Lebanon’s Dilemma – Syrian Refugees Are Not Going Away
Depending on whose numbers you reference, the estimated population of Syrian refugees in Lebanon varies from 900,000 to 1.5 million. At the May 2022 Brussels Conference for Supporting Syria and the Region, Lebanon again called for these refugees to return to Syria. According to the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) “Earlier that month, it also formally announced to the UNHCR that the country can no longer host Syrian refugees, largely due to unfulfilled financial pledges and Lebanon’s ongoing and deep economic crisis.”
With areas of Syria increasingly under the control of the Assad government, some wonder why there has not been refugee resettlement in those pacified areas. The answers are political, humanitarian, and legal. International law on refugee resettlement provides three options: voluntary return, relocation to a third country, or integration into the host country.
Additionally, there are protections written into international law that limit refugees’ movement. They are generally not allowed to travel back to their home country. Refugee protection is granted on the presumption that it is unsafe to return. Going back would imply that the situation to Syria has improved and refugee status is not necessary anymore. This is the anomaly with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, some thousands of whom transit between Syria and Lebanon for family visits, emergencies, and other reasons.
Geographically, some of the safer areas are far away from Lebanon, creating even more challenges to a quick return scenario.
For refugee return, the basic condition is that any permanent return must be voluntary, safe, and dignified, incorporating a right-based approach based on secure passage, the return of property that can be legally identified, compensation for destruction or illegal transfer of property ownership, and the absence of penalties for fleeing, such as having to serve in the army.
In the case of Syrian refugees and others who fled war-ravaged areas, there is also the principle of non-refoulement, which says those who seek asylum may not be returned to a country in which there are reasonable grounds to believe they will be subjected to persecution.
Human Rights Watch, in one of its 2021 reports noted that, “Syrian refugees who voluntarily returned to Syria between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of Syrian government and affiliated militias, including torture, extra-judicial killings, and kidnappings.”
Despite misinformation claiming that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are better off than their Lebanese counterparts, in fact their deprivations exceed that of the Lebanese. They share the same misery in inflated food costs which have now exceeded more than 400%, “while [the costs] of diesel for electricity and petrol for automobiles has skyrocketed. Bread and vegetable oil – two key staples in Levantine cuisine – have especially become more expensive because of both the country’s spiraling economic crisis and the war in Ukraine.”
While more than 75% of the Lebanese live below the poverty line, 90% of the refugees live in extreme poverty, according to the United Nations. As of April, the UN’s refugee agency in Lebanon has only been able to secure 13% of its $534m budget for the year. Yet, since 2015, over $9 billion in assistance has come from all over the world and international donors. Currently, the UN works with 15 international, 9 national, and 3 UN agencies on the ground. The latest surveys indicate that 97% are food insecure with many not buying enough food due to a drop in aid. The refugees are reporting that 72% are in debt and 57% have lost their income entirely, exceeding the high levels punishing Lebanese families.
The story for the poor Lebanese and the Syrian refugees is similar. Whether it is comparing food insecurity, the lack of available health care and education, or human and civil rights abuses, both populations are suffering. Although the Lebanese have their homes, families, communities, and citizenship – which affords them some quality of life and access to support – they are all being deprived of their dignity and their hope.
Irrespective of one’s political stance, the unsustainable condition of the refugees and their impact on Lebanon is an indisputable and intolerable burden on the socio-economic environment. While the pressure from the Russia-Ukraine crisis intensifies and many more are being added to the worldwide refugee population, Lebanon cannot afford the distraction that has been created by the shoring up of the Ukrainian people. Hopefully, the Syrian refugee question will not be forgotten or ignored as the new government seeks to mold a bold plan for Lebanon’s future.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.