[This article is drawn from a paper presented by the author at the Vulnerability, Infrastructure, and Displacement Symposium (2019), as part of the panel on “Vulnerability and the (Built) Environment.” Click here, here, and here for other articles drawn from the same panel.]
This article explores the ways migrants who are in precarious conditions access housing and carve out a life in the derelict spaces of Ras Beirut, a neighborhood of the capital reputed for class and ethnic diversity in a country that is steeply stratified along socio-economic. While gradually gentrifying, a patchy property-led real estate market has left small pockets of old derelict buildings and run-down houses standing between newly constructed or renovated buildings aimed for privileged users. This paper explores how Syrian sponsored workers and refugees as well as Asian migrant domestic workers, make necessary infrastructural and spatial arrangements to inhabit otherwise uninhabitable houses or re-inhabit previously vacant ones. These delicate arrangements are the social networks of reciprocity that enable migrant housing, and dependency on the patronage and approval of owners, employers, and legal sponsors (kafeel) are indispensable for their precarious access and continued housing in Ras Beirut.
I argue that the accommodation of these migrants within make-shift domestic setups and without rental contracts, aligns well with landowners’ intentions to evict any remaining occupants from their derelict buildings to eventually regenerate their properties, having purposefully neglected to repair them to this end, but seeing an interim opportunity to benefit from and speculate on the property value. Assigning inhumane service areas and residual spaces to migrant workers who live in their sponsoring employers’ homes, is reproduced at the scale of the urban landscape by the relegation of migrants to the residual spaces, the only type of shelter they can access in this prohibitively expensive area. While delicate spatial and social arrangements of dwelling enable migrants to maintain housing under these circumstances, social stigmas continuously marginalize and threaten place in the neighborhood.
Delicate Spatial Arrangements as Enabling Housing in Urban Residues
Amer,[i] from rural Syria began living in Ras Beirut in 2014, first as foreman on a construction site, then as concierge for the high-end residential building when it was completed, earning five hundred dollars a month. But the building owners who are also his legal sponsors have not allowed his wife and children to live with him in the one-room studio they provided him on the ground floor. To spend time with his family and to ensure their safety while the Syrian war was raging in his village was hard, involving costly crossings between warring territories, detentions for Amer and sieges for his family. Since 2017, his wife Khadija and their three children have come and gone for brief stays in Beirut: the first time in a flat whose owner raised the rent and prevented them from putting up internal barriers to between their living spaces and those of Ethiopian domestic workers who shared their flat; the second time in a room in a cheaper flat shared with two other Syrian families but where he was allowed to build a separate bathroom for his family while the kitchen and small entrance remained communal.
Though migrant sojourns may be defined by “erratic and uncertain rhythms” and “short-termism”[ii] this does not foreclose their ability to maintain social networks and cohesion that foster wellbeing within their communities[iii]. Rather, where these networks exist, and they often did, they are vital to enabling migrant dwelling and wellbeing in the neighborhood. They form an economy of reciprocity built around the circulation, exchange and donation of material goods and services between relatives, neighbors and friends. Of setting up in either flat, Amer said: “We furnished the place gradually, with items from here and there. I bought a used fridge, a friend who returned to Syria gave me a bed... My cousin who is a plumber helped me install the bathroom.”
The exchanges also include financial loans taken from other co-nationals, or small informal micro-creditors. By spring 2019, Amer had incurred five thousand dollars’ worth of debt to various family members, from the repeated trips and moves and an incident of entrapment he experienced in Damascus. Paying rent in Ras Beirut for his family was no longer viable, especially if was to repay his debts, so he sent them back to live in their village. Showing me images on his mobile phone of his property, he consoled himself that his house was at least not destroyed like those of thousands rather than live in confined make-shift conditions here, they had the comfort of his three-bedroom home surrounded by vast fields and fresh air where the kids can play. Several of the migrants I have spoken to mentioned taking loans, the Syrians amongst them from friends or Syrian employers, while Ella, a Philippine domestic worker said she and her friends were in a constant cycle of taking out and repaying loans collectively from informal micro-creditors mainly to keep up with tuition costs for their college children back home.
Various forms of sharing, of resources, household items or spaces, are vital to enabling migrant dwelling in the residues of Ras Beirut. Rendering such spaces livable and affordable also entails parceling up flats to accommodate several households or individuals who can then share rent, agreeing amongst themselves over terms of access to communal spaces and collectively harnessing available amenities from the vicinity and splitting their cost. You need enough roommates to afford rents and bills, but not too many to have over-crowded living quarters with over-burdened physical infrastructures. According to Bassem, a long-term Syrian sponsored worker who shares a four-bedroom flat with ten migrant men, “We are in exceptional circumstances that force us to live together when we would normally never do so.”
For Ella, who after fifteen years living with employers moved to a rented room in a run-down building, affording independent housing relies not just on delicate spatial distribution but on the ease of access to communal spaces and facilities. To afford her life in the flat, as she continues housekeeping for her sponsoring employers and free-lancing, she also has to ensure frequent enough access to the kitchen she shares with three other flat-mates, so she can prepare Philippine food to sell for supplementary income. She also has to have the freedom to cook her dishes, which include fried fish without drawing complaints about the smell from neighbors and subsequent prevention (and possibly eviction) from owners.
Aesthetic Stigma as Disabling Entitlement to Dwelling
Stigmas based on the sensory or aesthetic quality of spaces where migrants live often serve to constrain their movement and delegitimize their presence in the neighborhood and the country. On 22 May 2019, Beirut municipal police evicted ninety Syrian and ten Bangladeshi male migrant workers and twenty Syrian families. Pictures of their living quarters and of them squatting on the sidewalk with their belongings circulated social media, though not very widely. Reports alleged the migrants were squatting without the permission, and the eviction followed repeated complaints from neighbors about their “presence… screaming… [and] smells.”
In similar vein, the Lebanese neighbor living beside Bassem complained to me about the “dirt and smells and disgusting sights” coming from the building where in addition to single or unaccompanied men, nine Syrian families live one to a room on three floors. “Their children make noise all day, and they do not know how to raise them… All of Lebanon was disturbed by their presence,” she said. A mother of two of the small kids in question told me, “Children make noise when they play. What can we do about that?” But it means she and her flatmates cannot use the garden below the house to change scenery. Formal complaints from unknown sources reached the building’s owners, about the children’s noises, though not those of the hundreds of children attending the public school across the street until 2pm daily. While one of the owners threatened to evict all the dwellers as a result, his brother promised them secure housing; the outcome remaining uncertain to Bassem and the families.
Stigmas about the noisy, unsightly, and unsanitary presence of migrants of various provenance, contribute to their marginalization and dehumanization (Baumann 2018). Many of my interlocutors expressed feeling out of place and discriminated against, especially Syrians who expected empathy from Lebanese nationals whom they regard as fellow Arabs. Yet for the most part, their structural invisibility while variable according to race and legal status (sponsored workers, refugees or migrants without papers), prompts an expectation that they also remain actually invisible in the neighborhood.
The derelict buildings of Beirut are themselves objects of precarity. Neglected, they often draw similar complaints from neighbors about pest infestation and busted infrastructures and debris. Structurally vulnerable, they are sometimes at risk of collapse or demolition. Places where migrants settle are “historically neglected” by ghettoization or slumification (Ford et al. 2018: 2), and I would add by deliberate enclaves of decay that the property-led real estate market and its speculative nature routinely instrumentalize (Kanafani 2017).
While migrants’ housing vulnerability is part of a housing crisis most affecting the urban poor in Lebanon, migrants are among the most vulnerable, lacking legal rental contracts and relying on the benevolence of powerful patrons to maintain housing. An ethnographic exploration of these micro-geographies of precarity (Muñoz 2018) reveals how migrants are en masse a particularly convenient category of occupants of residual spaces. Their make-shift dwellings, while malleable to delicate and enabling arrangements, are stigmatized and undermined, rendering migrants readily the brunt of impromptu expulsions to make way for regeneration projects or to appease the complaints of urban residents with more social capital.
When migrant workers in Lebanon reside within the properties of their employers, building codes and profit-oriented real estate practices institutionalize their inhumane living conditions by routinely relegated them to neglected and residual spaces (Saad 2016) as domestic or construction workers, or as building and parking attendants. The regimes of habitation within Lebanese hosts’ homes are metonymically reproduced at the neighborhood scale, where the derelict buildings that remain standing constitute the residual spaces, which are purposefully neglected as sites of speculation, and where as a result, precarious migrants are most likely to live.
Hannah Baumann, “The Intimacy of Infrastructure: Vulnerability and Abjection in Palestinian Jerusalem,” in Planned Violence (2018), edited by E. Boehmer and D. Davies, 137–57.
Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki, “Cultural Geographies of Precarity,” Cultural Geographies 25, no. 3 (2018): 387–91.
Ford, Hart, Dolf te Lintelo, and Vivienne Benson. “Urban Refugees in Lebanon: Housing, Residency, and Wellbeing,” IDS Policy Briefings, no. 151 (2018).
Samar Kanafani, “Made to Fall Apart: An Ethnography of Old Houses and Urban Renewal in Beirut,” University of Manchester (2016).
Solange Muñoz, “Precarious City: Home-Making and Eviction in Buenos Aires, Argentina.” Cultural Geographies 25, no. 3 (2018): 411–24.
Bassem Saad, “The 5m2 Maid’s Room: Lebanon’s Racist, Gendered Architecture,” Failed Architecture (2016). Retrieved September 4, 2019.
 All names have been invented, and all identifying traits modified to maximize interlocutors’ anonymity.