Examining Lebanon’s Demographic Realities

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Foreign workers in Lebanon celebrate May Day 2013 on Beirut's corniche. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In the past years, new demographic groups have been introduced to Lebanon, creating a population pyramid that has been described as a “miracle,” a constellation that only happens during wartime and can only continue “by chance.” It is the same chance that has so far prevented the country from collapsing. However, it is clear that the country is moving toward an inevitable conflict between the various heterogenous groups living in it.

The cult of statistics has been absent from the policies of the Lebanese state for decades. Statistics of this kind may reveal the sort of serious information that the authorities have an interest in hiding. Thus, it is practically not possible to conduct thorough studies about many thorny issues in Lebanon. A national population census could have serious repercussions, and may impact social, economic, and political life. This data is linked to the legacy of the civil war and the policy aimed at draining the state’s capacities. Several studies have been conducted by various organizations, but all released figures have been estimates based on analyses and observations.

According to experts who spoke with Al-Akhbar, this small country is made up of at least six large population groups: Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, foreign workers, domestic workers, and people with no identity cards. A large segment of the Lebanese population lives abroad. This demographic “mixture” may have various effects and implications, especially in the absence of population policies based on the principle of integration.

Population “mixture”

The Central Administration of Statistics (CAS) released a census in 2007, which estimated Lebanon’s resident population (including Lebanese citizens and a small percentage of non-Lebanese, except for residents of Palestinian camps) to be 3,000,759. Today, eight years later, we do not know the exact number of Lebanese residents. According to Jad Shaaban, a researcher at the American University of Beirut who helped conduct a census of various population groups in Lebanon in 2011, the number of residents ranges between 4,000,200 and 4,000,700. Between the two figures, there is a sizeable 500,000 residents, which policymakers invoke according to their interests. Shaaban says that the Lebanese population pyramid contains a roughly equal number of males and females. Based on the population growth rate, however, the most accepted figure among experts is 4,000,200.

Currently, Syrians constitute the second largest population bloc, amounting to approximately 1,000,100. Shaaban refutes rumors that the Syrian crisis brought one million Syrians to Lebanon. “In 2011, we conducted a population census, which showed that there were 400,000 Syrian workers [in Lebanon]. At the time, everyone accepted their presence because they exploited them for their labor. When the events in Syria started, it was only normal for the workers to bring their families to Lebanon to protect them.”

This explains why a large number of Syrian families flocked to Lebanon from areas that are relatively far from the border. According to Shaaban, the number of people who have sought refuge in Lebanon is approximately 700,000. He says that this figure is mainly comprised of the families of workers who worked here before the crisis, all of whom registered with the UNHCR, thus raising the number of refugees. The 400,000 previous workers are predominantly males aged between 20 and 50 years, while the 700,000 refugees are 60 percent females, and include a large number of children. This large number of people suddenly entered Lebanon, creating a exceptional demographic pyramid that only happens in a time of war.

The Palestinians constitute a large part of the population pyramid in Lebanon. In 2011, according to Shaaban, the number of resident Palestinians reached 300,000, in addition to 50,000 who came from Syria, which puts the total number at 350,000. Shaaban notes that the population pyramid for the Palestinians is similar to that of the Lebanese, since both have an equal number of males and females, most of whom are below 30 years of age.

The population pyramid also includes the category of foreign workers (namely from Egypt, Sudan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka etc.), which was estimated at 200,000 in 2011. According to Shaaban, this group is today estimated to include 250,000 people, mostly males aged between 20 and 50. As for female domestic workers, their number was estimated at 250,000 in 2011 and is expected to have reached 350,000 today. This figure includes female domestic workers with residence permits, those who entered the country illegally, and those with expired residence permits, and who range between 20 and 50 in age. Further, Shaaban points to another marginalized group: residents who do not have identity cards, a category he estimates to comprise about 150,000 people, 70 percent of them under the age of 30.

A country with millions of poor

Therefore, Lebanon currently accommodates non-homogenous populations with different characteristics and influences. The presence of a large number of non-citizens in Lebanon does not come as a surprise to Shaaban.

“The country has witnessed considerable fluctuations in population levels over the years,” says Shaaban, explaining that it is not a new phenomenon. He notes that during Lebanon’s stable years before 2005, the country’s population increased every summer by 1.5-2 million, primarily tourists, who affected traffic, and electricity and water supplies, among others.

At the time, racism and tensions were not as flagrant as they are today because the tourists used to come to Lebanon to spend their money, while most expatriates in the country today are poor. According to Hassan Hamdan, a professor at the Institute of Social Sciences, the distribution of these populations according to social class is as follows: more than 80 percent of Syrians and Palestinian refugees, 95 percent of foreign workers, and 30 percent of the Lebanese people belong to the poor and marginalized classes. This combination makes up a society, of which at least 70 percent are poor. Under normal circumstances, the threat of a social conflict may arise. Shaaban confirms that the country is divided by class, because demographics are mainly based on characteristics rather than numbers, and is mainly related to concerns by a particular class of a population growth among the poor, which may exceed the country's capacities.

“Volatile” society

On the social and economic levels, Hamdan explains that the social fabric of these categories is heterogeneous. He says that relations between the Lebanese people are fraught with tension and anxiety due to the absence of integration mechanisms that can help overcome divisions, so how should one expect their relations with other groups to be?

The economic paradigm in Lebanon did not help integration and assimilation into Lebanese society. The Lebanese people were long treated as commodities for export rather than productive individuals. Due to this policy, suburbs were disintegrated and neglected, and their population was brought to the city. Also, young people were encouraged to migrate in search of work. In short, this economic paradigm based on remittances will not contribute to strengthening relations among the Lebanese, and between them and other population groups. Thus, any “new or emerging” population groups will — in the view of local residents — compromise the few resources available to the Lebanese and potentially lead to conflict. According to Hamdan, racism and social exclusion in poor neighborhoods will increase, and panhandling and human trafficking rates will rise, which effectively places us in the face of a society on the brink of explosion.

Shaaban finds that all non-Lebanese categories have a positive impact on the Lebanese economy in terms of consumer spending, except for Syrian workers, who spent less before their families moved to Lebanon. According to a study released in 2010, Palestinians spend around “$600 million in the areas” per year. As for Syrian refugees, they receive financial aid that is mostly expended in Lebanese markets, as shown by figures from the UNHCR and the World Food Programme. Shaaban notes that foreign workers, Syrian refugees and domestic workers have an indirect impact on the Lebanese labor market since they do not seek jobs demanded by the Lebanese. However, Hamdan says that the Syrians will soon start to work and not be content with the aid provided to them. According to yet unpublished United Nations estimates, 100,000 refugees are working in various fields, and they are competing with two categories: Lebanese workers and Syrian workers who were present before 2011. These three groups compete for low-income jobs in construction, hospitality, agriculture, and services.

Hamdan divides refugees into three economic categories: The first category comprises irregular laborers who work in regular sectors without any protection or regulatory mechanisms, and are exploited by employers. The second category includes craftsmen who opened small businesses and compete with similar businesses owned by Lebanese. This group is the most likely to explode, because it is the social base bound to sectarian and political loyalties. The last category is the Syrian bourgeoisie, which consists of two types: a group which deals with manufacturing products, but was unable to invest in Lebanon and turned to real estate, and traders who were able to continue business.

The population policy in Lebanon is considerably linked to the economic and labor policies. If the state wants to decrease the number of residents, it must make fair economic decisions. In other words, this issue can only be discussed after these groups are given their rights and are no longer exploited. Continuing with this approach will only lead us into the abyss.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


"This data is linked to the legacy of the civil war and the policy aimed at draining the state’s capacities. "
Since the NATO countries like to refer to Lebanon's present constitutional arrangement as desirable, so that its "stability" should be maintained, are we to interpret "policy aimed at draining the state's capacities" as the policy of NATO? When I was in Iraq with the US military in 2004, I was told by an Iraqi Kurdish interpreter employed for a long time already by US forces that, in his opinion, the US objective in Iraq was "a weakened state". It is not too difficult to explain the current ISIS crisis (I'm a poet) as a later attempt by Israel's most conservative "friends and allies" to make sure that Iraq and Syria stay weak. I would think Lebanese would rather have a strong state of their own than live in a weak colony run by NATO and some Gulf "oil sheikhs".

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