrian refugees, the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis that it precipitated, have certainly exacerbated the problem. According to a 2015 International Labor Organization report, as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis, unemployment in Lebanon had doubled to around 20% and total economic losses incurred were believed to be around US $7.5 billion. In 2016, the World Bank stated that the public debt had widened to 157% of the GDP.
Therefore, it is no surprise that 84% of the Lebanese believe that the refugees have had a negative effect on the Lebanese economy. In fact, when asked to choose four of the most important problems that have been affected by the Syrian refugees, 90% answered competition in the labor market, 64% higher rents, 50% security, and similarly, 50% said theft. However, respondents did not display universally negative attitudes. On the other hand, only 44% believed that scarcity of water was impacted, and just 40% stated that refugees have increased concerns related to infrastructure. As for other issues that have been raised in the Lebanese media and by politicians, only 34% believed that refugees have increased congestion in hospitals, while 33% stated that they perceive Syrian refugees had an impact on electricity supply.
Light At The End of Tunnel?
Our survey appears to confirm that Lebanese attitudes towards hosting Syrian refugees and the possible risks associated with doing so are, on balance, negative. Is there any light at the end of this tunnel? Under what conditions can this general trend be ameliorated or reversed? First, respondents to our survey offer relatively glowing praise of how political actors have been dealing with the crisis. 68% had a positive assessment of the Lebanese government’s handling of refugee issues. An even greater proportion, 80%, were positive about the role of the UN and 87% believed that the civil society had a positive handle on refugee-related issues in Lebanon. When it came to the International Red Cross, 96% of the Lebanese respondents held a positive view of this organization and its handling of refugee-related issues.
Second, as noted earlier, regional variation is clearly important. Areas at a greater distance from Syria and with fewer temporary refugee settlements appear to hold more positive attitudes and lower perceptions of risk regarding hosting refugees. In other words, greater interaction with the crisis and potential security implications appear to harden attitudes against support. At the same time, however, our survey signals that individual-level contact with Syrian immigrants and refugees could serve to ameliorate these rising negative attitudes.
Specifically, we asked respondents whether they have Syrian friends in Lebanon and whether or not they have knowledge of any Syrians displaced by the current refugee crisis. 46% of respondents confirmed that they knew personally a Syrian who had been displaced, and among these 69% said they were acquaintances and 16% said they were friends. In fact, individuals with Syrian friends are 47% more likely to support hosting Syrian refugees than are individuals without any Syrian friends. Just as importantly, we see the percentage of Lebanese who see refugees as a threat to themselves and their family drop by 17% when they state that they have a Syrian friend. Individuals with Syrian friends were more supportive of accepting a Syrian refugee as a daughter/son-in-law (a percentage increase of 263%), more willing to have a Syrian refugee as a business partner (a percentage increase of 288%), to hire a refugee (a percentage increase of 158%), more willing to live next-door to a Syrian refugee (a percentage increase of 114%), as well as rent them their apartment (a percentage increase of 174%). This is encouraging because each finding suggests that Lebanese respondents are more tolerant of hosting refugees when they know personally or have contact with a Syrian.
In sum, the refugee crisis in Lebanon has worsened over the past six years and has resulted in unprecedented political, economic, and social challenges. It has led to real-world issues, be they higher rents and declining public services, or competition in the labor market and the spillover of violence. It is essential for international, regional, and local organizations to cooperate to support both the Syrian refugees as well as their host Lebanese communities. This is especially important given that the regions in Lebanon that are most impacted by the refugee crisis are themselves the poorest and most underdeveloped in the country. Successful projects will be ones that also allow Lebanese and Syrians to interact with one another. One example is the Employment Intensive Investment Programme (EIIP) that the International Labor Organization (ILO) initiated in Lebanon, and which focuses on projects that employ Lebanese and Syrian workers side by side. Working with the German Development Bank, ILO began its first project on January 31, 2017 (due to last until February 28, 2018) to create work opportunities for both the Syrian refugees and host communities through infrastructure improvement projects in Lebanon. Our survey results suggest that projects of this kind ought to improve attitude towards hosting refugees and ameliorate perceptions of risks posed by doing so.
(1) This article is the product of field research in Lebanon. The surveys were conducted in Lebanon between May 31 and August 31, 2017.
 More details of the survey and some key findings are available in Faten Ghosn, Alex Braithwaite, and Tiffany Chu. 2017.
 See International Alert February 2015 Report. http://www.international-alert.org/sites/default/files/Lebanon_SSRSyrianRefugees_EN_2015.pdf
Faten Ghosn (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Alex Braithwaite (email@example.com) are both Associate Professors in the School of Government & Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Research for this article was supported by award W911-NF-17-1-0030 from the Department of Defense and U.S. Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory under the Minerva Research Initiative. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Department of Defense or the Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory.
The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of OxMo.
Alsharabati, C. and Nammour, J. (2017) ‘Survey on Perceptions of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Between Resilience and Vulnerability,’ USJ Liban: Presentation.
Dempster, H. and Hargrave, K. (2017) ‘Understanding public attitudes towards refugees and migrants,’ Overseas Development Institute: Working Paper.
Ghosn, F., Braithwaite, A. and Chu, T. (2017) ‘Exposure to Violence and Attitudes Towards Hosting Refugees: Evidence from Lebanon,’ The University of Arizona: Working Paper.
Trad, S. and Franghieh, G. (2007) ‘Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon: Continuous Lack of Protection’ (online), Forced Migration Review, UK.