Visions of international migration have, on the Left, been divided into two broad political and historiographical currents.footnote1 On the one hand, an anti-colonial Marxist and feminist tradition has long seen labour migration as a means for capitalism and imperialism to exploit menial, cheap and quiescent labour, the ‘new helots’ of the post-colonial world.footnote2 On the other, scholars in cultural and post-colonial studies have generally told a more upbeat story, in which border-crossing, hybridity and migrant agency work to destabilize foundationalist metanarratives, complicate simple binaries of Self and Other, and raise hopes for a ‘cosmopolitan dawn’.

These important debates have almost invariably been fought out in the context of migration to Europe or its ex-settler colonies. Most of the seminal studies of recent decades have been concerned with North–North or South–North migration, and even in the latter case have tended to focus on the conditions in, and concerns of, the metropolitan West.footnote3 After a half-century during which migration destinations have become increasingly globalized, from West Africa to the Caribbean, South East Asia to the Middle East, and at a time when it is reported by the United Nations that more than a third of all migrants—71 million people—work in the ‘less developed’ world, this state of affairs is hardly justifiable.footnote4 One little-known but important example of what might be termed South–South labour migration are the hundreds of thousands of Syrians working in Lebanon since the 1950s and 60s. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research conducted in Lebanon and Syria since 2003, I will argue that it is not always necessary to make a choice between economistic Marxism and celebratory cultural studies, as elements from both traditions can be re-articulated to give new insights about migration.footnote5 As we shall see, forms of complexity, combination, hybridity and agency all rightly associated with international labour migration, far from implying emancipation, operate to construct hierarchy, exclusion and the disciplines of commodification.

Almost completely ignored by scholars, especially in the English-speaking world, although highly controversial among Lebanese at different times, Syrian migrants have for decades provided Lebanon with the bulk of its unskilled workforce, political crises aside.footnote6 The historical relationship between the two countries has been shaped by sectarian distinctions, economic interdependence, foreign influence and military intervention. The Maronite Christian communities of Mount Lebanon, traditionally oriented westwards towards their co-religionists, won substantial autonomy from the Ottomans in 1861, in a deal brokered by European powers eager to project influence into the Near East—France foremost among them. After World War I, the French divided the territories mandated to them by the Treaty of Sèvres into Syria and ‘Grand Liban’—the latter far larger than the Maronite-dominated zone, which gained a substantial agricultural hinterland and the coastal cities of Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre. A state with a complex and unstable sectarian mix was created in the process. Many Sunni residents still saw themselves as part of the wider Arab entity of ‘Greater Syria’. Lebanon gained formal independence in 1943, Syria in 1946, but migration between the two remains inflected to this day by commonalities that predate the colonial redrawing of boundaries.

There had been extensive economic out-migration, mostly to the Americas, from the Ottoman mashriq during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which continued during the early years of the French mandate.footnote7 In the Syrian countryside during the 1930s, as one colonial geographer noted, it was ‘rare to encounter a group of four or five Muslims without one of them proposing to speak to you in Spanish or Portuguese.’footnote8 But Syrian migration to Lebanon began in earnest in the 1950s and 1960s. Processes of global and regional accumulation, along with land reforms and other interventions by the state, displaced rural cultivators from Syria’s grain-producing plains. Sharecroppers became enmeshed in a system characterized by market mechanisms, the advance of property rights and the destruction of alternative means of subsistence. These processes, and the accompanying land poverty, cash hunger and rising consumption patterns, sent new waves of migrants towards rural development projects in northern Syria, urban centres such as Aleppo and Damascus, and neighbouring Lebanon.

The Lebanese ‘merchant republic’, committed to a form of laissez-faire and already relatively wealthy compared to Syria, swiftly consolidated its position as a regional hub for trade, finance, real estate and tourism, offering work and wages which Syria did not. Lebanon’s economic position was enhanced as the region’s increasing oil wealth was financed through Beirut, while capital and businessmen came to Lebanon from Arab countries that were turning to versions of statism and Arab socialism in the 1960s. In 1970, Lebanese General Security, regulating entries and exits at the border, counted 279,541 Syrian workers in Lebanon on a temporary basis.footnote9 If this figure is approximately correct—these numbers were far less politicized in 1970 than in the 1990s—then Syrians had quickly come to make up a highly significant addition to the Lebanese workforce, estimated at only 572,000 people.footnote10 With out-migration, rising wages and somewhat improved social provision for Lebanese workers—partly as a result of organized labour and the redistributive measures adopted under President Fuad Chehab (1958–64)—Lebanese employers sought cheaper and more malleable ‘human resources’ from abroad. Geographical proximity, rapidly expanding road transport, open borders and the networks established by Syrian bourgeoisie and workers alike all underpinned patterns of migration.