Category Archives: Camps

Syrian refugees in Lebanon

A recent snowstorm in the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, drew the world’s attention to the desperate plight of the 2 million refugees from the Syrian civil war. Images of refugees trudging through snow in plastic flip-flops and summer clothes, and burning plastic mats to keep warm, highlighted the urgency of this humanitarian crisis.

Refugee crises are not a new experience for Lebanon, and the country’s experiences with Palestinian refugees have shaped the response to this new crisis.

In the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, when the state of Israel came into being, around 750,000 Arab residents of Palestine became refugees. 100,000 of these came to Lebanon, where they have survived in refugee camps ever since. With subsequent generations inheriting refugee status, there are now more than 440,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Lebanon. This represents around 10% of the entire population of Lebanon.

Exile has been a difficult experience for Palestinian refugees and for Lebanon itself. With its diverse population of 18 recognised religious groups, bound together by a confessional political system that divides power along sectarian lines, Lebanon was ill prepared for this influx of mostly Sunni Muslim Palestinians. Marginalising Palestinians in refugee camps, and resisting all forms of integration and normalisation, has been the state’s response to this challenge.

At the same time, the Palestinian refugee camps gained autonomy from the state in 1969. From 1970, Lebanon became the terrain for the PLO’s war of national liberation against Israel. Between 1975 and 1990, the country was torn apart by civil war, in which Palestinian armed groups were heavily involved. Since the war ended, the Palestinian camps have remained uncontrolled zones, referred to as ‘security islands’ by many Lebanese.

It is into this fraught context that around a million Syrian refugees, fleeing the catastrophic war in their country, have sought refuge. Of these, 778,136 are registered with UNHCR. The experiences of the earlier Palestinian refugee crisis are shaping the Lebanese response to the Syrian one. The government has refused to set up official camps, seeking to house refugees instead in rented accommodation or with local families and communities. Many ordinary Lebanese have stepped in to offer emergency assistance and hospitality, in the absence of government and non-governmental organisations. Others have been far more hostile: earlier this month, residents of a village in eastern Lebanon burned down a makeshift Syrian refugee camp, on the pretext that a Syrian had raped a disabled Lebanese man.

Lebanon risks being torn apart by the Syrian war. Many Lebanese support the Syrian government, while many support factions among the armed opposition; Lebanese of different religious communities are crossing the border to fight on each side in the Syrian war. Now more than 1 in 4 people in Lebanon are refugees – Syrians, Palestinians, and Palestinian refugees originally registered in Syria.

More than half of all registered Syrian refugees – more than 1.1 million – are children, and three quarters of these are under 12. A recent UNHCR report highlighted their plight. With more than half not in school, “a generation is growing up without a formal education”. Many are having to work; many others are isolated and confined to their places of shelter. Thousands are unaccompanied, separated from their parents or orphaned. Three quarters of babies born in exile have no birth certificates.

The huge strain of the Syrian refugee crisis is falling on the people and governments of neighbouring states like Lebanon. 17 more countries, most in Europe, have now agreed with the UNHCR to resettle Syrian refugees, but the numbers to be resettled are tiny compared with the scale of the problem – equivalent to the number of new refugees every two days. The UK government has pledged £500 million in aid to those affected by the Syrian conflict, including £66 million in Lebanon, but so far refuses to participate in the resettlement programme. Refugee charities have called on the UK government to extend their humanitarian response and institute a programme of emergency humanitarian evacuations for refugees in most need.

75 years ago, in November 1938, Britain waived immigration restrictions to give refuge to around 10,000 unaccompanied children – most of them Jewish – from mainland Europe. No doubt many would have died, had they been left to their fate under the Nazis. Why is such a humanitarian gesture so unthinkable today? Is popular opposition to immigration so powerful that the collective political will of the world’s richest continent can do no better than resettling 12,000 refugees? Is Britain’s proud history of giving sanctuary to those facing oppression and violence now simply that: history?

75 years since the Kindertransports, a million Syrian children now face another winter in tents and improvised shelters, away from home. The world surely must do better.

A version of this piece first appeared as part of the University of Birmingham series Perspectives on 18 December 2013, alongside pieces by Sara Fregonese and Isabel Wollaston


New publication: Mediterranean Spaces of Protest

Slightly over a year ago, when I first became interested in geographies of uprising (see post on 25/10/2012), I convened the British-Academy funded workshop “City/State/Resistance: spaces of protest in the Middle East and Mediterranean” in London. Here, an interdisciplinary range of academics, journalists, and policy-related practitioners looked at uprising as a phenomenon with strong urban identities, but as one that also gathers momentum from transnational shared causes, grievances, relationships, solidarity, tactics, communications, and comparisons. The aim was to blur and expand those regional(ist) interpretation of uprising in the Arab world that would like to confine it to a ‘domino’ of state regimes falling in orderly fashion in some limited area of the globe. This attempt of disturbing the domino, and breaking beyond it by relating the Arab uprising to other spaces of protest in the Mediterranean, is now a publication in the latest issue of European Urban and Regional Studies. It is part of the Euro-commentaries series of shorter papers that “address key policy developments or political events that affect European urban and regional development” (quoting the EURS website). It includes a number of workshop participants – some with new co-authors – and two prestigious additional contributions by Kostas Douzinas and Carlos Taibo.

Below are the contents of the series, which you can read at

If you don’t have a subscription for this journal, please email me on


Euro-commentary special collection: Mediterranean Spaces of Protest

Sara Fregonese (Birmingham)

Mediterranean geographies of protest


Lynn Staeheli and Caroline R Nagel (South Carolina and Durham)

Whose awakening is it? Youth and the geopolitics of civic engagement in the ‘Arab Awakening’


Andrea Teti and Andrea Mura (Aberdeen and Aberdeen+Open)

Convergent (il)liberalism in the Mediterranean? Some notes on Egyptian (post-)authoritarianism and Italian (post-)democracy


Jeremy Anderson (International Transport Workers’ Federation, UK)

Intersecting arcs of mobilisation: The transnational trajectories of Egyptian dockers’ unions


Costas Douzinas (University of London, UK)

Athens rising


Lorenzo Trombetta (ANSA Italian News Agency, Beirut Middle East Bureau)

More than just a battleground: Cairo’s urban space during the 2011 protests


Adam Ramadan (Birmingham)

From Tahrir to the world: The camp as a political public space


Yair Wallach (SOAS)

The politics of non-iconic space: Sushi, shisha, and a civic promise in the 2011 summer protests in Israel


Carlos Taibo (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)

The Spanish indignados: A movement with two souls


we are everywhere

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Spaces of Encampment

One of the tasks I promised to do during my job interview at Birmingham last June was run their human geography seminar series – Tabula Rasa. Now in post, the responsibility passes to me from January. I now have a great line up of speakers for next term, including Colin McFarlane, Paula Meth, Alex Vasudevan, Jessica Pykett, Stephen Taylor and Sara Fregonese.

In addition, I got to give the final seminar of the Autumn term this week. My paper was titled ‘Spaces of Encampment’, and it drew together various threads of work I have done, am doing and plan to do, on refugee camps, protest camps and prison camps. While these might all seem very different kinds of spaces, actually I think they are similar in at least three ways:
1. Camps are exceptional: outside the normal political order, spaces of exception, of blurred sovereignties, of experimental new political formations and relations;
2. Camps are tactical: they have a function, and achieve certain ends, whether for the state, for international humanitarian agencies, or for protesters.
3. Camps are enduring but temporary: materially, politically, camps are transient, liminal spaces. They serve a function, then come to an end.

The camp is an arena in which the geopolitical and the everyday are intertwined, shape and manifest each other. From Guantánamo Bay to Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park to Nahr el-Bared, the camp as an exceptional space for exceptional political acts has increasingly become the normal terrain and tactic for both state action and popular resistance.

Coincidentally, my paper on Spatialising the Refugee Camp has just been published by Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. In the paper, I offer a three-part analysis of how Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are assembled temporarily, outside the sovereign control of the state. This spatial analysis of the camp, understanding how it is constituted and functions spatially, is a way of grounding geopolitics in the everyday: understanding the small moments and acts that negotiate and constitute broader geopolitical architectures in the spaces of the camp and beyond.

Nahr el-Bared refugee camp: exceptional, tactical, temporary. November 2007.

Adam Ramadan

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