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.