The sun is beating down and it isn’t even midday. Clutching the all-important paperwork that will get them coveted UN food vouchers, Syrian refugees look harried. The women pull at their children to hurry through the litter-filled yard of the sports club in the town of Bar Elias that serves as a distribution center for the UN’s hard-pressed World Food Program (WFP). Unlike their men, who head for the shade to smoke and exchange news, the women don’t dally, making for the snaking lines into a crowded hall where they will be called in groups by registration numbers.

Back in war-torn Syria the balance of the lives of many of these mainly Sunni Muslim refugees was held by a little piece of metal smaller than a man’s finger or by the flick of a switch in a warplane’s cockpit. They are at least safe for now. But their sanctuary is precarious, and like any refugees they mourn their lost homeland and yearn for stability. As more refugees flow into Lebanon, depleting the funds of the UN and aid agencies and straining the resources, infrastructure, and patience of the Lebanese, their struggle for survival—for enough food to feed their large families, for adequate accommodation, and for jobs—is becoming harder. And the sectarian Syrian war is stoking communal tensions in Lebanon. Like the Lebanese the Syrians here in the Bekaa Valley worry that clashes between Sunni and Shi`a in northern Lebanon and in Sidon south of Beirut will morph into more widespread fighting, reigniting Lebanon’s own brutal 15-year-long civil that left 120,000 dead. The recent attack on Lebanese soldiers in Sidon by gunmen affiliated with Salafi preacher Ahmad al-Assir, who contends that the military is standing with Shi`i party-cum-pro-Assad militia Hezbollah, increased this concern.

Food vouchers will be distributed this day to 917 families, and with their vouchers the refugees scurry off to cash them at contracted stores. A major complaint is that Lebanese shop owners hike food prices when the vouchers are used—something WFP admits is happening and is doing its best to curb.

“Voucher distribution used to be a lot more chaotic, but now there’s much more discipline and people are calmer,” says William Barakat, an academic psychologist-turned-UN aid worker.[1] Lebanese-born Barakat is calm under the press of queries thrown at him by refugees. He’s gentle, explaining the reasoning why the $30 food voucher per family member each month has been reduced to $27. The official line is in summer fewer calories are needed. But in reality the UN is consuming more money than is being replenished by donors. “When they first came they were clearly suffering trauma, there was a lot of anger, they were frenetic, but they’re better now and I suppose they have grown accustomed to the way things are,” he says.

He notes, though, that many are losing hope, too, as the Syrian war drags on and now more of them wonder if there will be anything for them to go back to. Mazen Swedeh, a 25-year-old refugee from the Damascus suburb of Jobar, isn’t so sure a return will be possible. A onetime medical salesman, he’s the father of a seven-month old baby, and he and his young wife wonder if there’s any future for them in Syria. With family in the United States, they are considering trying to secure family reunification visas. Their apartment in Damascus has been wrecked and the family has been struck by other losses: an artillery barrage killed his wife’s sister, a mother of five, as she was nursing her youngest, and the husband of another sister-in-law with two children was killed in an airstrike. “When the war began I never thought it would be like this,” he says. “I think there will be nothing of Syria left and conflict and revenge will go on for years.”[2]

With immigration doors hard to crank open in the United States and Europe, Mazen and many other refugees wonder if Lebanon will become their home by default.   

And this is an increasing cause of alarm for the Lebanese, who fear that Lebanon’s sectarian demographic status quo will be altered, impacting the fragile country’s fraught and dangerous politics.

That is one of the reasons why Lebanese political leaders—Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt is a rare exception—have turned their back on the idea of building refugee camps to house the swelling numbers of Syrians. Refugees in Lebanon, unlike in Jordan and Turkey, have had to fend for themselves when it comes to shelter. The government likes to argue that most have family and friends with whom they can stay in Lebanon—a line that has been echoed in hundreds of news dispatches. In fact, most don’t and instead must pay extortionate rents for inadequate and makeshift accommodation, stoking rental price inflation for the Lebanese as well. In recent months improvised tented camps have sprung up in the Bekaa Valley.

The desperate overcrowded plight of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon is now pushing the UN to plan a dozen huge camps able to house a million refugees, about the number that the Lebanese government estimates is currently in the country. Half a million have registered with the UN but aid workers don’t quibble with the government calculation. Until recently the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was willing to endorse the Lebanese government line that refugees were better off housing themselves and that local communities and municipalities should assist with their needs. But now UN officials are urging the Lebanese government—and crucially Hezbollah—to agree to the building of refugee camps.[3]

At the moment the UN is not making much progress. President Michel Suleiman and several ministers have been hinting that they might consider barring new refugees from entering Lebanon, and they say that the international community should think about building refugee camps inside Syria close to the border instead.

The main argument they give for reluctance over the construction of camps is that they would pose a security risk to Lebanon. Lebanon’s Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, for example, says that he opposes the creation of refugee camps because Islamist extremists could use them as bases from which to foment trouble in Lebanon. “The Syrian refugee camps will subsequently turn into acquired rights with all the security risks that they represent, especially that [Syrian rebels] have a jihadist agenda that doesn’t have a boundary.”[4]

Hezbollah has long been the most vocal in opposing the camps. Last year, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Shaykh Naim Qassem, reacted sharply to the idea and also deployed the security argument. “We cannot accept refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon because any camp will become a military pocket that will be used as a launch pad against Syria and then against Lebanon,” he said.[5]

Having grappled in the past with severe security problems emerging from Palestinian refugee camps, Lebanese leaders have a powerful argument on their side. Such an argument resonates with ordinary Lebanese already impatient with the presence of so many Syrian refugees, who they view as competition for jobs at a time of inflating prices and general economic malaise.

But another reason for opposition to the camps is contained in Bassil’s remarks about “acquired rights,” signaling the fear that camps will make it even more likely that a sizeable number of Syrian refugees will stay longer term. The energy minister even goes so far as to argue that such rootedness in Lebanon is a goal of the Alawi-dominated government of President Bashar al-Assad, that is, to reduce the Sunni population in Syria. “The movement of refugees from Syria to Lebanon is pre-planned to transform the political and demographic reality and is a new act of partition,” he argues.

Pre-planned or not, a new demographic reality is establishing itself in Lebanon, and one that has the potential to scramble and complicate the country’s unstable politics.

Judging by the estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Palestinian refugees still living in Lebanon, some who fled Palestine at the establishment of Israel, camps may lead to Syrian Sunni refugees remaining in Lebanon—especially if Assad hangs on to power. Lebanese Shi`a would then become significantly outnumbered by Sunnis in a political system that is based on a delicate sectarian balance introduced in 1990, at the end of a savage 15-year-long civil war, which allocates guaranteed government roles to the major sects.

The Lebanese have avoided conducting an official census since 1932, fearing that the results could trigger a renewed bout of inter-communal fighting, but various surveys estimate that Muslims account for around 64 percent of the 4.2 million population and Christians 36 percent. Sunnis and Shi`a account for just over a quarter each of the Muslim population. According to a 2006 survey conducted by Yussef Shahid Aldweihy based on birth records, Lebanese Sunnis and Shi`a are evenly split at 29.6 percent and 29.5 percent respectively, although Hezbollah has long maintained that there are more Shi`a.[6]

It isn’t clear as the fighting continues in Syria that the Lebanese government will be able to hold out against building camps, as the deteriorating conditions of the refugees and the strain they are putting on local municipalities may force the government’s hand. So too might the UN have to step up when it comes to providing financial assistance to the Lebanese. In a record-breaking $5.1 billion humanitarian appeal launched last month by the UN for the Syrian crisis, the largest portion, $1.2 billion, is earmarked for Lebanon.

Elias Muhanna, an assistant professor at Brown University, dubs the notion that Hezbollah is against camps and fears the longer-term presence of Syrians because it would prompt demographic shifts favoring the Sunnis a “cartoonish idea.” The Palestinian refugees who have been in Lebanon since 1948 “have never figured in the demographic debate because the Lebanese have prevented them from doing so,” he writes. “Why would it be different with Syrian refugees?”[7]

Yet on the ground that isn’t the feeling. In Shi`i areas in the Bekaa the arrival of Syrian Sunnis is greeted with unease. A Hezbollah-aligned Shi`a in the northern Bekaa Valley, Shaykh Hassan Hilani, says that many of his group are reluctant to help Sunni refugees. “I told them that they should do so because they are human beings, but we don’t want anyone taking away our rights,” he says.[8] Such an us-versus-them attitude is going to beget more aggression, predicts the head of mission of a foreign-aid charity. “We are going to [see] violence soon between host communities and refugees, particularly where greater numbers of Sunnis come into Shi`i areas,” he says.[9]

Any demographic shift impacting the country’s power-sharing structure may not play out quickly. The Palestinians don’t figure formally because they are denied citizenship and voting rights. But in the medium term the Syrians could disrupt Lebanon’s delicate political spoils scheme and prove a bigger demographic threat to Hezbollah than Palestinian Sunnis. As Vanessa Newby, a visiting fellow at the American University of Beirut, argues in a recent paper, “As Syrians are permitted to remain indefinitely in Lebanon without requiring a visa, there is nothing to prevent them from choosing to remain and building a life for themselves here, and although this is different [than] formally recognizing them as part of the Lebanese population (with the right to vote), they might present a threat in other ways.” Newby notes that the refugees could encourage greater interference in Lebanese affairs on behalf of the Syrian population or intermarry with Lebanese, which would enable Syrian women to take Lebanese nationality.  “Irrational though these fears may sound,” she writes, “as a small state the Lebanese are highly sensitive to demographic changes.”[10]

And the demographic shift—even if only a sizeable minority decides to stay—may impact Lebanese society in informal ways, fueling sectarian flames and emboldening Lebanese Sunnis. Furious at Hezbollah’s military backing of Assad, the country’s Sunnis are eager to reassert themselves to challenge the Shi`i movement’s role as a state within the state. “Hezbollah will have to deal with mounting opposition within Lebanon,” says Michael Young, author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square.[11] Already, Sunni Islamists in Lebanon are more outspoken in their hostility, warning Hezbollah that it will be held accountable for Sunni blood spilled in Syria and calling for jihad. Formal impact or not, camp-based or dispersed, a long-term Syrian Sunni demographic presence has the potential to change Lebanon.


[1] Author Interview with William Barakat, Bar Elias, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 17 June 2013.

[2] Interview with Mazen Swedeh, Majdal Anjar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 15 June 2013.

[3] Jamie Dettmer, “UN Presses Lebanon to Open Refugee Camps,” VOA, 18 June 2013, .

[4] See NOW report, “Bassil Warns Against Syrian Refugees,” 9 June 2013, .

[5] “Lebanon Should Not Build Refugee Camps,” The Daily Star, 10 March 2013, .

[6] See , 11 November 2006.

[7] Elias Muhanna, Qifa Nabki: News and Commentary from the Levant, 13 June 2013, .

[8] Interview with Shaykh Hassan Hilani, El Hilaniya Village, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 7 April 2013.

[9] Interview with undisclosed head of mission of an international charity, Beirut, Lebanon, 12 June 2013.

[10] Vanessa Newby, “Collective Historical Memory and Its Effects on the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon,” Griffith Asia Institute Human Protection Hub (blog), 11 June 2013, .

[11] Interview with Michael Young, Beirut, Lebanon, 9 April 2013.