After Tunisia and Egypt, will the EU strike a new anti-migration deal with Lebanon?

Syrian refugees
7 min read
16 April, 2024

A rising number of Syrian migrants leaving Lebanon for Cyprus in recent months has prompted Nicosia to demand that the European Union (EU) intervene to halt the influx.

Senior EU officials have suggested that Brussels could strike a deal with Beirut similar to recent anti-migration pacts signed with Egypt and Tunisia, which have been criticised by human rights groups.

The Cypriot government has recorded more than 2,000 Syrian refugees arriving from Lebanon by sea in the first three months of 2024, compared to just 78 in the same period last year. 

Despite a bilateral agreement signed in 2020 that allows Cyprus to send back migrants from Lebanon, the latter started refusing to take back Syrians bound for Cyprus in February.

In early April, Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides urged European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to intercede with Lebanon to halt the influx of migrant boats reaching the island's shores.

"Instead of advocating for democracy and human rights, the EU opts for shortcuts like funding these regimes to enforce border controls"

He also later met with Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Beirut to discuss the migrant crisis, with the latter stressing Lebanon's efforts to control migration but emphasising the need for an EU framework agreement, which Christodoulides agreed with.

Meanwhile, Cyprus announced that it would suspend all processing of asylum applications by Syrian nationals.

To curb the flow of irregular migration by sea, the EU has, over the years, implemented bilateral agreements with key departure countries to block departures by providing financial aid to those countries.

Among recent agreements, the EU and Tunisia signed a memorandum of understanding in July 2023 to strengthen economic and trade partnerships and enhance border control, specifically providing €105 million in aid for border management. 

In March this year, the EU also established a strategic partnership with Egypt, offering €7.4 billion in aid to support Egypt's stability and address migration challenges amid economic and security pressures exacerbated by the Gaza conflict and war in Sudan.

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Considering this partnership architecture, Cyprus is exploring if it can persuade the EU to adopt a similar approach to Lebanon. But the country is neither Tunisia nor Egypt.

Lebanon, with a total population of about 5.5 million, hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrians, making it the country with the highest refugee population per capita in the world.

Despite receiving financial aid from the EU and the United Nations, anti-Syrian sentiment has progressively increased in Lebanon over the years, intensifying significantly since Lebanon plunged into a multifaceted economic crisis in late 2019, with a portion of the population and the political class scapegoating Syrians for the crisis. 

Fadel Abdul Ghany, executive director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, told The New Arab that Syrian refugees in Lebanon face significant challenges obtaining official documents, particularly residency permits, limiting their mobility and access to essential services. Discrimination, racism, and exploitation further exacerbate their vulnerability.

Recent anti-migration EU pacts signed with Egypt and Tunisia have been criticised by human rights groups. [Getty]

"While many endure these hardships rather than risk returning to Syria, some are seeking refuge in other countries to escape Lebanon's challenging conditions," he said.

This deteriorating situation has worsened living conditions for Syrians in Lebanon, with the Lebanese government establishing policies to forcibly return Syrians to their country in contravention of the international principle of non-refoulement.

Furthermore, the conflict on Lebanon's southern border between Hezbollah and Israel amid the Gaza war, as well as growing violence and anti-refugee rhetoric after the killing of senior Lebanese Forces (LF) figure Pascal Sleiman, allegedly by Syrian nationals, are prompting more Syrians to seek refuge in the EU. 

Wadih Al-Asmar, a Lebanese human rights activist, co-founder of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, and president of the NGO network EuroMed Rights, told TNA that a potential agreement in Lebanon, where the absence of a president and a caretaker government makes the state non-functional, would be ineffective, highlighting the necessity of a political solution in Syria.

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"Lebanon is not a safe country for Syrian refugees. Deporting or pushing them back to Syria violates several international laws, including the Convention against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights," he said.

The heart of the matter is that Syria is not considered a safe place for refugee return, as international NGOs have widely documented violence, torture, arbitrary arrest, rape, and killing, as well as disappearances, for Syrian refugees returning to their country.

However, some EU member states are pushing the EU, which still considers Syria unsafe, to officially declare certain areas of Syria safe for return. Cyprus formally did so in 2023. 

Kelly Petillo, programme manager for Middle East and North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told TNA that the recent bilateral migration agreements between the EU and regional host countries reflect a pattern, with some European nations, driven in part by right-wing parties, advocating for Syrian repatriation despite evidence against the safety of such returns. 

"Departures have surged, revealing minimal impact from EU funding on addressing structural causes of migration or stabilising conditions"

"While the EU officially opposes returning Syrians, there is growing informal and political buy-in on the front of rethinking certain areas of Syria as safe to return refugees, mainly domestically supported by right-wing political parties. But the truth is that Syria is not safe, so until that changes, safe zones are doomed to fail,” she said.

Abdul Ghany explained that most Syrian refugees wish to return home but are unable to do so because they would face torture and death.

"Without a political solution built on international law and respect, and with the Syrian regime exempt from any form of accountability, no one will be back to Syria at all," he said.

Helena Hahn, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, told TNA that despite Cyprus's unique geographic position, which exposes it to migrant arrivals, and its small population, its political leverage to influence EU policy towards a potential agreement with Lebanon is limited.

This limitation is compounded by Lebanon's dysfunctionality, hindering its ability to implement potential financial aid.

Lebanon flag
Anti-Syrian sentiment has progressively increased in Lebanon over the years, notably during the country's economic crisis. [Getty]

"I don't think it's fair to compare Lebanon to Egypt and Tunisia, as these agreements primarily focus on providing macro-financial assistance to revitalise struggling economies, with minimal allocation for migration management," she said.

Al-Asmar said the EU is taking a "shortcut" to deal with migration flow, and it doesn't consider human rights challenges faced by migrants.

"This strategy, often driven by far-right agendas in Europe, aims to externalise migration management by relying on authoritarian regimes. Instead of advocating for democracy and human rights, the EU opts for shortcuts like funding these regimes to enforce border controls," he said.

Hahn explained that this approach may expose the EU to migration-related blackmail and tarnish its international reputation.

While Petillo said that Europeans view these bilateral deals as successful, she argues that they have been catastrophic when assessed using other metrics.

"Lebanon wouldn't meet the potential EU requirements to start negotiations for a migration deal because it would imply accepting hosting Syrians"

"Departures have surged, revealing minimal impact from EU funding on addressing structural causes of migration or stabilising conditions. Implementing agreements has incurred significant human costs, damaging Europe's reputation and exacerbating migration issues. This flawed way ultimately worsens the very problems that drive refugees to leave in the first place," she said.

Ahead of European elections in June, the EU Parliament approved the controversial New Pact on Migration and Asylum last week, which is expected to receive full approval at the end of April, to reduce new arrivals, expedite asylum procedures, and establish processing centres at EU borders.

Hahn expressed concerns about discussions on externalising asylum procedures with non-EU countries (such as the Italy-Albania migration deal) as they may pose a distraction for governments in implementing the new pact, while Petillo criticised the reform as flawed, noting a right-wing influence emphasising border control and migrant deportation, which human rights groups deem inhumane and contrary to laws.

In this context, as highlighted by Al-Asmar, Lebanon wouldn't meet the potential EU requirements to start negotiations for a migration deal because it would imply accepting hosting Syrians, which contradicts Lebanon's desire for Syrians to leave the country. Additionally, the non-functionality of the Lebanese state would make this scenario unlikely.

Abdul Ghany stressed the urgent need for increased support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon from the EU and other nations, not only financially but also logistically, through relocation to other countries. 

"This support would ease pressure on Lebanon and potentially reduce racist rhetoric," he said.

Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi