North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Refugees and racial hierarchies in Lebanon

How refugee protection policies in the country ignore the prevalent problem of racism

Maja Janmyr
17 January 2022, 12.00am
Racial discrimination is a major issue for refugees from countries like Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia
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Maja Janmyr. All rights reserved

There’s no denying that Lebanon has a race problem. Accounts of racially charged physical and verbal abuse of, and discrimination towards, black- and brown-skinned refugees and migrants are common. Civil society organisations such as the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) have documented widespread racist and exploitative practices. Even the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has repeatedly pointed to Lebanon’s lack of anti-discrimination legislation and recommended that the country should ensure that all manifestations of racial discrimination are prohibited and punished.

During my almost decade-long research on refugee protection in Lebanon, I have had many conversations with refugees and other migrants from a wide range of backgrounds. I have also talked at length with humanitarian aid workers, activists and state officials. They all appear to agree on one important thing: that racial discrimination is a major issue for refugees from countries like Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Yet, in practice, the humanitarian response seems to disregard this issue in its entirety, and the situation of these refugees has long been overshadowed by larger humanitarian emergency responses for refugees from neighboring Middle Eastern countries. What is going on, and what can we do about it?

Humanitarianism and racialised hierarchies

Racial hierarchies have long pervaded humanitarian work worldwide. The current UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Tendayi Achiume, has pointed to the more specific racial implications of global refugee policy, showing how race continues to persist as a neocolonial structure by allocating benefits and advantages to some and not others.

Even though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has repeatedly underscored that non-discrimination is central to its protection mandate, the provision of protection and assistance arguably reflects changing geopolitical dynamics that apply a framework of preference to specific groups.

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Comprising a few thousand individuals, Sudanese refugees constituted only around 4% of all “persons of concern” to UNHCR in Lebanon in 2018. With the majority of donor funding in the past decade directed towards specific programmes or on the basis of (Syrian) nationality, Sudanese refugees, one senior humanitarian worker told me some years back, were being “sidelined in the whole discussion”.

Racial hierarchies have long pervaded humanitarian work worldwide

This observation is not necessarily new nor limited to the Lebanese context. In 2009 a review of UNHCR’s operation for Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria found an “unacceptable” level of disparate treatment of “non-Iraqi” refugees, including, most notably, refugees of African descent. More recently in Jordan, UNHCR’s purportedly discriminatory treatment of African refugees triggered massive external pressure to adopt a “one refugee” approach setting out that humanitarian aid organisations, governments and UN agencies should not discriminate against or for certain refugee nationalities.

The racially structured sidelining of these refugees risks obscuring humanitarian understandings of their protection concerns. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the humanitarian vulnerability assessments we see in Lebanon today.

Assessing vulnerabilities

In Lebanon, humanitarian vulnerability assessments in their current form fail to account for a category of harm that compromises the protection of refugees of African descent. Over the course of the Syrian refugee response, UNHCR, UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) have co-published an annual ‘Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon’ (VASyR) report, which provides a multi-sectoral update of the situation of this population. Since 2016, these agencies have also conducted a similar assessment for other refugee populations, including those of African descent – the ‘Vulnerability Assessment of Refugees of Other Nationalities in Lebanon’ (VARON). These vulnerability assessments are important because they provide the backbone for the provision of protection and assistance.

VARON brings to light some important discrepancies in the vulnerabilities of different refugee groups. VARON 2018 makes clear that the situation of “Iraqi and nationalities other than Syrian” is often “overshadowed”, and concludes that, among the surveyed refugee groups, those from countries other than Iraq – that is, Sudanese included – “were systematically worse off, and at times significantly so, for virtually all indicators”.

Racialised hierarchies in global refugee protection are a serious legitimacy and accountability problem for the UNHCR

While the vulnerability assessments may seem to highlight, rather than make invisible, the problems of Sudanese refugees, they nonetheless contain substantial shortcomings. First, by placing Sudanese and other African refugees in vague categories such as “non-Iraqis”, “non-Syrians” and “refugees of other nationalities”, humanitarian actors help mask the unique protection concerns and circumstances of these refugee groups. Labels such as these risk portraying Sudanese and other African refugees as mere ‘remnants’ or ‘leftovers’, seen in contrast to a ‘main’ refugee group rather than as a distinct group with equal rights.

Second, the VARON does not capture the intersectional and structural dynamics in which the lives of Sudanese refugees are situated, such as socio-economic class, gender and race. In fact, the VARON is blind to the question of racial discrimination altogether and contains no references at all to questions of race or discrimination. This essentially means that the assessment fails to take into account a whole category of harms that often constitute the very core of protection concerns.

Legitimacy and accountability

Overall, racialised hierarchies in global refugee protection are a serious legitimacy and accountability problem for the UNHCR. The organisation is mandated to provide international protection and assistance to all refugees, in an equal manner and without discrimination.

While its global policies for addressing xenophobic discrimination have been criticised for being inadequate, a positive new development is UNHCR’s 2020 ‘Guidance on Racism and Xenophobia’. This policy document is expected to broaden UNHCR’s scope to engage with structural forms of racial and xenophobic discrimination.

It is high time, then, to bring the overarching approaches embedded within this new policy into practice by including them in the humanitarian vulnerability assessments that UNHCR helps to design. Acknowledging the specific race-related vulnerabilities of refugees of African descent in Lebanon is an important step towards dismantling the racial ordering system that is ever too prevalent in this region.

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