How Anti-Refugee Narratives Waste International Aid and Human Lives

The stories we tell are as important as the funding we commit, says Ana Uzelac of the Clingendael Institute. In Lebanon, she explains, erroneous narratives about refugees limit the ability of donor funding to improve refugees’ well-being in the country.

Written by Ana Uzelac Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A young Syrian man sits outside a tent in a refugee camp on the outskirts of the town of Zahle in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on June 23, 2018. HAITHAM MUSSAWI/AFP/Getty Images

In the blistering heat of Lebanon’s long summer, many of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees hosted by the country have been squeezing in all the seasonal work they can. In order to pay debts and health bills, some accept exploitative work conditions and the humiliation of unpaid salaries.

Now that refugees are under increasing pressure from Russia and the Syrian government’s allies to return to Syria, some refugees in Lebanon are even wondering whether going back to whatever is left of home may be a better option.

This dire situation comes despite years of donor advocacy and billions of U.S. dollars given, pledged or lent to Lebanon to help support refugees. So why hasn’t this support improved refugees’ well-being in the country?

Our recent report for the Clingendael Institute found that erroneous narratives about refugees are damaging the effectiveness of aid. Based on over 50 interviews with people on all sides of the refugee crisis in Lebanon – from high-ranking government officials and businessmen, to donors, aid workers and refugees – we found that the stories we tell and accept may matter as much as the funding we commit.

Like a maze of leaky funnels, false narratives divert conversations about policies and funding away from protecting refugees and supporting their host communities. Ultimately, this undermines investment in the already controversial “protection in the region” agenda. Promoted by European countries, this prioritizes helping refugees in their home regions as an alternative to large-scale resettlement in Europe.

Narratives and Realities

In Lebanon, the official narrative of the country’s generosity and victimhood in the face of Syrian displacement has been crafted by the country’s politicians and reinforced in myriad diplomatic communiqués and a succession of donor conferences and high-level meetings since 2016.

The first element of this erroneous narrative exclusively stresses the negative economic impact of refugees’ presence, disregarding the historic dependency of the Lebanese economy on Syrian labor and the emerging refugee dividend.

Like a maze of leaky funnels, false narratives divert conversations about policies and funding away from protecting refugees and supporting their host communities.

In 2017, Lebanon received $2.8 billion in international assistance to the refugee response, including $1.3 billion in grants and the rest in loans. It has also been given access to a new range of development instruments that fall outside the direct refugee response, including concessional loans by development banks and revived bilateral aid frameworks. These funds could have even greater impact on the Lebanese economy if channeled into large development projects, business opportunities and job creation.

In April, donors at a conference in Paris pledged around $11.2 billion in loans and grants to support Lebanon’s economic development over the next decade – which could offset the cumulative economic losses of $10.1 billion that the World Bank estimated that Lebanon has suffered as an effect of Syrian crisis.

And yet, nowhere in the region are Syrian refugees experiencing worse access to rights, services and livelihoods, as well as the lack of simple human dignity. This simplified economic hardship narrative is used to distort much more complex reasons for the glaring contrast between Lebanon’s emerging “refugee dividend” and the experience of being a Syrian refugee in Lebanon. The policies that have led to this outcome are rooted in the chequered history of Syrian-Lebanese relations, Lebanon’s profoundly sectarian political settlement, the weakness of its state and the precariousness of its clientelistic economy.

Another key element of this narrative is that Lebanon is solely a victim of the ongoing Syrian conflict and that the refugee crisis is an externally created disaster. This narrative structurally disregards the role that Lebanon’s Shi’a political party and militia Hezbollah has played in maintaining the Syrian regime’s capacity to wage war and displace its own citizens.

Further, erroneous narratives about refugees also exist in donor countries. These include the argument that aid is key to preventing Syrian refugees from coming to Europe, which disregards the importance of the lack of rights or opportunities for a dignified life in the country.

Another is that the refugee crisis as an opportunity for economic reform in Lebanon. This ignores the fact that the Lebanese economy is an extension of its sectarian politics. While the situation may be slowly shifting, the refugee crisis has for a long while kept Lebanon’s sectarian division of spoils in place. It further diminished incentives for reform among some political actors, as the increased availability of cheap labor and donor interest allowed them to put off reform.

While the situation may be slowly shifting, the refugee crisis has for a long while kept Lebanon’s sectarian division of spoils in place.

There is also one shared narrative in Lebanon and many donor countries: that refugees are a threat to society. This idea permeates much of Lebanese politics, and is also ubiquitous in Europe’s public discourse.

This trinity of narratives – of Lebanon’s victimhood, the negative economic impact of refugees and the existential threat they pose to society – limits the effectiveness of aid interventions from the outset, by creating an atmosphere in which even those Lebanese policy makers who would be willing to improve refugees’ situation do not have the maneuvering space to do so.

Diversion and Disruption

A clear example of the need for narrative change ahead of any substantive change in policies emerged in E.U. negotiations with Lebanon since reaching the Compact in 2016. The idea of the Compact was to boost the Lebanese economy with a mixture of reform, international investment and relaxing restrictions on refugees working. The decade-old framework of the E.U.-Lebanon Association Agreement was revived only to quickly grind down again by unfulfilled expectations that the Lebanese system, unwilling to reform until now, would feel prompted to do so by the crisis.

What European negotiators framed as a generous offer to be activated on the basis of a genuine commitment to reforming a system riddled with red tape and clientelism, many of their Lebanese counterparts counter-framed as a back payment for the years of victimhood and economically detrimental hospitality, thereby diminishing the value of any aid offered. In our interviews we found the same contrast is already threatening talks over concessional loans and conditional development funding.

But the most disruptive narrative of all is that of refugees as a demographic threat to Europe and Lebanon. Lebanese policymakers often begin negotiations with donors by stating that they “don’t want refugees here any more than you in Europe do.” This undermines the normative and political value of E.U. funding from the outset. It is also used by Lebanese policy makers to justify political restrictions on refugees or to channel aid into projects that do not necessarily improve refugees’ situation.

Lebanon may be an extreme example of the impact of narratives on human lives. Yet, it is a valuable reminder that the stories we tell and accept shape the outcomes of our actions and may matter as much as how much money we spend. We need to look closely at which narratives of displacement we tell, and which ones we allow to be told, at home and internationally.

In Lebanon, we believe there can be no real policy shift until donors recognize – at least in the privacy of negotiating rooms – the contribution of one of its most powerful political actors to the tragedy in Syria, and the Lebanese public recognizes the existence and scale of the emerging refugee dividend. At the same time, European donors’ money will continue to be worth less than it could until countries start pushing back on fear-mongering and anti-refugee rhetoric in their own societies.

Here, there and elsewhere, it’s time to start telling a different story.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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