Options for Refugee Return Still Unclear for Both Lebanon and NGOs

President Michel Aoun has been quite outspoken regarding Syrian refugees: there is no future for them in Lebanon. President Aoun and a majority of the country’s leadership say that the Syrian refugees should return to Syria without waiting for an overarching political settlement that satisfies the UN. As he noted this past week in meeting with the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, “We worry about the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland. The international community is postponing their return to an unknown timing,” said Aoun. “Lebanon’s infrastructure including electricity, water, hospitals, and schools have been tremendously impacted by this crisis,” repeating his message to the Brussels III donors conference.

“We must work seriously to take refugees back to safe zones in Syria,” he said. The president also called on those countries that have supported factions in Syria’s civil war, which has killed over 300,000 people, to do more to financially support the refugees created by the conflict. “If the countries involved allocate 10 percent of the cost of the Syrian war to resolve the refugee issue, it would help resolve their humanitarian crisis and spare the world more crises,” Aoun said.

But for the UNHCR, repatriation is not an immediate alternative. Its refugee policy statement points out that “The decision to phase out UNHCR presence in countries of origin, however, should not be based exclusively on the circumstances of the returnee population. The political and social stability of the country should also be taken into account. UNHCR has a legitimate concern with preventing refugee outflows or internal displacement. This gives it an interest in contributing to the creation of general conditions of political and social stability and may warrant maintaining a country presence beyond the phase out of its reintegration activities.”

Obviously, these conditions are a remote possibility at this time, and, in fact, may not be a priority for the Assad regime at all. The lack of a viable, reliable, and credible partner in Syria precludes any large-scale resettlement efforts through the UN apparatus. The article also points out another stumbling point: “In reality, most host governments want UNHCR to foot the bill and do the work of refugee protection, while the host government maintains control over refugee affairs.”

An article in Refugees Deeply adds, “Return is increasingly elusive. The realities of protracted crises, bureaucratic organizations, mission creep, donor preferences, and genuine ongoing humanitarian need mean international organizations struggle to determine when and how to hand over activities to national authorities and development actors.”

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on a recent visit to Lebanon said “After eight years of this terrible war, the impact on Lebanon is very heavy and this cannot be taken for granted by the international community. Return is a decision by the people. Those who return, who make that decision, must be supported – not only to return, but also to restart their lives.”

According to Elouise Hobbs, working for CAFOD, the international aid agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, refugees yearn to return home. “When there is a conflict that has been going on as long as this, people want to return home. They want to go back to what they know,” she said, but the ongoing fighting and widespread destruction are deterring them. “The conflict in Syria, although it seems it is coming to an end, it hasn’t officially ended yet. There is no political settlement in place, or an end to the war in place. Until there is an end to the war, there can be no guarantee of safety to those who return,” Hobbs said.

In his monthly column on the MENA region, Jon Alterman of CSIS brought up the issue of the impact of the refugees on the region. “For Assad, the refugees’ displacement is a relief. He does not need to provide them with food, services, or jobs, and their absence frees up housing for allies who have lost their own. The refugees’ absence also helps ensure that those most likely to be hostile to him are kept at arm’s length, helping guarantee that currently pro-regime areas are heavily pro-regime and allowing him to focus security attention on the frontiers that he is seeking to reincorporate.”

Alterman points out that Assad will survive and continue to constrain the political space inside Syria. At this time, it means he will use the refugees as pawns to secure reconstruction funds while continuing to promote instability in Jordan and Lebanon by protracting resettlement.

“While Syrians in Lebanon have long served as low-wage workers, the current wave of refugees puts even greater pressures on the Lebanese economy than in Jordan. With something like one in four people inside Lebanon’s borders a displaced Syrian, they strain the already-fragile Lebanese system to its breaking point. Lebanon’s volatile politics are aflame over Syria, especially as fighting dies down. Even in the absence of a settlement, many Lebanese are arguing that the conflict is over and it is time for the Syrians to go home—even when there is often no home to go back to, and despite the fact that the Syrian government doesn’t want many to return. International humanitarian law bars the forced return of refugees, but that seems of little consequence in a country that feels refugees have exposed it to existential threats.”

In his ominous conclusion, Alterman writes, “But for Western governments, the more immediate and serious challenges are likely to come from the freer political environments in Jordan and Lebanon, as governments become increasingly desperate to do more with less. As the war fades away, Western assistance will fade too, and yet large refugee problems will endure. Assad may get his assistance yet, not because any government wants to save Assad. Instead, it will be to persuade Assad to take Syria’s citizens back, in order to save Syria’s neighbors.”

A troubling, unstable, and insecure reality indeed.

The Brussels III Conference on Refugees – What Lebanon Can Expect

While there are disagreements among the Lebanese about the repatriation of the Syrian refugees, there is broad consensus that they should leave and not remain to upend the status quo any further. Given the Lebanese history of dealing with the Palestinians, who even 50+ years later are not welcomed formally into Lebanese society, the question boils down to repatriation versus inclusion, with the latter alternative not favored by any of the major political groups in the country.

At the recent Brussels III conference on the refugees in the region, a looming scepter was the often-quoted statistic that the average stay for refugees in a host country is 17-25 years, something that none of the host countries – Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey, is willing to accept let alone acknowledge. While Turkey and Jordan have formal programs to provide some educational and work opportunities for the refugees, largely funded by the international community, Lebanon has a far less structured approach. It is counting on more mobility across the Syrian border to ease some of the strains, and some 170,000 Syrians are reported to have returned since 2017.

According to Jan Kubis, the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, the Lebanese message is clear, “an urgent need to ensure a safe, voluntary and dignified return of Syrian refugees home, according to the international humanitarian norms, but as soon as possible, under the full respect of these norms, and to treat this as a humanitarian issue.” An accompanying message is the need to support the host communities in Lebanon. Prime Minister Hariri, whose position is conditioned on a political settlement in Syria, said in response that Lebanon is “committed to working with the UNHCR on any pragmatic initiative that ensures the safe return of the displaced Syrians, including the Russian one.”

Hariri pointed out that “The needs remain substantial and the competition over scarce resources and jobs has put the relationship between host communities and the displaced under severe tensions. These conditions could lead to widespread discontent and elevate the risk of violence, thus threatening Lebanon’s stability and giving an incentive to the displaced to seek refuge elsewhere.” The Prime Minister’s call for an additional $100 million annually to finance small-scale projects that impact the environment and public health such as potable water and solid waste management, along with ensuring a continuing supply of food for Lebanon’s poorest in addition to vocational and technical training to provide them the skills to earn a livelihood.

Lebanon’s 2019 Crisis Response Plan targets around $2.6 billion in aid overall, about the same as 2018. However, only about 45% of the original 2018 $2.7 billion appeal was funded, leaving Lebanon, the host communities, and the refugees to bear the burden of the shortfall.

Mireille Girard, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) representative in Lebanon, noted that Lebanon “has become much weaker after hosting a big number of Syrian refugees despite the support of the international community. The Lebanese economy was greatly impacted by the crisis and there is a feeling that Lebanon is on the verge of collapse. Any country facing such a big crisis will normally suffer a lot.” She noted that one-third of Syrian refugee families are still under the poverty line with one-third of children and 80% of adolescents incapable of accessing education.

Donor commitments at Brussels III amount to some $7 billion, and according to the US Special Envoy for Syria, the US pledged $400 million. Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, addressed the thorny question of the timing of Syrian repatriation. He acknowledged that many of those attending did not support immediate large-scale refugee returns and that there is a role for the UN to play in assisting the small numbers that are returning by “facilitating the removal of the obstacles which are preventing other people at this stage from returning.” To date this includes working to provide refugees with needed documentation, some limited funding, and interceding with Syrian authorities to gain formal clearance for those returning.

Given the return of some stability if not security in parts of Syria, momentum is slowly building toward more proactive repatriation strategies. Hariri reflected this when he said that “all political parties want them to return home, but the question is how to achieve this issue. The refugee problem is a problem for all Lebanese, not for a party without the other.” This of course leads into the related issue of normalization of relations with Syria, on which there are many disagreements among the members of the government.

Lurking behind the debate are charges in the media and parliament that the CEDRE and Brussels programs are surreptitious attempts to support the long-term presence of the refugees in Lebanon. These charges move Hariri to state that “no one, whether directly or indirectly has expressed an open or a veiled intention to naturalize refugees in Lebanon. This is not on the table and will not happen. Our constitution categorically rejects it and there is Lebanese unanimity on this.” With that door closed, the debate on repatriation continues in the broader context of the region and the Arab League.

Economic Issues Dominate Parliament’s Business as New Government Strives to Implement CEDRE Reforms

Perhaps the Interministerial delegate to the Mediterranean in charge of the preparation of the CEDRE conference, Ambassador Pierre Dukan (Duquesne), summarized the situation accurately when he noted in a press conference following a meeting with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, “Concerning the reforms, there are both sectoral reforms that are simply useful for the projects to be put in place properly. In addition, there are reforms that are more macro-economic, more substantial, and indispensable. At the crossroads of the two, there is the reform of the energy sector, which is a macroeconomic problem – the accumulated deficits of Electricité du Liban weigh heavily on the Lebanese public finances. And without electricity 24 hours a day, it is difficult to imagine that investments in any sector of economic life can be made.”

It is quite clear that many of the CEDRE reforms are intertwined. Without energy, investors will bide their time. Without a transparent judicial system and regulations to protect investments, investors will go elsewhere. Without infrastructure for logistics, marketing, and distribution, investors will find other countries for their projects. This is the challenge – where to begin and how to set priorities.

The Lebanese Center for Policy (LCPS) has launched a new service, The Government Monitor, which will “evaluate the Council of Ministers’ work, inform key stakeholders of its research findings, and seek to influence decision makers by advocating for the implementation of national policies that address citizens’ needs.” In its March 1 report, it noted that the ministerial statement adopted by the Parliament indicates that the “government has prioritized governance and fiscal reform measures over sectoral ones. The government adopted most measures related to governance (8 of the 11 CEDRE governance measures), more than half of CEDRE fiscal measures (13 of the 23), and two of the four private sector development measures, while only 13 out of 32 CEDRE measures in sectoral policy areas were included and none of the judiciary reforms were adopted.”

The immediacy of the reforms was referenced by Ambassador Dukan as he noted that the CEDRE agreement incorporated three elements: critical infrastructure projects, financing for projects associated with the CEDRE plan, and needed reforms. He stated quite clearly that although its implementation would take several months to launch, “signs must be given that confirm what we see in the ministerial statement, which is the will of the Lebanese political authorities to move forward, on the implementation of the infrastructure plan, on the sectoral reforms and on the macroeconomic reforms, with a significant attention from donors on the fight against corruption which is another difficulty weighing on the country.”

The most immediate challenge is adopting the national budget. Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said that the 2019 state budget is now with the council of ministers for their review and it will send it on to parliament for approval by the end of May. This means further delay as sector specific projects under the CEDRE agreement are awaiting passage of the public-private partnership law and allocations to sectors under the budget. Other than financial reforms, CEDRE expects reforms on the refugee issue, the electricity sector, the participation of women in public and political life, as well as the fight against all kinds of corruption. Already parliament is arguing about raising public sector salaries pitting those in favor without offsetting income to the government versus those who want a pay-as-you-go formula that ties new expenses to a broadening of the tax base and more efficient collections.

Some analysts doubt that Parliament has the will to adopt far-reaching reforms. Hilal Kashan, chair of the Political Studies Department at the American University of Beirut, ruled out the possibility of conducting any reforms in Lebanon, mentioning that the Lebanese system relies on patronage, and reduced spending means clamping down on corruption and patronage. Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs in Lebanon emphasized the need to tackle corruption, saying Lebanon should be looking to the future in a bid to save the country. He noted in particular the promise to reduce the fiscal deficit by 1% annually for five years and dealing with the electricity issue that cost the government over $2.5 billion a year in subsidies.

Lebanese leaders were quick to announce their support for anti-corruption measures. Lebanon, ranking 138 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s global ranking, has one of the worst rankings in the world, and it is endemic within all levels of government service. The Speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri, said that there is no alternative but to succeed in fighting corruption and fulfilling pledges made in the ministerial statement. He warned that “Any country that does not submit to the law is a breeding ground for corruption, chaos and bankruptcy.” Berri also mentioned the need to avoid disunity within the Cabinet, saying he was “not afraid for the government, but…of the government; we don’t want every minister to act like an independent government.”

Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also pledged to support the anti-corruption fight as a “sacred duty” as important as its resistance in the south. “You can expect everything from Hezbollah in this battle because it is necessary and is related to the survival of the state and the country.”

For the latest rankings of Lebanon’s fiscal health by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, click this link.

Challenges in Lebanon’s Education Sector Detailed in World Bank Report

Among the top issues consistently mentioned by the Lebanese is access to quality education that prepares their children for the labor market. A startling fact is that more children are enrolled in primary schools run by the NGO sector and the private sector than in public schools in Lebanon, and the government contributes to the upkeep of these schools.

As this article issued by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) mentioned, “In terms of quality, the much praised output of the Lebanese education system is the average of two worlds: A high performing private sector and a laggard public sector. Many Lebanese children terminate their studies ill-equipped at the brevet level and, being unable to emigrate, are thrown into the lowest segments of the informal sector that has always been dominated, and more so recently, by non-Lebanese.” The divide between high and low achievers mirrors the students’ socio-economic status with a gap equivalent to two years of education between the top and lowest quartiles.

This duality has been exacerbated by the tremendous demand on public schools with the influx of Syrian refugees since 2012, leading to the situation that in 2017-18, Lebanon absorbed almost 214,000 Syrians in public primary schools, according to the World Bank. Less than 5% of the Syrian students are able, on the other hand, to attend university, while only 1.4% of eligible refugees are enrolled in secondary school, as detailed in a recent study. Overall, 43% of Syrian refugees do not receive either formal or informal education.

Weaknesses in the system go beyond numbers of students and public vs private institutions. According to international studies such as PISA that comparatively measure student performance globally in mathematics, reading, and science, the performance of Lebanese students has declined. When comparing results from 2011 and 2015, ranking of student math proficiency fell from 73 to 71; in science from 54 to 50; and two-thirds of students did not meet basic proficiency levels in science, math, and reading. These poor results are exacerbated by the fact that less than 16% of eighth grade students have access to any kind of computer-assisted learning, the World Bank study noted.

Lebanon has the highest pre-primary enrollment in the MENA region, some 86%, and the highest number of working hours for teachers in primary education, yet this rate is still less than half of OECD countries. Another challenge is teaching methods and control of the educational process by teachers and principals. There is very little autonomy for principals at all levels through public universities in setting course content, employment practices, acquisition of materials, and introduction of new teaching methods and technologies. Lebanon has taken an important step in preparing principals by requiring a year-long program in leadership and supervision, and an interview process for selection, although there is no data to measure the effectiveness and use of these qualifications.

“Because technology, research, and labor market needs are changing rapidly,” says the World Bank report, “teachers and school leaders must be able to regularly update their knowledge and skills.” Given the constant pressure on Lebanon’s budget, and the need for broad restructuring of the educational sector, resources for this need are scarce. There is scant chance that budgetary pressures will be reduced in the coming years even though Lebanon is supposedly committed under the CEDRE guidelines to reduce the national deficit by 1% annually for the next five years. Already members of parliament are split on raising salaries more than 40% for public employees, with no new revenue sources to fund such a move on the horizon.

A concluding comment in the World Bank report should come as no surprise: that among MENA countries, Lebanon placed first with some 90% in student perceptions that “wasta” or personal connections are essential to finding a job. Given the distortions in government administration and public spending policies resulting from Lebanon’s multi-sectarian power-sharing, it is more than a herculean task to pull together an effective national strategy to address the needs of the education sector let alone the environment, power, housing, health, and infrastructure.