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Nothing and Everything to Lose: Results from a Qualitative WhatsApp survey of Palestinian Camps and Gatherings in Lebanon

In this IHSS blog post, Dr Leila Ullrich (Queen Mary University of London) discusses the use of the free multiplatform messaging application, WhatsApp Messenger (WhatsApp), as a methodology and qualitative data collection tool within refugee and crisis research.


Relations are very strong. There is no difference between us. We always visit each other. They never make us feel that we're Palestinians and they're Lebanese. Instead, we're one family. Of course, we're talking about the people, not the state.

- Palestinian refugee from Syria, unemployed, female, 22 years old

Our neighbour's daughter came to me, and I gave her a candy. Her older sister said, ‘don't eat from the Syrians!’ Then, I found out that she threw the candy in the garbage when she left my house. This made me feel really bad and I cried. Why did that happen? I gave her the candy out of love and care. The kid is two years old and she came to my house by herself.

- Syrian refugee, unemployed, female, Mieh Mieh camp


There are many answers to this question. There's sectarian and racist discrimination, as well as many other kinds of discrimination. First, I live in Mieh Mieh camp, and if you visit this area, you can find that we, as Palestinian refugees, are separated from the area of Lebanese people, which is in Mieh Mieh as well. Borders made of sand and barbed wire separate our area from that of the Lebanese people. This is enough to show how racist people here are. Also, if we talk to anyone, they'd look down at us, just because we're Palestinians. Once I proposed to a Lebanese woman, and when her parents found out that I'm Palestinian, they rejected me. Hence, this question is useless, because it's obvious that discrimination and racism are very common in this country.

- Palestinian nurse, unemployed, male, 40 years old, Mieh Mieh camp

For more than 70 years, Palestinian refugees have been living in Lebanon. However, since 2011, the dire conditions in Palestinian camps and gatherings have been eclipsed by the Syrian refugee situation. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has faced severe funding cuts since 2018 whilst Palestinian refugees have struggled to find work amidst an economic downturn. Meanwhile, the prospect of a return to Palestine seems more remote than ever amidst geopolitical developments in the Middle East. How have these pressures influenced the social fabric on the ground in Lebanon? Have they stoked tensions between host communities and refugees? How do Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians make sense of their social relationships and how do they see the future?

In October 2019, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in cooperation with UNRWA commissioned Leila Ullrich and Samaa Abu Sharar to conduct a qualitative WhatsApp survey to gain insight into the lives of Palestinians in Lebanon. The approach builds on two successful pilot WhatsApp surveys with Syrian refugees in Lebanon in 2017 and 2018 in which 1036 people participated. The results of these surveys were published in two UNDP research reports alongside a practical guide for conducting qualitative WhatsApp surveys (Ullrich, 2019a; Ullrich, 2019b; Ullrich 2018). This WhatsApp survey focused on two Palestinian communities (Wadi Zeineh gathering and Mieh Mieh camp). We also conducted 27 Key Informant Interviews and eight Focus Group Discussions. Based on this research, the report aims to provide a more nuanced understanding of community needs, social relationships, inter-community tensions, gender dynamics and security environments in Palestine refugee camps and gatherings in Lebanon.

The WhatsApp survey simply repurposed a technology that is already widely in use. In Lebanon, for instance, 78 per cent of Syrian refugee households use WhatsApp for daily communication; with the number likely to be similar for Palestine refugees. We sent survey questions a voice and text messages over the course of a month and 89 people replied to us sharing their perspectives on their safety, needs, social relationships, gender relationships and their visions of the future.

The WhatsApp method makes four important contributions to research in refugee and crisis contexts. First, it is a cost-effective tool for scaling up qualitative research in real time (it would take weeks, if not months, to conduct qualitative interviews with hundreds of people). Most of our respondents chose to reply with a voice message which also gave us different insights into their lives. We could hear background noises (crying children, shouting family members, and bustling streets) and the intonation of their voice (are they angry, frightened, tired or sarcastic?). Second, the survey taps into the casual intimacy of WhatsApp communication that already exists on the ground to produce more informal narratives. Board any minibus in Lebanon and you will see people talking to their phones sending WhatsApp voice messages to communicate with friends and family or to organize daily life. Third, qualitative WhatsApp surveying generates more bottom-up, people-centred knowledge that is separate from the jargon of humanitarian and development institutions. As researchers, we couldn’t interrupt the speaker and steer them towards our research interests. Some respondents ignored the questions altogether and talked instead about their personal situation or recent events. Put simply, using WhatsApp enables people to talk about the issues that matter to them in their own words. Fourth, the method fosters inclusivity since it (1) can extend to hard-to-reach communities (e.g., people who live in conflict zones), (2) is more accessible to people who struggle with literacy and dyslexia (as they can send voice messages), and (3) is less dependent on local gatekeepers to select research participants. The Covid-19 pandemic further highlights the importance of remote surveying methodologies such as WhatsApp when face-to-face engagement is not possible.

The WhatsApp survey showed, amongst others, that tensions between different communities (Lebanese and Palestinian, Palestinian and Syrian, Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) and Palestinian refugees from Lebanon (PRL)) exist but do not seem to be a major concern. Many respondents distinguished between different types of relationships – those with neighbours, relatives and friends (whether Lebanese, Syrian or Palestinian) - were perceived very differently to relationships with political factions, the army, the government, landlords and employers. Indeed, many WhatsApp respondents were keen to establish ‘Palestinian normality’ against the backdrop of a sensationalist media narrative of violence and extremism in the camps. They emphasized that ‘ordinary people’ help each other, interact, become friends and marry – whether Palestinian, Lebanese or Syrian; while it is the ‘political people’ – the Palestinian factions, the army, the government and employers – who create and exploit the difficult living situation and try to divide communities.

In places where people live close to each other without restrictions on movement, such as Wadi Zeineh gathering, there is more mutual understanding, cooperation and support between Palestinians and Lebanese. This is in stark contrast to those camps, where Palestinians live strictly segregated from Lebanese communities, such as Mieh Mieh camp, where stereotypes of the ‘Other’ and memories of a violent past substitute for social relationships. Palestinian refugees living in camps often feel shunned and securitised by the State and their surroundings ‘like monsters who need to be locked away.’

More vulnerable social groups such as women, Syrian refugees, and Palestine refugees from Syria (PRS) face various forms of discrimination, especially based on class, gender and race. Women often described how they negotiated their lives between the unsafety of the street and the unsafety of the home, with single or widowed women feeling particularly vulnerable. Many felt constrained by what they could wear or how they could behave in public as a result of the harassment they experienced. Consequently, women often feel forced to retreat home; though home can be an equally, if not more, dangerous space for women at risk of domestic violence or other family conflicts.

Gendered safety was a sensitive topic. While our respondents were eager to communicate the multiple hardships they face, they were more hesitant to discuss gendered differences in safety. Some of our respondents insisted that fears of everyday survival and armed violence in the camps persisted across genders. It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman. Such hesitation might also have been informed by concerns that gender sensitive programming divides communities, encroaches personal boundaries, and stereotypes Palestinian men as patriarchal and traditional. The challenge for researchers and practitioners, then, is to address these issues (e.g., sexual harassment and domestic violence) without vilifying already marginalised and vulnerable communities.

We found that participants’ reactions to the WhatsApp survey were often as insightful as their answers, with many conveying a sense of outrage or indignation about our questions: ‘Don't mess around and fool people! What safety are you talking about?’; ‘You're asking about safety, but where is it? [What] is safety? How do you want me to be safe and sound while I'm unable to undergo medical treatment or even see a doctor?’; ‘How can I feel safe when I'm afraid and worried that my kids and I are going to be forced to leave the house, or the country?’. These were common exclamations in response to the question ‘Do you feel safe in your area?’. This shows that for many people safety is not just a question of fearing crime or physical violence. Indeed, they described ‘feeling unsafe’ as a pervasive psychological experience: everyday fears of survival and an uncertain future can be as stressful as fears of armed clashes or crime for Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian refugees are pessimistic about the future and many see resettlement to another country as the only solution. While they are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo in Lebanon, they also fear an uncertain future that may be even worse than the present. This also makes them suspicious of supposedly neutral knowledge production. Both Palestinian and Lebanese respondents suspected a political agenda behind our research: ‘Why are you really conducting this study? Are you testing the waters to see if we are OK with settling Palestinians in Lebanon?’, one Sibline resident asked. The underlying message of the Palestinian reception of our survey was that ‘everything is political, and no question is innocent’.

Researchers who need to find new, remote methods to do empirical research during a global pandemic do not need to reinvent the wheel. Using technology that is already at our fingertips such WhatsApp surveying may not only be a ‘second best’ but might furnish new ways of engaging with the people we learn from and think with. While many researchers have lamented the ‘remoteness’ of digital research, there are also benefits to distance. The physical distance of the survey may have created a safer space for people to express their perspectives away from social desirability and the power dynamics of personal encounters between a researcher or a UN employee and a refugee. But people’s critical reception of the survey also re-opens questions of the ethics of research with vulnerable populations under conditions of profound global inequality.

Many IHSS colleagues are grappling with these questions. On 21 October 2020, Sydney Calkin (School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London), Agnieszka Lyons ( School of Languages, Linguistics and Film, Queen Mary University of London) and I (Law) had an interesting discussion on Changing Research Methodologies, Technological Possibilities and Agendas during a webinar organized by the QMUL Law School. Agnieszka’s research shows how WhatsApp groups play an important role in supporting new mums navigate their knowledge and expertise. Sydney found new ways of doing her research on geographies of cross-border abortion access as she couldn’t do the fieldwork she had planned. And I pondering, to what extentnew social media technologiessuch as WhatsApp can unsettle or reconfigure global knowledge production.



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