Syrian refugees in Lebanon face an uncertain future
In a world exceptionally unkind to Syrian refugees, recent Lebanese government overtures to Damascus are quickly advancing efforts to deport the displaced back to Syria.
Indeed, endeavours to return tens of thousands to an active war zone defined by airstrikes, intelligence and security agency repression, and a collapsed economy highlight the dire state of relations between Lebanon and its displaced populations.
This deterioration and the so-called plan to return Syrians will have a disastrous effect on the displaced population in Lebanon, assuming the plan is implemented under the difficult conditions it faces, raising important questions about the future of millions of Syrians facing persecution upon return.
Lebanon's plan to deport Syrians
On 15 August, Syria’s Minister of Local Administration Hussein Makhlouf met in Damascus with Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of the Displaced, to discuss plans to return Syrians to their home country.
The meeting followed months of increasingly hostile rhetoric that included an announcement of the plan on 6 July and an attack against the international community regarding Syrian refugees, with many Lebanese officials arguing that international institutions and world leaders have left Beirut helpless in the face of an addressable crisis.
"Lebanon has been pursuing a policy of coercion-based return, structuring a coercive environment in which [Syrians] are left with no option but to return to Syria"
According to reports, Lebanon and Syria have developed a plan to return 15,000 Syrian refugees every month, intending to expel most or all refugees in the coming years. Charafeddine said his government has the names and locations of displaced Syrians in Lebanon, promising to “return them by neighbourhood”. Such plans and talks have been underway since 2020.
Regardless, it is unclear how such an effort would be implemented given the dilapidated state of both countries’ economies and institutions. Furthermore, how Lebanon’s efforts to return 15,000 refugees a month can alleviate the country’s current crisis remains hazy at best, especially considering it would take decades to return the roughly 1.5 million registered and unregistered Syrian refugees at this rate.
Answers to such questions are lacking. Charafeddine and many Lebanese political figures argue that Syrian refugees present an undue and unfair burden on Lebanon at a time when the country is experiencing one of the worst economic crises in the modern era. They argue that Syria is safe and stable for returnees, citing Damascus’s protection guarantees for those who return.
Such arguments stretch the capacity of imagination. For one, the international community – not the Lebanese government – provides aid and services to Syrians. Lebanon refuses to offer the most basic of rights, not limited to housing and work permits.
Upon return, Syrian returnees have faced brutal persecution, assuming they reach their homes upon attempted entry, as Syria does not want more Syrian returns than is necessary to present an illusion that the war is over.
Indeed, arbitrary detention, torture, and disappearance at the hands of the General Intelligence Directorate is the defining feature and experience of most returnees, of which there are few in the first place. This says nothing of Syria’s crippled economic condition in which roughly 14.6 million people (90 percent) live in poverty, nor the ongoing fighting.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a non-resident fellow at New Lines Institute, a DC-based think tank, highlights this dynamic.
“Syria is undergoing a severe economic crisis and hunger is becoming widespread, but the main threat to returnees is the regime's various branches of the secret police. [The GID] reviews lists of individuals expressing a desire to return and rejects some who are essentially barred from returning to their homeland,” she told The New Arab.
“Even individuals who are cleared by the mukhabarat have been arrested. At times this is due to some security concern that arises, false denunciations by informers, or to extract a bribe from the family of the detainee.”
Conveniently, Charafeddine describes such realities as nothing more than a “fear campaign,” again citing Syrian government guarantees – even for opposition members. He also regularly attacks the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for its refusal to redirect refugee aid to Syria, which he says deters refugees from returning. Of course, fears of torture and death play no role in his eyes.
Nadia Hardman, a Refugee and Migrants Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), disagrees with Charafeddine’s assessment, citing HRW’s in-depth 2021 report on the subject. “Conditions are not safe for return. There is no world in which that could be the case anytime soon. Assad’s Syria is still very much the same Syria that refugees fled in the first place and there are no options to ensure safe, dignified, and voluntary returns.”
This is particularly concerning when considering Lebanon is acting unilaterally, refusing to consult the UNHCR on the subject. Such actions are a slap in the face of international institutions and violate Beirut’s commitments to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which disallows deportation if there is knowledge of the individual being tortured.
Hardman agrees that Beirut’s blatant violation of its international obligations is central to the current context.
“This unilateral decision by the Lebanese government to facilitate the return of Syrians has not been done in consultation with Syrian refugees themselves and is hopefully just a plan now. But it would breech Lebanon’s international obligations not to refoul or send people back to a place where they face human rights violations or grave threats to their life.”
"Syria is undergoing a severe economic crisis and hunger is becoming widespread, but the main threat to returnees is the regime's various branches of the secret police"
A likely answer to Charafeddine’s stance, alongside growing support for the plan and scepticism regarding the status of Syria’s safety from major political officials like Lebanese President Michel Aoun, is connected to political alliances in Lebanon.
Charafeddine is a member of the Lebanese Democratic Party, a secular but largely Druze-supported party with membership in Lebanon’s March 8 Alliance. This party and alliance are heavily pro-Syria, rejected the Cedar Revolution, and opposed the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.
Its members include Lebanese Hezbollah – a major supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). This group is inherently friendly to Assad’s regime and is willing to repeat its narratives, especially because scapegoating Syrian refugees distracts the Lebanese populace from its deep failures and corruption.
“It’s an easy out,” notes Hardman. “Reportedly social tensions are rising between Syrian refugees and host communities, and it is a policy of the government to stoke these tensions to deflect from mismanagement.” Indeed, while Lebanon has the highest per capita number of refugees in the world, the protracted crisis “should not justify the misinformation and scapegoat Syrian refugees”.
Ironically, Lebanese government efforts appear short-sighted. Syrian refugees receive remittances and paltry aid from UN agencies in US dollars – a drastically needed foreign currency to stabilise the Lebanese economy.
Beirut could leverage – and certainly does already – its refugee situation to temper long-running monetary issues that have produced one of the worst economic crises in the modern era by World Bank metrics. This says nothing of the highly skilled labour Syrian refugees can provide amidst a rapidly evolving brain drain across Lebanon.
Rather, Beirut chooses to pressure Syrians while robbing the international community of hundreds of millions of US dollars in aid.
“Lebanon has been pursuing a policy of coercion-based return, structuring a coercive environment in which [Syrians] are left with no option but to return to Syria,” notes Hardman.
“The majority of Syrians don’t have legal status in Lebanon, so they are extremely vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and deportation under a 2019 regulation which facilitated the deportation of Syrian refugees. People generally live off the grid in informal settlements without basic services and have been deeply impoverished because of the catastrophic decline of the Lebanese economy.”
This is the reality for many migrants – a contradiction in which many can offer a net gain for a host country while that host simultaneously rejects migrants based on ethnocentric grounds to score political points. Beirut is no exception, having followed this path to evade its shortcomings and to avoid a repeat of the displaced Palestinian communities across the country.
The outlook for Syrians
The unfortunate truth for Syrians is one many human rights defenders have been attempting to highlight for years – that host states have increasingly expressed disinterest in continuing to support massive numbers of Syrian refugees.
For Lebanon, this group has reached the pinnacle of scapegoat status amidst political aspirations and insecurities among leaders. Such realities are difficult to mitigate as governments bargain with the lives of Syrians.
“The living conditions of Syrians in Lebanon are overwhelmingly disastrous - most live in abject poverty. Every winter, refugees living in camps freeze to death or burn alive due to attempts to stay warm. Yet, few have accepted to return to Syria due to the danger they face in their homeland from the Assad regime, which perceives large swaths of the pre-war population as disloyal or enemies,” Tsurkov says.
"It's an easy out. Reportedly social tensions are rising between Syrian refugees and host communities, and it is a policy of the government to stoke these tensions to deflect from mismanagement"
“Therefore, there is no way the Lebanese authorities will find 15,000 Syrians willing to return monthly. The Assad regime itself is not keen on welcoming these refugees back and dealing with the security headache. Therefore, it seems unlikely this plan will materialise.”
Indeed, the plan is hardly pragmatic. While it is difficult to know how Syrians in Lebanon will respond should it be enacted, political interests – especially given the upcoming Lebanese presidential elections – tend to produce bad outcomes for the displaced. Unfortunately, the context leaves few answers but must be monitored closely.
Still, there are ways to mitigate the risks to Syrian refugees. It is crucial to continue and expand direct support for Syrians in Lebanon and across the globe. Focus is key in this respect, bolstered by aggressive support for international laws and norms that protect the displaced.
In parallel, Lebanon must be reminded of its obligations and, if necessary, provide highly visible support tied to reforms that not only undermine political scapegoating but allow its politicians the ability to point to tangible improvements in the average lives of the Lebanese people.
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa.
Follow him on Twitter: @langloisajl