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Refugee Hospitality and Humanitarian Action in Northern Lebanon: between Social Order and Trans-border History
Estella Carpi

This short essay will discuss the social spaces which, in times of crisis, turn into host environments for refugees and displaced people, and where humanitarian programmes are implemented. It argues that the “hosting spaces” that populate the media and NGO reports which tackle refugee influxes are constructed with direct and indirect purposes. Hospitality, thus, becomes the official rhetoric which governments, UN agencies, NGOs, and international media adopt to speak of the consequences of conflict while preserving their moral aura and a convenient social order. The folkloristic idea of “host spaces”, inhabited by displaced people in the wake of emergency crises, helps domestic political actors and humanitarian agencies to preserve the social order that allows them to continue their activities and implement their agendas.

This contribution draws on a broader ethnographic study conducted on social responses to humanitarian assistance and welfare provision between 2011 and 2013 in Lebanon (Carpi, 2015). This article specifically looks at the Syrian refugee influx in the Akkar villages (Northern Lebanon) from 2011 onwards, investigating how the international media and the humanitarian system constructed the idea of a “host environment” in Lebanon, by assessing local people’s generosity on the basis of unsustainable conditions. Though the essay discusses how the idea of hospitality has been constructed and how it is employed in official discourse, the aim is not to deny that there has been considerable efforts on the part of local people and migrants in coping with this umpteenth episode of displacement and resettlement in the region. What is more, this resettlement is rarely temporary even though Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

 Hospitality and Humanitarianism

The phenomenon of humanitarianism is often associated with hospitality as it helps crisis-affected people to survive and rebuild their lives in a new location. However, until now most studies have focused on quantifying hospitality and ascertaining how many local families host for free and how many take money from NGOs and UN agencies. Domestic generosity is thus measured and ethically assessed, often implying ethical judgement of populations who have to host newcomers. During my PhD research, I explored the effects of hospitality in Northern Lebanon (Akkar) and how hospitality – meant as a cultural value and societal response – was affecting community and individual relations. By constantly attempting to measure hospitality in crisis contexts, humanitarian organisations and international media ended up marketising and undercutting the pre-existing cultural code related to hospitality and the longstanding power relations which tie Lebanese and Syrian nationals to each other in the Akkar region.

Overall, most Lebanese families host Syrian refugees in the name of blood ties, old friendships, and personal favours [1]. Others receive cash mostly from international humanitarian organisations to accommodate the Syrian newcomers. Relations between local communities and Syrian newcomers were strained due to the protracted Syrian crisis and the fact that international humanitarian programmes for refugees initially overlooked chronically poor people within the local population.

Power relations underlie hospitality in humanitarian settings (Rozakou, 2012: 563), and, in the specific case of Lebanon, hospitality reflects the desire to control and reorder human life. Spatial and social control, education, and care can in fact be secured through local hospitality. Syrian refugees are therefore doomed to the reified condition of temporary guests as long as they are willing to comply with the ethical code of neutrality which makes them “proper guests” (Rozakou, 2012: 574). Portraying refugeehood and the resettlement option – which is only partially a deliberate act – in terms of local “hospitality” is a way of morally justifying the need to support the refugees’ temporary presence in the Lebanese territory. This shows the clear marriage between (non-state) humanitarian and state order.

[1] For instance, a Lebanese family in al-‘Abdeh told me that they were hosting a Syrian family of 5 members as a personal favour for their family doctor, with whom they have a very longstanding friendship.