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A small group of adults and children stand around a banner that reads, "UNHCR: For or Against African Refugees?" on one side and "Hungry, Homeless, Hopeless: Merry Christmas 2019" on the other. In the center of the image, one man holds the UN Refugee Agency flag.

Sudanese and other African refugees protest at UNHCR headquarters in Lebanon. Jnah, Beirut. December 2019. (Photo courtesy of the Anti-Racism Movement).


Slipping Through Cracks: The “Forgotten Refugees” in Lebanon

The story of refuge, asylum-seeking, and migration in Lebanon is often told through the trials and tribulations of Syrians and Palestinians. This focus is understandable, given that the two communities collectively make up about a third of Lebanon's total population, have immense needs, and have an intimately interwoven and complicated history with Lebanon. Yet the story of refuge in Lebanon, which hosts the largest number of refugees per capita worldwide, also includes Iraqi, Yemeni, Sudanese, and Somali communities. 

Understanding the experiences of these “forgotten refugees” reveals significant shortcomings in providing either immediate or sustainable solutions for vulnerable people in desperate need with the current systems in place.
Understanding the experiences of these “forgotten refugees” reveals significant shortcomings in providing either immediate or sustainable solutions for vulnerable people in desperate need with the current systems in place.

The Sudanese Community

Of the four communities, the Sudanese are the most organized and have waged a public struggle against national and international institutions over the past decade. According to UNHCR figures, last updated in 2020, there are 2,263 Sudanese nationals registered in Lebanon (633 designated as refugees, 1,603 as asylum-seekers, and 5 as “others of concern”). They began arriving in Lebanon in the late 1990s, entering in punctuated intervals matching periods of instability and war in Sudan. 

The story of Safa, a 21-year-old Sudanese woman born in Lebanon, tells of the difficulties the community faces. Safa’s parents arrived in Lebanon in the late 1990s, and had their case files opened by the UNHCR office in Beirut in 2000, the year Safa was born. A few years later, both of their files were inexplicably closed. In 2013, desperate to register their children so they can get an education, Safa’s parents, along with many members of the Sudanese community, started protesting in front of the UNHCR offices. The public pressure seems to have worked. The case files of Safa’s mother’s were reopened in 2013, and her and the children were formally registered as refugees in October 2015. Her father’s case file, however, remains closed. 

Being recognized as refugees enabled the family to enroll their daughters in school and receive modest financial support, around L.L. 100,000 per month, but this was insufficient. Safa’s mother was ill, and aid agencies offered no support; she died only a month after being registered. With financial aid having ceased altogether in early 2021, the family feels very insecure about their future and bitter about their past.  

According to the UNHCR’s Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination (RSD), there are specific guidelines for case closure or reopening, dictated by an individual and their needs. While the guidelines may seem clear at face value, there are technicalities and subtleties that pose dilemmas for Safa and her family, such as her father being excluded for not fitting certain conditions as an individual regardless of the needs of the family. 

“My life in Lebanon is bad, especially with everything that is happening today,” said Safa. I have no future here, we’re constantly facing racism. We can’t return to Sudan because we have absolutely nothing there and there would be no future for us. The fact that my father isn’t registered and has no residency papers means there is a real possibility of our family being separated. What are we going to do if that happens?”

Safa also pointed out that there are members of the Sudanese community in Lebanon who are survivors of the Darfur genocide but also facing similar issues, despite fitting what is commonly understood as the profile of refugee. “We are all refugees,” Safa said, her voice cracking with emotion, “[Being a refugee] should not be separated by nationality, or be arbitrary, or [in]consistent. We all deserve our rights.” 

The case of Mubarak, a Sudanese political activist, also sheds light on the severe difficulties the community faces in Lebanon. Mubarak, who was already deported in 2016 from Lebanon to Sudan where subsequently he was disappeared and tortured was able to escape and return to Lebanon, and is now facing a second deportation that could potentially be fatal. 

The Iraqi Community

According to the UNHCR database, by mid-2020, 4,392 Iraqis were registered as refugees, 8,249 as asylum-seekers, and 5 as “others of concern,” making them the largest community among the “forgotten refugees.”

Since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and especially after the 1991 Gulf War and the sanctions on Saddam Hussein's regime that took a far greater toll on the general population, Iraqis have arrived in Lebanon for two primary reasons: access to medical services and as a corridor to settle elsewhere. The 2003 Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq was a watershed event, especially between 2006 and 2009, when 50,000 Iraqi refugees were registered in Lebanon, though the Ministry of Interior placed the count closer to 100,000. In 2010, the number of Iraqi refugees dropped dramatically, to 7,630 refugees and 648 asylum-seekers. Between 2014 and 2018, as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria conquered large swaths of northern and western Iraq, Iraqi asylum-seekers in Lebanon rose to 12,000, most of whom were Shia or Christian.

In contrast to Sudanese, Yemenis, and Somalis, Iraqi refugees have had greater visibility in Lebanon, although not consistently so, and hinging on whether the Iraqi conflict was in the spotlight at any given time. As Najla Chahda, the director of the charity Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center put it in a  2014 report, “Up until this summer [2014], the continuing Iraqi refugee crisis was no longer newsworthy, especially as the international community and media turned its attention to the Syrian conflict.” 

Iraqis have faced immense hardships in Lebanon related to protection status, inability to earn a living, and lack of sustainable solutions.  According to Caritas, “Many Iraqi refugees were overly optimistic about being quickly resettled, and as a result stopped looking for work or stopped enrolling their children in school” but “[w]hen reality failed to meet expectations, they often felt hopeless or depressed, adding to the burden on a population where trauma is common.” The charity added that there remained significant issues faced by the Iraqi community, notably the “rising tensions between Iraqi and Syrian refugees ... where many Iraqis accuse the Syrians of being a source of cheap labor.”

There are no local or international organizations that exclusively support or tackle cases related to Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, so this community is reliant on informal social networks and on UNHCR or local organizations that handle migration and refugee cases. Both are grossly overwhelmed, and have suffered funding cuts.

Families of detained Sudanese refugees gather outside UNHCR headquarters in Beirut to demand the release of their loved ones from prison, arrested during a preceding protest to demand refugee rights. August 2012. (Marwan Tahtah/The Public Source)

Families of detained Sudanese refugees gather outside UNHCR headquarters in Beirut to demand the release of their loved ones from prison, arrested during a preceding protest to demand refugee rights. August 2012. (Marwan Tahtah/The Public Source)

The Yemeni Community

Yemenis in Lebanon number between 400 and 500, mainly residing in Beirut’s suburbs, and comprising three groups: students under a sponsorship program, medical-care seekers, and those awaiting visa approvals abroad.  

When the 2015 Saudi-led war against the Houthis in Yemen broke out, Yemenis found themselves adrift in Lebanon. “We couldn’t return to Yemen, and we were all stuck, so we immediately connected with our Iraqi and Syrian peers to understand the registration process," Ali al-Dailami, a researcher for the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies who focuses on Yemeni refugees, recounted to The Public Source.

"Very soon after, we tried to organize ourselves especially with the students to register as refugees with UNHCR in 2015, but none of us were accepted,” he added. “Yemenis, at least in Lebanon, feel that the processes are often unclear, [they] lack access to information, or lack sufficient follow-up to their cases.”   

According to al-Dailami, their attempts to register continued, with a handful making progress, particularly those who were married, while single Yemenis (the bulk of the community) could not advance with their resettlement cases. 

For al-Dailami, “Clearly this is less about criteria and more about politics, especially by hosting countries and their quotas.” He ventured “It cannot be ignored that there are political sensitivities about the war on Yemen and the recognition of Yemeni as a ‘refugee.’ There are clear political sensitivities about the war." In contrast to the experience of Syrians and Iraqis, the researcher says that “Yemenis see Syrians and Iraqis making  progress on their papers and resettling, and they wonder about this secret button to move the process along.”

"Yemen today is understood to be the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. It is far from over. There is a major wave of people that will leave Yemen because of what’s happening there, and I fear there is no plan or policy that will help them anywhere." —Ali al-Dailami, researcher
The process for non-Syrians to register with UNHCR today is daunting. It begins with them being granted “asylum-seeker” status, prior to undergoing the Refugee Status Determination process to gain “refugee” status (except for prima facie cases, which expedites the process). It is that component of the procedure that Yemenis begrudge.

According to UNHCR’s database, there are more than 150 Yemenis in Lebanon as of 2020, categorized as such: 24 “refugees”, 130 “asylum-seekers” and 5 as “others of concern.”

Like so many others, the conditions under which Yemenis live have gotten worse since the Beirut port blast, with many of them moving to Egypt or Jordan to seek  better opportunities or re-attempt to register in the hope that the process will be faster in a new country. “Yemen today is understood to be the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. It is far from over. There is a major wave of people that will leave Yemen because of what’s happening there, and I fear there is no plan or policy that will help them anywhere,” he concluded.

The Somali Community

The smallest and most vulnerable of all, the Somali community in Lebanon is officially made up of around 30 people, of which 23 are accounted for by UNHCR’s own figures (14 designated as “refugees” and 9 as “asylum-seekers”). It is unclear how many of the 3,098 Somalis who resided in Syria in 2010, as documented by UNHCR, came to Lebanon after the outbreak of war. 

The community is understudied, but according to  the UNHCR 2006 Lebanon Country Operations Plan, many Somali refugees “originate from minority ethnic groups (e.g. Murosade, Rare Hamar, Sheikhal, etc.) and from areas located outside Puntland and Somaliland where the situation is still unstable for repatriation.” The UNHCR report further notes that Somalis were “the most vulnerable due to the conditions in Lebanon and their difficulty in adapting/assimilating in society” and that “[d]elays in resettlement and consequently, prolonged stay in the country have further aggravated their situation.” This fact is still relevant given that, since 2006, the situation in Somalia has not improved, with further in-fighting between the armed militias, involvement of foreign troops from neighboring countries, the African Union and the West, and recurring humanitarian crises.

Somalis in Lebanon have to contend with xenophobia and racism, making it incredibly difficult for them to adapt to life in Lebanon. Moreover, like their Sudanese peers, Somalis have also reported a reduction of their financial aid by UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations since the onset of the Syrian war.

Sanctuary in the 21st Century 

Iraqi, Yemeni, Sudanese, and Somali communities in Lebanon regardless of their specific nuances face a universal problem that besets all refugees: the systems established to help are neither representative of their needs nor do they actively develop refugees’ social, political, and economic self-agency. They also avoid the root issues that led these communities to become vulnerable in the first place.  

In an email exchange with The Public Source, Lisa Abou Khaled, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Lebanon, confirmed that "UNHCR carries out the same activities for all refugees in Lebanon, regardless of nationality." Abou Khaled added, " we prioritize the most severely vulnerable families for cash assistance. We acknowledge that many others need assistance too and continue to support as much as we can with the resources made available for us.” 

It may be easy to focus on UNHCR as the main international body mandated to aid and protect refugees and stateless communities, yet the problems are not limited to the agency. There is a fundamental disconnect at the core of the humanitarian sector, particularly in its inability to respond to people's needs.

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s coordinator of aid relief operations, recently acknowledged, “If we hold such a mirror up to the system, humanitarian agencies collectively will see that we are simply not adequately listening and responding to what people say they want.”

In Lebanon, matters are made worse by the authorities' refusal to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention. Successive governments have also failed to create domestic legislation or administrative processes to address the specific needs of refugees and asylum-seekers, compounding the challenges faced by refugee communities.

Salvation, however, clearly cannot come from a country that is unable to meet its own citizens’ most basic needs. The onus falls on the wealthier countries outside the region, and in particular those responsible for the refugee crisis, but whose inhumane restrictions ensure that the burden remains predominantly on the poorer states hosting the vast majority of displaced populations and migrants. 

Given that forced displacement is on the rise due to war, violence, persecution, and human rights violations, and that it is likely to continue to rise due to economic instability and climate change, it is imperative to consider radical approaches: reexamining, redefining, and updating international norms, definitions, laws, and processes; incorporating refugees in the decision-making on par with donors; or creating an institution led by refugees for refugees. 

Crucially, states’ centrality in determining the refugees’ fates should be questioned; for how does a state truly understand statelessness? Until a “revolution” occurs within these archaic systems, established in the aftermath of World War II, countless lives will continue to slip through the cracks. 


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