The Local Politics of Refugee Crises:

Fragmentation and the Lebanese Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis


In my book project, I analyze the politics of local responses to the Syrian refugee influx in Lebanon. In broader terms, I ask: What are the drivers of state responses to large-scale migration? How do so-called “weak” states manage and govern migrants on their territory? Finally, what explains variation in sub-national migration policies? Lebanon is the largest per capita host of refugees in world today with approximately 1.1 million Syrian refugees and 250,000 Palestinians residing alongside a population of four million Lebanese. In the absence of a national policy response over the first three years of the Syrian refugee influx, I find that municipal policy becomes the most significant form of state response. This provides a critical case through which to study variation in local-level policy. Contrary to expectations in the literature, which typically highlight the role of economic, security, or ethnic and identity factors, I argue that variations in local-level policy responses to the Syrian refugee influx in Lebanon are to a greater extent a function of pre-existing political dynamics at a local level and policy mimicry within neighbouring areas.

In particular, I find that mayors turn to visible measures of migration control for two main purposes at different moments and in addressing different audiences. In the early stages of the migration influx, local authorities turned to targeted curfews as their main policy in an effort to project order and perform governance in the absence of effective “infrastructural power” (Mann 1984). In these cases, dynamics at a local and neighbouring area level were most important: curfews were more likely in cases where mayors faced a competitive electoral context, and where neighbouring localities have turned to similar measures. In the latter stages, as these discriminatory curfews became part of a “repertoire” of municipal action, these policies developed new roles. Moving beyond their locally-driven meanings, curfews became a way for municipal authorities to perform tension and signal need for greater support from international aid providers.  Finally, I argue that the restrictions targeting Syrians across Lebanese municipalities work in tandem with other, primarily national, policies to shift the border inwards by localizing and diffusing migration control throughout the territory.

Methodologically, I employ a multi-method approach, leveraging qualitative, quantitative, and geo-spatial analysis to build a theory of local refugee policy-making that is attentive to the performative role of these policies, and their reproduction across space and time. In doing so, I draw upon ethnographic research conducted over a year of fieldwork between November 2015 and December 2016, including over 120 interviews I conducted in Arabic, English, and French with a wide range of actors, as well as a unique dataset that combines original data on municipal curfews with demographic, electoral, budgetary, and spatial data.