Today, at least one in four of Lebanon’s residents is a Syrian refugee. Political deadlock due to intense political fragmentation continues to deny any concrete plan to accommodate this huge population influx. The political class has instead opted to deal with the refugees living in the country as solely a security problem, using policing mechanisms that control and constrain the new population and place both refugees and the Lebanese host communities in a very delicate position. The state refuses to devise a comprehensive accommodation plan to manage the growing refugee presence and attend to their most basic human needs, leaving the stage open for experimentation by international aid groups and local governments.

The rise of local Syrian strongmen known as the Shawishes within Lebanese displacement camps helps illustrate the consequences of the Lebanese government’s approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. This problematic, ad hoc method allows informal security actors, such as the Shawishes, to thrive in Lebanon’s informal refugee camps. The State Security agency provides the Shawishes with the control they use to exploit camp residents and bully international aid organizations. Most importantly, such arrangements continue to absolve the state of its duty to manage the refugee crisis.

The Lebanese Government’s Crisis Response Plan: “The Policy of No Policy”

For the first four years of the Syrian refugee crisis, the Lebanese government’s crisis response plan had been commonly known as “the policy of no policy.” Today, it is based on a “set of nos.” Political spillover from the Syrian tragedy and Hezbollah’s involvement in the war widened internal and sectarian divisions at the national level in Lebanon. As perpetuated by the government, refugees became a national security threat rather than a population in need of protection.

A non-existent national refugee policy and a proliferation of poorly coordinated emergency response plans by international aid organizations were met with strong, illegal, and hybrid security networks. These networks are unnoticed arrangements between formal security agencies and informal security actors backed by powerful landowning families, tribes, and political party bosses. In Lebanon, the security of refugees is no longer a field of protection or prevention but of control and intimidation. Security is essentially protection from refugees.

The post-2015 policy was supposed to formalize the flow of and aid to Syrian refugees. Instead, it widened the gap between refugees and the government. Out of fear and distrust, refugees went out of their way to bypass state authorities.

It was not until late 2014 that the Council of Ministers finally adopted a “Syrian displacement policy” and agreed to develop a Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) with the United Nations. The post-2015 policy was supposed to formalize the flow of and aid to Syrian refugees. Instead, it widened the gap between refugees and the government. Out of fear and distrust, refugees went out of their way to bypass state authorities.

As a result, in Lebanon, the management of refugees in practice is extremely fragmented. The Security General’s new entry regulations barred the United Nations High Commission for Refugees from registering refugees and ultimately stripped thousands of their legal status. Arbitrary raids and evictions of both informal settlements and collective shelters by the State Security agency are common practice. Many municipalities imposed illegal curfews on refugees, marking them a threat to the very existence of the Lebanese community. And as many were forced to live outside of the law, hybrid security networks further exploited refugees in the name of protection and social stability.

Informal Tented Settlements: Sites of Experimentation

Informal camps, or in the nomenclature of the humanitarian aid community, “informal tented settlements,” are a common sight across the North and Bekaa governorates of Lebanon, with more than 250 settlements in the Bekaa Valley alone. The Lebanese government has ceded most of its responsibilities to municipalities, leaving them to respond hastily to both real and imagined threats. Municipalities in rural areas have tried as best they could to contain the crisis but remain ill-equipped and ill-guided to take on the task.

Detail of map showing a high density of informal settlements for Syrian refugees in the Bekaa governorate of Lebanon. Source: United Nations Inter-Agency Coordination, Lebanon.

In the absence of any coherent state policy, informal security actors gained momentum under the direction of the State Security agency—especially the Shawishes, who act as de-facto camp superintendents in the settlements and belong to a network of Syrian informants within these camps. The Shawishes, as explained below, have become a major concern for international aid organizations. Many aid groups wanted to bypass governing structures that are unfavorable to refugees, but the Lebanese government has rejected any explicit parallel systems. It fought any sustainable initiative that formally organizes the affairs of refugees, at least on paper. However, any political correctness demonstrated by government officials escapes those working on the field. Informal tented settlements have become sites of experimentation in ad hoc camp management strategies.

The Shawish Phenomenon: The President of the No-Camp Republic

Early on in the crisis, the Lebanese Government flat out rejected the option to set up formal camps. Political sensitivities to the experience with Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon preceded all humanitarian considerations. Of course, in policy terms, with no camps, there is no need for a camp management strategy. But, in reality, settlements are in dire need of organization. The most vulnerable and impoverished Syrian refugees live in tented settlements. Settlements are rented from a private landowner who has an established relationship to a Syrian refugee or migrant worker.1

If nothing else, the Shawishes are a perversion in a system that is reinforced by State Security actors, ignored by the ministry of interior and local municipalities, convenient for landowners, and problematic for aid organizations and refugees.

The Shawish’s role varies from one settlement to the other. He or she (though almost always a man) is sometimes referred to as the camp superintendent, or community representative; other times as the middleman, or informant. Although seen as the most powerful member in a settlement, he remains an exploited Syrian refugee.

At the time of a camp’s establishment, the Shawish serves as the middleman. He negotiates rent with the landowner and takes permission from both the landowner and the municipality to set up tents for newcomers to the land.

The Shawish is also the de facto camp coordinator that registers residents’ needs for aid organizations. Anna Hirsch-Holland, Collective Site Management and Coordination Specialist at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), explains how NGOs legitimized the position of the shawish. When NGOs began working in informal camps, there were no structures in place, there was only the Shawish; so, by default, the Shawishes became the community representatives in their camps.2 In accommodating their shady dealings, NGOs reinforce the positions of the Shawishes as camp coordinators, even when they barely serves the interests of refugees.

Though one cannot assume they are all corrupt, the function of the Shawish is highly unpredictable. In most cases, aid agencies have reported the shawish take over aid distribution and deprives certain families of aid. They harass women, force children out of schools and into child labor, and takes a cut of their school fees. In other cases, the shawish have threatened families of eviction or of telling them off to state authorities. In practice, they often amounts to neighborhood bullies.

For security agencies, the position of the Shawish is an irreplaceable asset, an informant. The General Directorate of State Security, the Lebanese National Security Agency notorious for its corruption and incompetence, maintains security within the settlements. It relies on informal security agents exactly like the Shawishes that deny refugees the protection they so desperately need.

Saadnayel’s informal tented settlements, Saadnayel, Western Bekaa, Lebanon. Photo taken by author on May 14, 2016.

Moussa Mohamad El Anad, a Syrian refugee from Homs, is the Shawish of a settlement in the town of Saadnayel in the district of Zahle. Part of his job, he says, is to be the eyes and ears of the State Security agency. He reports directly to them on anything that goes on in his settlement. He has to give the inhabitants’ names, identification documentation, and an official authorization from the municipality to set up tents. Lebanese State Security does not even have to promise leniency for his full cooperation because, like many refugees, he has no legal status.

The complementary action and inaction of formal actors strengthen this security set-up. The Shawishes might be in defenseless positions at the hands of state authorities, but they are trouble for other refugees. The Shawishes control shelter, livelihood, and aid opportunities and use the power given to them by State Security and the landowner as a bargaining chip to exploit the Syrian refugees living in the camps.

International Aid Organizations: Breaking a Habit

In response, the NRC, among seven other NGOs, has made every effort to establish Collective Site Management and Coordination programs in the settlements. Syrian refugees create and elect coordination committees for each settlement, and the NRC provides its members with a series of workshops about the aid system that goes through their settlement; information usually restricted to the Shawishes. They help refugees manage their own affairs, and link them to local authorities and key stakeholders. “At the beginning,” explains Khaled Juda, a Site Management Coordinator in Arsal and Saadnayel, “most Shawishes refused to share power, but some reconsidered after seeing the incurred benefits in neighboring settlements.” Still, these committees would not function unless the Shawish in each community was a member or at least an observer at their meetings.3

The NRC complemented the program by adding a Municipal Support Assistant position. This person acts like an aid worker/broker between refugees and the municipality. Hasan Choubassi, an assistant at the Municipality of Saadnayel, provides detailed monthly reports to the municipality on all eighty-five settlements in the town. The assistant is the “trust link” between the municipality and the committees, says Hasan, who has a reserved office at the municipality building.4

The Lebanese State of Denial and The Politics of Naming

The Lebanese government has been in a state of denial about refugee committees, worrying more about how things should be verbalized on paper than what is really happening in practice. NGOs have begun to shy away from the word “committees” altogether in their coordination meetings with the Ministry of Social Affairs after the ministry complained it hints at some form of permanence for the refugee presence.5 Even when such initiatives cannot be mentioned by their real name in any official proceeding, on the ground, NGOs continue to work on them with local municipalities.

For those same reasons, the mayor of Saadnayel, Khalil Shhimi, pretends he is unaware of the existence of these committees—even though Hasan insists he briefs Shhimi almost every week on their work.6 A new directive from the Ministry of Interior forces every NGO to get approval from the local municipality before proceeding with any activity. That usually becomes part of the assistant’s job as most municipalities show little interest or knowledge on the actual groundwork within the settlements.

In 2013, after a meeting with municipality unions and security agencies, the Ministry of Interior issued a directive that strengthens the jurisdiction of municipalities in maintaining public order by means of reinstating the role of the municipal police. In Baalbek-Hermel, the Ministry of Interior gave the municipal police permission to monitor the movements of refugees, perform arbitrary raids, or set up checkpoints around the camps. However, this rarely happens, as municipalities have no capacity for formal police work and the municipal police are exceptionally ill-equipped and understaffed.

Dr. Khalil Gebara, advisor to the current Minister of Interior, says the ministry is not aware of the governing structures in the settlements, including that of the Shawishes.7 The State Security agency falls under the authority of the prime minister and not the Ministry of Interior, he explains;8 although one would expect the ministry to be aware of the plainest security set-ups during its monthly Central Security Council meetings that include the state security and are presided by the interior minister himself.

Security in the settlements is merely a show of force, a security theatre, which only provides a feeling of security to a paranoid Lebanese host community and a feeling of control to a dysfunctional state.

In Lebanon’s sectarian system, security is a curious balancing act

In Lebanon’s sectarian system, security is a curious balancing act: multiple security agencies have conflicting sectarian affiliations that make it difficult for them to coordinate effectively at any level; they are in constant competition. But with the Syrian crisis, Lebanon has fared quite well in fending off terror attacks and factional infighting. Dr. Khalil Gebara told me the political class can’t agree on anything related to governance, but as part of Lebanon’s “security-first approach,” “there is a political consensus that has allowed security agencies to play their role;” and the refugee policy is based entirely on the militarization of humanitarian affairs.

It is time to look beyond a security paradigm that treats all refugees as terrorists, or as undeserving delinquents, and devises measures that seek to contain populations by increasing their vulnerability.

Lebanon’s political bosses are obsessively preoccupied with security. The army’s integrity is perhaps the only thing they agree they must safeguard at all costs, and the overly publicized missions of security agencies is the only thing the government has to show for itself. However, the security approach used to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis echoes a trend of informal security agents—such as informant networks, strongmen, local state representatives, or political party recruits—that most Arab states use to surveil their citizens. The Shawishes, in this case, fill the same function but with refugees—a tactic that almost all of Lebanon’s sectarian bosses use to police their political enclaves.

It is time to look beyond a security paradigm that treats all refugees as terrorists, or as undeserving delinquents, and devises measures that seek to contain populations by increasing their vulnerability. Responses like these play a huge role in shaping false perceptions of who and what a threat is, and increases perceptions of difference among host communities. This also questions the effectiveness of problematic ad hoc approaches that employ unreliable and exploitative informant networks as a quick fix to a protracted humanitarian crisis. Although the State Security agency can allocate power in a way that pleases its intelligence units, it cannot control the repercussions of such power dynamics at the neighborhood level.

Cover Photo: Life in one of Saadnayel’s many informal tented settlements, Saadnayel, Western Bekaa, Lebanon.jpg. Photo taken by author on May 14, 2016.


  1. Author Interview with Anna Hirsch-Holland, Collective Site Management and Coordination Specialist at the Norwegian Refugee Council, January 24, 2017.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Author Interview with Khaled Juda, Collective Site Management and Coordination Coordinator at the Norwegian Refugee Council, February 22nd, 2017.
  4. Author interview with Hasan Choubassi, Municipality Support Assistant (MSA) in Saadnayel, Norwegian Refugee Council, February 15, 2017.
  5. Author interview with Anna Hirsch Holland.
  6. Author interview with Hasan Choubassi; and author Interview with Khalil Shhimi, Mayor of Saadnayel, February 22, 2017.
  7. Author Interview with Dr. Khalil Gebara, Advisor to the Minster of Interior and Municipalities, February, 27 2017.
  8. Lebanese security agencies’ affiliations mirror the Lebanese sectarian political system. The State Security is closely connected to the Shiite Speaker of Parliament. The General Security and Internal Security Forces, however, are closely connected to the Sunni Prime Minister and Maronite President respectively; for more see Omar Nashabe, Security Sector Reform in Lebanon: Internal Security Forces and General Security, (Amman: The Arab Reform Initiative, 2009),