The future of Syrian refugees – a vexing issue affecting government formation in Lebanon
With the election process almost completed, awaiting several challenges lodged with the Electoral Commission, Lebanon’s power brokers are moving ahead with crafting a new government within the framework of the power-sharing agreement. Since the total number of members allocated by sect is already set, the negotiations focus on three primary concerns: balancing the election results within alliances that represent the dominant parties, allocating ministerial portfolios along sectarian lines, and ensuring that the members support a ministerial statement outlining government priorities and policies.
From outside Lebanon, the view is that there are three overarching issues to be addressed: corruption, Hezbollah’s military role, and the future of the Syrian refugees. While this does not ignore the close to a half-million Palestinian refugees, border demarcation with Israel, or dissociation, meaning staying out of regional frays, it highlights the reality that international donors are insisting on a link between further funding and accountability, and that regional stability depends on Hezbollah acting less as a proxy for Iran and more as a key Lebanese political force.
With regard to the Syrian refugees, it is acknowledged that there is no game plan in the works without a political settlement in Syria, which increasingly favors the Assad regime staying in power and extending its reach into all parts of the country. This could take years, and Prime Minister Hariri has recognized the conundrum for Lebanon in statements made earlier this year. “We want the refugees to live in a dignified way, to take their children to school and to have this generation of Syrians return to rebuild their country.” Stressing that Lebanon would abide by international law, Hariri said that refugees would only return “once favorable conditions are available.”
In his statements, President Aoun as recently as this week, made it clear that he is not prepared to wait for a political settlement. “We are surprised by the position of some parties which obstruct this return or do not encourage it. Lebanon faces many challenges with 1.8 million displaced people on its territory since 2015,” he said. He believes that nearly 50 per cent of Lebanon’s population is made up of refugees if you count Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and others. He made some of his strongest rebuttals in response to the position taken by the EU and UN at the Brussels donors conference to gather for the refugees.
He rejected their position that the host countries must do more to assist in providing jobs, services, and future opportunities for the Syrians. Aoun pointed out that there are safe areas inside Syria where refugees can return safely, noting that Lebanon is doing as much as it can and should not be asked to do more.
Even the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, Philippe Lazarini, warned that Lebanese society is witnessing “increasing fatigue” as a result of the refugee crisis. He highlighted that such concern may turn into anger and tension between different segments of society, amid great pressures on employment opportunities, if not addressed by the government. Aoun clarified his earlier comments, noting that he was not including people who faced political problems with the Assad regime.
Two recent studies help frame the challenges in devising “return with dignity” scenarios. There is a 2017 UN data report indicating that more than 75% of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line and are unregistered so that they are unable to legally access the labor market and are often exploited in the informal economy, living on humanitarian aid, under the threat of arrest and hostility from host communities.
Refugees have also had a disproportionate negative impact on the host communities. The same study pointed out that most Syrian refugees have settled in Lebanon’s most marginalized regions, placing them in direct competition for access to work, public services, and resources with vulnerable Lebanese communities. There have even been claims that the influx of refugees is often cited as a reason for Lebanon’s stagnating economy.
This same survey showed that 70% of Syrian refugees would go home if they felt there was somewhere safe for them to return to.
This sentiment was echoed in a more recent study, found here, by the Carnegie Middle East Center that outlined four conditions that refugees surveyed indicated were essential to return. They are safety for their children, an end to conscription, physical homes to return to, and a safe and secure environment. The study noted World Bank estimates that 30% of Syrian homes have been completely destroyed or damaged. Many undamaged properties are occupied by regime-affiliated forces, pro-Iran militias, or other Syrians displaced within the country.
Of the refugees interviewed, 80% had fled Syria due to incidents that stoked fear for their safety including arbitrary arrests by Syrian forces, the death of family or friends, and the deterioration in security conditions in their neighborhoods. A great majority could not see Syria stabilizing under the Assad regime. “Even if jobs and services were available, few believed the security and stability they want would exist if he remained in power.” Additional concerns were raised about the foreign forces in the country and the interference of outside powers determining Syria’s future.
Interestingly, an informal group of Syrian refugees in the north of Lebanon have drafted a peace proposal around establishing safe demilitarized zones in Syria that would allow for the return of refugees and displaced persons. They too want safety and security as the first conditions to return, with access to basic services and employment opportunities also as key. But they too recognized that “We know that such a solution today seems too far-fetched and unrealistic. With the recent sieges and bombings continuing in Syria, it is difficult for anyone to speak of return. For today the proposal is impossible, but one day the violence will lessen.”
For generations, Lebanon has been a safe haven for dispossessed people of the region despite its limited resources and governmental infrastructure. What the new government will say about its Syrian refugee policy will indicate how much further Lebanon is willing to go to support its good neighbor policy.