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Easing Syrian Refugees’ Plight in Lebanon

What’s new? Pressure on Syrian refugees in Lebanon to return home is rising. Although Syria remains unsafe for most, refugees are trickling back, escaping increasingly harsh conditions in Lebanon and hoping that the situation will improve back home. Procedures that clarify refugees’ legal status are making return more plausible for some.

Why does it matter? While even a small number of successful repatriations represents positive news, conditions are too dangerous for mass organised returns. Yet the Syrian government and some Lebanese political factions increasingly insist that it is time for large-scale returns to begin.

What should be done? Donors should plan for many refugees to stay for many years, and provide support to help Lebanon meet Syrians’ needs, ease the burden on Lebanon’s economy, and reduce friction between refugees and their Lebanese hosts. The Lebanese government can take additional administrative steps to ease voluntary returns.

Executive Summary

The debate over Syrian refugees’ return is tied up with controversies about the political landscape in their home country. The staunchest sceptics of near-term mass return, including Western governments, argue that such returns can be responsibly pursued only when there is substantive political change in Damascus. Defenders of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, however, argue that the constant trickle of voluntary returnees proves that Syria is already safe and that Western reluctance to support refugee returns is motivated by political, not humanitarian considerations. In reality, the vast majority of refugees have credible fears that prevent them from returning, despite increasing pressures in Lebanon. Even those who do go home engage in laborious deliberation over the security risks and poor living conditions that will await them. Looking ahead, Lebanon should support those for whom return seems the best option by facilitating visits that enable refugees to assess and prepare for the possibility of return, while donors should be prepared to help blunt the impact of refugee hosting on Lebanon with aid packages for years to come.

From the start of the Syrian war, Lebanon has been a generous host to Syrian refugees, whose numbers are now estimated at 1.5 million, more than a quarter of the overall population. Yet over time attitudes have grown less welcoming. As the Syrian regime, with substantial support from Iran and Russia, clawed its way back to controlling more and more territory, its political allies in Lebanon, as well as Christian parties hostile to refugees, have joined their calls for accelerated return. Populist rhetoric has increased public resentment against refugees, particularly as Lebanon has suffered a severe economic recession and fiscal crisis for the past two years. In October 2019, the country’s economic woes gave rise to mass protests that were ongoing at the time of writing. Against this backdrop, tensions with host communities have been building – and with them the potential for violence.

Government policies are likewise increasing pressure on an already vulnerable community. Recent campaigns against Syrian labourers, in particular, could push an ever-growing number into utter destitution. The combination of hostility from parts of the public and restrictive government policies may soon create conditions for an increasing number of refugees in which survival in Lebanon becomes unsustainable or so difficult that return to Syria looks like the most viable option. Some humanitarian advocates have termed this phenomenon “constructive refoulement”, or involuntary repatriation by indirect means.

 The decision to cross the border is irreversible for most and [the] consequences can be grave. 

So far, increasing pressures and various facilitation efforts have persuaded only a small number to return to Syria. Refugees are aware that the decision to cross the border is irreversible for most and that consequences can be grave. They carefully weigh their difficult, often desperate situation in Lebanon against the hazards that may await them on the other side. Threats of detention and conscription weigh most heavily. After seven years of war, the Assad regime and its security agencies still rule violently and are even more arbitrary in their brutality than before the war. While actual fighting has mostly abated, conscription into the military and reserves still comes with the risk of ending up as cannon fodder in the next military operation.

Many refugees also have reason to fear that returning to Syria will make them even poorer. Significant parts of the country remain out of the government’s reach; others are inhospitable for returnees, if only because they will find their homes destroyed or expropriated, and the economy in tatters. Upon their return many will end up trading their refugee status in Lebanon for that of an internally displaced person in Syria.

The regime and its allies say a change in the West’s approach to Syria’s reconstruction would create the conditions for large-scale refugee return and turn the trickle of returning refugees into a steady stream, but this claim obscures the real obstacles. All roads to return lead through – and depend on – Damascus. The main determinants of how many refugees dare to travel those roads are how many refugees the regime resolves to give a guarantee for safe return; how it treats those who make the gamble to return home; to what extent it allows humanitarian organisations to assist returnees in accordance with internationally applied standards in aid delivery; and whether it moves toward social and political reconciliation rather than forcibly reimposing control. As long as the Assad regime shows no sign of changing its ways, the vast majority of refugees are likely to stay put in exile, making do under ever harsher conditions, or to find ways to reach more prosperous third countries.

Lebanese authorities and international donors should develop approaches that acknowledge this reality. Building on Jordan’s model, the Lebanese government should legalise and regulate the existing employment of refugees and open legal avenues for self-employment and small business formation. To reduce or prevent hostility between refugees and host communities that may be exploited politically, donors should support a combination of highly visible projects that benefit communities with large refugee concentrations and a results-based program of macro-economic support that includes debt refinancing, investment and trade preferences that are linked to verifiable indicators of refugee employment.

Beirut may also be able to smooth the path for refugees who wish to return, in particular by facilitating “go and see” visits to assess the viability of such a step. But such visits are unlikely to change dramatically the size of the refugee population in Lebanon over the next several years. That population in all probability will remain quite large until Damascus makes significant changes. Until then, Beirut and its partners should not let hopes for that brighter day obscure the challenge that lies immediately ahead in helping Syrian refugees to live in peace and security in the harsh haven that Lebanon has become.

Beirut/Brussels, 13 February 2020

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