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Below the Surface: Results of a WhatsApp Survey of Syrian Refugees and Host Communities in Lebanon

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Seven years into the Syrian crisis and with almost a million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon, a country of six million inhabitants, questions abound: ‘how are the relationships between host communities and refugees evolving?’, ‘what are the needs on the ground?’ and ‘how do Lebanese and Syrians see the future?’. To get to the bottom of these questions, in 2017 and 2018, UNDP Lebanon piloted two qualitative WhatsApp surveys in the Bekaa region to learn more about the perspectives, needs, conflicts and fears of Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities. This report analyses the surveys’ findings and reflects on how WhatsApp surveying can support humanitarian and development work in Lebanon and beyond.

WhatsApp is an effective tool for qualitative surveying for two reasons. First, WhatsApp is very popular and widely used, including among refugees. In Lebanon, for example, 84% of refugee households use WhatsApp. Second, WhatsApp has the voice message function which allowed us to send survey questions as voice messages and collect people’s stories directly including from people who are illiterate. 1036 people participated in our WhatsApp surveys in Lebanon (794 in Bar Elias and 242 in Qaraoun), sending us their stories as voice or text messages. Unlike other qualitative methods, WhatsApp surveying relies less on local gatekeepers, thus creating a direct link between international organisations and people on the ground. In the privacy of their homes and using a form of communication that is habitual and convenient, many Syrians and Lebanese were willing to share their ideas and perspectives.

More nuanced social stability analysis through WhatsApp

Qualitative WhatsApp surveying produces more nuanced social stability insights through a close analysis of people’s stories. While quantitative surveying is important to achieve representative results, it tends to pull people towards generalizations simply by the way questions and answers are framed (e.g. ‘how is the relationship between “the Lebanese” and “the Syrians”?’ – as if these are coherent groups that have only one type of relationship). By asking people about their personal experiences, qualitative surveying, on the other hand, produces stories which are personal, complex and contingent.

The report uses the survey results to shed critical light on two prominent narratives regarding Syrian refugees in Lebanon: One is the media narrative, which increasingly pits one homogeneous Syrian community against an equally homogeneous Lebanese community, arguing that Syrians put an intolerable strain on Lebanese society and resources. The other is a narrative emanating from academia and NGOs that claims that host community–refugee social networks remain strong in Lebanon, particularly in places such as Bar Elias and Qaraoun (the survey sites), which share confessional, historical and social ties with Syria and Syrian refugees and migrants.

This report, on the other hand, aims to piece together a more complex and contingent account of relationships between Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities, illustrating how they distinguish between different forms of relationships, how they contest who benefits and who does not from the Syrian presence, and how they negotiate sameness and difference.

One crucial finding is that there is not ‘one relationship’ between Lebanese and Syrians, but multiple relationships. Some have improved over time, particularly with neighbours and friends, while others have deteriorated, especially with employers, landlords and ‘people on the street’. The survey also found that people’s experiences are not well understood through generic labels, especially not national or confessional ones such as ‘Syrian’ or ‘Sunni’. Rather, these categories need to be read in conjunction with more specific relationships mediated through gender, age and class but also friendships, neighbourly and employment relationships and local politics.

Further Uses of the ‘Speak your Mind’ WhatsApp tool

WhatsApp surveying can serve as a real time design and monitoring tool to support humanitarian and development programming. People on the ground are extremely resourceful and know their locality best. By collecting input and feedback from beneficiaries and the wider community before, during and after project implementation, the tool helps to remove barriers to inclusivity, facilitates ‘on the spot’ adjustments to programming and measures the impact of our interventions. In this way, WhatsApp surveying can enhance the accountability and effectiveness of humanitarian and development interventions over time.

The tool also allows for continued contact with respondents after they cross borders. Even when people change phone numbers as they move to new countries, they often maintain their WhatsApp contacts, either by linking their existing WhatsApp account to a new phone number or by continuing it on the previous number. Such cross-country communication could help protection actors to better track onward movements and understand the protection needs of refugees who returned or resettled. For instance, the tool could offer a means of communication with Syrian refugees after they have left Lebanon.

Bar Elias and Qaraoun: A comparative analysis

Qaraoun and Bar Elias pride themselves on being places of ‘karam’ (welcoming to the stranger).
Both places have been extremely generous hosting refugee populations almost equaling their own population. Bar Elias, in particular, has opened its doors generously to Syrian refugees, accepting new arrivals from the Riyak evictions in 2017 and largely defying a trend which has seen many municipalities in Lebanon implementing curfews and other restrictions against Syrians. Most survey respondents in Bar Elias and Qaraoun reported that there are no tensions or conflicts in the area, suggesting that, overall, peaceful co-existence prevails.

That said, the stories from Bar Elias were more concerning than those from Qaraoun. Both host community members and refugees felt less safe in Bar Elias. Army raids, assault, exploitation and harassment were more common. Both Lebanese and Syrians reported frequent thefts and robbery.
Lebanese were overall more negative about the Syrian presence and Syrians more worried about forced return. These differences between Bar Elias and Qaraoun may also reflect an urban/rural divide as fragmentation of social relationships and suspicion of refugees tend to be more concentrated in urban spaces. Much of the resentment in Bar Elias boils down to people’s fears of ‘losing control’, which is embedded in broader anxieties around governance, living standards, the environment, culture, security and jobs. Some Lebanese resort to sarcasm in their stories, which portrays their sense of powerlessness and resignation. Bar Elias and Qaraoun are still places of karam, but hospitality has worn off as the Syrian presence has become both more securitised and otherised.

The needs of people in Bar Elias resembled those expressed in Qaraoun. Syrians were preoccupied with everyday needs of shelter, food and work, while Lebanese expressed concern about environmental risks and infrastructure debilitation in Bar Elias. Water was a shared concern, including lack of drinking water, pollution of the river and waste water management. Lebanese felt left alone with these environmental and health risks. As in Qaraoun, Syrians felt that they did not belong to the town and had few stakes in its development.

One concerning difference between Qaraoun and Bar Elias is that in Bar Elias segregation was not only described as a reality, but also as a solution to Lebanese–Syrian tensions. Indeed, for some Lebanese, segregation is not only desirable for security reasons, but also for ‘cultural reasons’, which sometimes obscures classism and social discrimination against poorer Syrians.
Much of the Lebanese frustration centres around the competition for construction jobs and the ownership of local shops. Some Lebanese claim that most shops in Bar Elias are now owned by Syrians and that Syrian demand has significantly driven up shop rental prices. Many Syrians counter that their work opportunities are very limited, not least by legal restrictions. They complain that employers frequently do not pay wages, making them feel powerless. Some conclude that working has become pointless and that not working may be safer to avoid exploitation and harassment. Syrian women, in particular, struggle to find work that is safe. They report harassment and exploitation by male co-workers, employers and Shawishes (local refugee camp managers).

Gender dynamics play an important role in shaping inter-community relationships. As most respondents in both surveys were men, we received more insight into how Lebanese masculinity is enacted in relationships with Syrians. Much of the harassment and violence described was collective and happened between Lebanese and Syrian men.
Yet, Syrian women were also harassed and shamed because of their gendered roles as mothers. In Lebanon, as in many other refugee contexts, Syrian women are seen as a threat to the Lebanese nation, as their children grow up in Lebanon, speak the Lebanese dialect and have never known Syria, making it more likely that they may want to stay.

In Lebanese conceptions, safety relates to ‘knowing’ and ‘regulating’ refugees in camps. The camp, rather than refugees per se, emerged as a site of imagined chaos and insecurity. For Syrians, the camp was only one of many sites of insecurity. The street, in particular, emerged as a site of fear. With violence intensifying in parts of Syria (at the time of data collection) and with the prospect of return looming, many Syrians talked about the security situation in Syria rather than in Lebanon when asked about safety ‘in their area’.

Most Lebanese and Syrians agreed that the future of Syrians is not in Lebanon, but in Syria. Syrians overwhelmingly wanted to return to Syria as soon as conditions allow and were adamant that there is no future outside the homeland. Unlike the media discourse, very few Lebanese talked about ‘safe zones’ and ‘forced return’. Rather, they expected refugees to return to Syria once it is feasible, not least because Lebanon has little to offer for securing a decent life for them and their children.