Accepted Paper:

'We're not supposed to understand!' Refugee Governance and the Politics of Uncertainty in Lebanon  


Nora Stel (Maastricht School of Management)

Paper short abstract:

Refugees in Lebanon face a regime of institutional ambiguity that is routinely explained as stemming from capacity/resource deficits. This paper however argues that institutional ambiguity is also a deliberate governance modality and explores it as an instrument to pacify, exploit and expel refugees

Paper long abstract:

Lebanon has the highest per capita number of refugees worldwide and governs them rather specifically. The 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country face a 'no-policy-policy' that rejects the establishment of official refugee camps and refuses to give them formal refugee status. A stringent entry and residency regime created a situation under which 70% of Syrian refugees are without legal residency status, making them extremely vulnerable to exploitation. This situation of systematic unpredictability and contingency reproduces the position of Lebanon's Palestinian refugees. With reference to an increasingly illusory 'right to return,' these have faced seven decades of 'permanent temporariness' in what is often considered a 'state of exception.'

Such institutional ambiguity is routinely explained as the consequence of capacity problems stemming from so-called state fragility or hybridity and the unprecedented scale of these refugee crises. This paper, however, argues that institutional ambiguity might also feature as an intentional governance modality. It explores the ways in which institutional ambiguity is produced and/or maintained as an instrument to pacify and control refugee populations.

Building on critical policy analysis and qualitative case-studies, the paper investigates the legal limbo and arbitrary authority that constitute institutional ambiguity. It analyzes these as crucial aspects of the 'manufactured vulnerability' that renders refugees exploitable and 'encourages' them to leave. As such, this paper complements our structural understanding of fragility or hybridity with the more agency-oriented idea of a 'politics of uncertainty' that institutionalizes ambiguity, liminality, and exceptionalism to control, exploit, or expel particular populations.

Panel F01
The politics of uncertainty, disorder, and contingency in 'developing' states (Paper)