On 26 April 2023, Marwan Charbel, former Interior Minister of Lebanon, appeared on TeleLiban, a government-owned public television network, to comment on the “frighteningly high” birth rates of displaced Syrians living in Lebanon. Quoting “recent statistics,” Charbel claimed that out of every five births in Lebanon, four were Syrians and only one Lebanese, before contending that the international community and its NGOs prevent Syrians from entering Europe and pay them under the table to cause chaos (fawḍā) in Lebanon. He concludes: “What are you [the international community] trying to do? Change demographics in Lebanon? You want there to be more Sunnis than Shi’as? I am saying this in the open. Where does this lead?”
Wielding the sectarian trope, as Charbel did, is not new to Lebanon’s political discourse. Lebanese politicians have once and again weaponized this most readily available language --the fear of sectarian conflict -- to prevail upon the struggling Lebanese and deflect from the colonial legacy of sectarian governance that has ravaged the country for decades. Charbel’s bracketing of Syrians’ high birthrates with looming sectarian chaos was aired in the shadow of the country’s ongoing and systemic political and economic crises, which was only accelerated by the 2019 nationwide uprisings and the 2020 Beirut port explosion. It further coincided with the intensification of mass deportation of Syrians from the country.
In mid-April 2023, more checkpoints were erected to review legal papers of anyone traveling by foot or by vehicle, and the army started to raid refugee camps, particularly in the country’s northern and eastern regions. Syrians who run afoul of these checks face either detention or, more often, instant deportation. But even this escalation of deportation, and all of the associated pressure to leave that is put on the displaced community, is not new to Syrians in Lebanon. Their camps have been raided many times over the last 12 years. The humble cinder block walls secretly built at the inner edges of their tarpaulin tents to protect them from summer heat and winter cold have been destroyed. Many have been loaded into trucks or buses and dropped off on the other side of the border in Syria, only to take the smuggling route right back into Lebanon. Syrians do so, if only because the prospect of repeated deportation outweighs the anticipated atrocities of Assad’s regime against the revolutionary returnees. Many Syrians will continue living precariously in the tarpaulin tents of makeshift camps: undocumented, temporary, unauthorized to work, unable to move around freely, with no access to education, and no permanent resting place for their dead. And it is here, in this temporary state, where they give birth to the next generation.
Whereas Charbel’s inflated statistics regarding Syrian births in Lebanon appear uncorroborated,displaced Syrians do have high birthrates. This is the case not only in Lebanon, but throughout the region (Akyon et al. 2023; Kabakian-Khasholian et al. 2017; Sieverding et al. 2019). According to the UNHCR report published in March of 2023, “over 47 percent of Syrian refugees in the region are under 18 years old,” meaning that in the last 12 years many were born while displaced. In Turkey, the total fertility rate of displaced Syrian women was estimated at 5.3 in 2018, a number much higher than both Turkish women around the same time (2.08), and the rate in Syria from 2005-2010, pre-civil war (3.7) (Akyon et al. 2023). In Lebanon, the hundreds of thousands of Syrian children born since 2011 make up 48% of the total population of the displaced community. Syrians’ high birthrate contrasts with the steep decline in the Lebanese fertility rate of the last couple of decades—down to 1.5 children in 2010–marking “the lowest fertility rate in the whole Middle East and North African region.” Many Syrian families take on substantial amounts of debt to give birth in Lebanon, as they are required to pay all or most hospital fees, while dealing with increasingly common birth complications as a byproduct of their harsh living conditions (AlArab et al. 2023; McCall et al. 2023). A large number of Syrian children born in Lebanon are undocumented, lacking birth certificates and registration in either Lebanon or Syria. The majority do not have access to education, and many grow up in tents near Lebanese farms where some become farmworkers from an early age.
The growing population of displaced Syrians was a constant refrain during my 2018-2019 fieldwork in Lebanon, where my research focused on their struggles to bury their dead. In the absence of formal camps and official cemeteries, Syrians still managed to maneuver around the acute scarcity of resources and lack of legal documentation in order to provide a resting place for their dead. Curiously, in conversations with local Lebanese, humanitarian workers, and government officials about death and burials, the topic of birth rates regularly came up. While recognizing and at times sympathizing with Syrians’ burial ordeals, many of my interlocutors were particularly concerned about Syrians’ high birthrates and felt the need to move the topic of conversation from death and dying to living. In such contexts, Syrians’ burial ordeals were immediately diverted to and diluted into the overall tribulations of life in Lebanon, which spared no one, with the looming economic breakdown of 2020 in the air. It was perhaps the stark contrast between what these interlocutors deemed to be the pressing question of the living, and my study which focused on the dead.
Some would point out that having too many babies has long been a backward cultural practice of Syrians, referring to Syria’s consistently high birthrates in the last many decades. Others would recognize Syrians’ “lack of access to reproductive healthcare” in Lebanon (AlArab et al. 2023) as a factor. Within the various iterations of the issue, however, what was constant was a condescending tone that viewed Syrians’ desire to give birth amidst poverty and displacement as unreasonable. Syrians’ high birthrate was often attributed to lack of education, low cultural capital, and rural origins, particularly among those living in the makeshift camps of north and east Lebanon. Their drive for life amidst displacement, poverty, and death was met with a fastidious incomprehension.
In an interview with a Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) officer in Beirut in the fall of 2018, I was asked why I studied death rather than engage in a much-needed study of Syrians’ high birthrates in Lebanon–an intriguing research topic from his point of view, because it could potentially lead to applicable policy for lowering the number of births among displaced communities. The officer concluded his comments by arguing that “the one who is gone, is gone; the problem is the living (illi rāḥ rāḥ, al-mushkila hiyya al-ʿāyishīn).” The idea of locating “the [Syrian] problem” in the realm of the living, in his view, was not about finding ways beyond the obstacles set against the living Syrians in Lebanon. It was rather about the paradox of Syrians’ desire for perpetuation of life while displaced. Such views were increasingly prevalent in Lebanon, targeting both displaced Syrians and Lebanese poor. They resonated with a Malthusian argument for population control, where the poor (and the displaced) must stop having children in order to eradicate inequality and poverty. This is the sentiment beneath Charbel’s public comments, an argument that finds Syrians blameworthy not only for their troubled lives and death in exile, but also for the suffering of the Lebanese.
My Syrian interlocutors were aware of and often exposed to these views. Many women I spoke with in camps had attended workshops held by local and international NGOs, offering education and access to contraceptives, discussing different family values, and brainstorming on ways to resist Syrian men’s desire to have more children. I attended several of these workshops held in makeshift camps in the Central Beqaa Valley while making frequent visits to meet with families who had lost loved ones in Lebanon. During these sessions, the attendees were mostly silent, listening attentively while exchanging meaningful glances with each other. In the summer of 2019, after one of these workshops, I sat down with Tasneem, a displaced Syrian woman living in a camp near Terbol, who was volunteering with local and international organizations, offering first aid and primary healthcare to Syrians in the camp. She is a mother of three, the oldest born in Syria followed by twins who were born in Lebanon shortly after their arrival in the summer of 2017.
Tasneem was irritated by both the content and the way the session was delivered, noting that even though she would not want more children while displaced in Lebanon, it is nonetheless “unreasonable (mish maʿqūl)” to ask Syrians not to even have kids. Agitated, she started recounting her journey through war, death, and displacement. She recalled living through the war in Syria, the smuggling route that took her to Lebanon when the whole town of Raqqa was bombed by the US-led coalition, her brother’s disappearance in 2015 during the rule of ISIL over Raqqa, seeing hands cut off, witnessing dead bodies taken out of the graves, and walking by deserted lands said to hold mass graves of victims of ISIL. She followed these recollections with a description of her father’s death in Lebanon, and the ordeal of taking his body back to Syria, where he could be granted a permanent resting place. “Yes, our lives have become entangled with death. But we want to live (ḥayātna ṣārit makhlūṭa maʿa al-mawt, bas bidnā naʿīsh),” she concluded.
Tasneem’s articulation of Syrians’ urge to live does not provide a response to the demographic fright of “too many Syrian babies” in Lebanon. Nor does it entertain the idea of reasonability of certain births over others. Instead, she refuses to engage with such framings and actively diverts from them. Giving life, not despite but within displacement and poverty, and not against but at the same time as omnipresent death, is what animates the life of displacement, where the future is eerily but somewhat soothingly unpredictable. In listening to my recorded interviews with Syrian families who had lost loved ones in Lebanon, I pondered the way many narratives of death were interrupted by the cry of a baby, a child’s demand for parents’ attention, the instantaneous alternations between the burial narrative and instructing a child to behave, eat, or merely stop crying. While death was often expressed pragmatically, as a rigid reality that needed to be managed through rigorous use of the limited resources available, it was the children’s command that diverted attention from the abjection of dying while displaced. Only by dwelling in this uneasy space, where life and death are ever more entangled, one can make sense of the unreasonable perpetuation of life.
Acknowledgments: This piece is based on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Beirut, northern and eastern Lebanon. Research support was provided by the National Science Foundation, The Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Orient Institut Beirut, and the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. Many thanks to the generous reviewers at Jadaliyya and to mentors, friends, and colleagues at Northwestern University, Brown University, and elsewhere for their productive feedback on earlier versions of this piece.
 This interview was originally screened on TeleLiban, but was reposted online on MEMRI. For your reference, MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), is a pro-Israel advocacy group and a deeply problematic media analysis channel.
 Among others, see: https://apnews.com/article/lebanon-refugees-syria-arrests-deportations-356d55f1412f830b6521180c5390a869
 There is no accurate and coherent data of birthrates by nationality in Lebanon, but the scattered data suggests that a little more than half of babies born in Lebanon are Syrian. According to UNHCR and Lebanese government data, in 2016 for instance, around 40,000 Syrian babies were born in Lebanon. This is in comparison to about 71,000 born to Lebanese parents. For more information, see: https://deeply.thenewhumanitarian.org/refugees/articles/2017/07/07/for-refugees-in-lebanon-giving-birth-comes-at-a-high-price. In 2019, the Norwegian Refugee Council released new statistics indicating that more than 200,000 Syrian children have been born in Lebanon since 2011 and that 4 out of 5 of them are not registered, due to the complex and costly process of registration of Syrian newborns in Lebanon: https://www.nrc.no/perspectives/2019/a-second-chance-for-unregistered-children/
 Syrians who are registered with the UNHCR receive 75% of delivery expenses as well as some extra assistance with the newborn. Hospitals usually ask for upfront payment of the rest of the costs, under the perception that many Syrian families cannot easily afford the hospital fees: https://deeply.thenewhumanitarian.org/refugees/articles/2017/07/07/for-refugees-in-lebanon-giving-birth-comes-at-a-high-price
 World Bank. World development indicators 2012. Washington (DC): World Bank; 2012. Available from: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/6014
 Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum” (2018), a Lebanese movie that won the jury’s prize of the Cannes Film Festival, is criticized by many for its Malthusian message. Among others, see: https://www.france24.com/en/20180518-cannes-film-festival-labaki-capharnaum-capernaum-child-poverty-gonzalez-knife-heart It depicts the struggles of an impoverished and stateless 12-year-old Lebanese youth who takes his parents to court to condemn them for being born into poverty.
 The issue of Syrian men desiring or demanding more children was brought up not only as part of these sessions, but also in my conversations with Syrian women in Lebanon in different contexts. The topic is beyond the scope of this study, but Kabakian-Khasholian et al. (2017) discuss the changing patterns of decision-making over desirable family size among Syrian men and women since being displaced in Lebanon.
AlArab, Natally, Dana Nabulsi, Nour El Arnaout, Hani Dimassi, Ranime Harb, Julien Lahoud, Lara Nahouli, Abdulghani Abou Koura, Ghaidaa El Saddik, and Shadi Saleh. 2023. “Reproductive health of Syrian refugee women in Lebanon: a descriptive analysis of the Sijilli electronic health records database.” BMC Women's Health 23 (1): 1-11.
Akyon, Seyma Handan, Tarik Eren Yilmaz, Büşra Sahin, and Adem Ozkara. 2023. "Fertility Rates of Syrian Migrants in Turkey, Baby Boom, And Possible Factor Related to Them." Ankara Medical Journal 23, no. 1: 61-72.
Kabakian-Khasholian, Tamar, Rima Mourtada, Hyam Bashour, Faysal El Kak, and Huda Zurayk. 2017. "Perspectives of displaced Syrian women and service providers on fertility behaviour and available services in West Bekaa, Lebanon." Reproductive health matters 25, no. sup1: 75-86.
McCall, Stephen J., Tanya C. El Khoury, Hala Ghattas, Shady Elbassuoni, Mhd Hussein Murtada, Zeina Jamaluddine, Christine Haddad et al. 2023. “Maternal and infant outcomes of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, Lebanese and migrant women giving birth in a tertiary public hospital in Lebanon: a secondary analysis of an obstetric database.” BMJ open 13, no. 2 (2023): e064859
Sieverding, Maia, Nasma Berri, and Sawsan Abdulrahim. 2019. “Marriage and fertility patterns among Jordanians and Syrian refugees in Jordan.” The Jordanian labor market: Between fragility and resilience: 259-288.