On Unsustainable Refugee Livelihoods and the Politics of Time in Humanitarian Governance.
Estella Carpi with Amina al-Halabi
In this short article, in an attempt to question the politics of time that humanitarian governance implicitly rests upon when managing refugee lives, we question the contradiction residing in imposing long waits on refugees who are selected for resettlement. Amina’s account will highlight the paradox of a humanitarian system that asks people, implicitly, to count on means they do not own, while the lack of those means is often the primary reason for applying for resettlement.
Amina is a Syrian woman who has been living in an informal tented settlement (ITS) in a hamlet of northern Lebanon since April 2011, after governmental shelling began to target opposition areas across Syria. Along with her husband and her three children, she is now waiting for resettlement in France. After 12 years in the same ITS, the French humanitarian corridors invited her for a series of face-to-face interviews, and she was eventually selected for resettlement.
Through corridors, refugees can legally enter Europe by being granted humanitarian visas and are given the possibility to apply for asylum afterwards. Normally, once relocated, the selected refugees – mostly women with their children, entire families or (more rarely) single men – reside in facilities or apartments paid by the organisations in charge. While waiting for asylum, refugees can take language classes and navigate future job opportunities, while children can register in schools.
In the history of human displacement, humanitarian corridors have been organised and negotiated by the United Nations or by other NGOs that, at a later stage, require approval from foreign governments. Corridors have also been used during displacement from Syria. In addition to France, Italy has been a common destination for Syrian refugees who aspire to relocate overseas through the corridors. Generally, such relocations happen through complex bureaucratic arrangements in relatively long timeframes. Amina and her family will only be able to leave Lebanon for France after nine months of waiting. The wait is due to facilitators trying to guarantee accommodation and other related arrangements in the country of resettlement.
What livelihoods can Amina and her family rely on while waiting for the long-awaited departure? And, more broadly, what are people supposed to rely on in this timeframe, if the dire living conditions that impede their sustainability – and even their survival – are the ones they need to live in until departure?
Such ways of operating have long taken these ‘impossible waits’ for granted. Corridors are only one example where the impossible wait is presumed. When I was researching livelihood programs in northern Lebanon throughout 2016 and 2017, my interviews with practitioners from the International Rescue Committee pointed to cash for work programmes,through which refugees, especially men, are employed for a period of time (typically six months) – after which they become ineligible for any new temporary job in the following six months. This policy was meant to enable a larger number of low-income refugees to access the same, albeit temporary, job opportunities. In this framework, NGOs act as temp agencies. Local practitioners working through cash for work programmes often voiced their perplexity concerning this policy. Some of them stressed how providing people with precarious sources of livelihoods can, paradoxically, unsettle the ways in which a household has developed their tactics of survival. Over the years, many NGO practitioners have questioned the effectiveness of such policies and practices, with most refugee households being unable to develop alternative means of economic sustainability after completing their period of employment offered through humanitarian programs.
Lebanon is officially a country of transit, having never signed the 1951 Convention for Refugees. Nonetheless, it has ended up hosting nearly one million refugees from Syria and thousands more from Iraq, Sudan and Palestine, to mention only a few. Amina emphasises how everything has become unaffordable. ‘The diesel (mazut) to warm up the house, food, medications for chronic diseases, the cost of rent and of schooling material for the children… The United Nations only help you with some of these expenses, such as food; but, most of the time, you are the one that needs to find strategies to overcome such hardships. Over the last few years, NGOs in Lebanon have been providing less and less aid, and discontinuously’. Economic collapse in Lebanon, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive destruction ensuing from the August 2020 port explosion in Beirut, triggered a large-scale downturn in the country. Humanitarian providers, in this context, sought to tailor their aid and support to a rapidly worsening economic context, but their attempts at readjusting programmes to a severe economic crisis did not go very far.
In this context, the refugees who are selected by humanitarian corridors are viewed as ‘the luckiest’ in a historical moment in which there is no alternative to day-by-day survival. However, the politics of temporality of such resettlement programmes rests on the tacit assumption that people are capable of surviving while waiting for their opportunity to rebuild their lives elsewhere. Refugees in countries where legal resettlement is not possible (like Lebanon) often lack temporal perspectives and struggle to establish their right to permanence. As scholar Cathrine Brun incisively wrote years ago, ‘this emptying of the future [of refugees] – or the rendering of an abstract future – shows that the emergency imagery decontextualizes and ‘de-situates’ the lives of people experiencing a crisis’. Moreover, it is not merely displacement per se that unsettles people’s ‘ownership’ of any temporal perspective; it is the specific way that displacement is managed: blurring the future and even, as mentioned, the immediate present. Often embedded between economic unsustainability in the receiving countries and the unfeasible return to the countries of origin, refugees tend to be deprived of the right to temporality, tout court.
While their means of everyday survival are at an all-time low in today’s Lebanon, Amina and her family still have nine months ahead before their departure to France. Other refugees do not even have a departure date, until which they are asked to survive by relying on their own means. For all of them, tomorrow cannot be a certainty.
 A pseudonym has been used on personal request.