Options for Refugee Return Still Unclear for Both Lebanon and NGOs

Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

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.