Lebanon Falls Short on Refugee Returns

Following months of public statements in support of their supposed refugee return plan, Lebanese officials have begun sending Syrian refugees to neighbouring Syria. This effort falls against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict in the country and Lebanon’s steady economic collapse – both horrific for displaced Syrians. Yet, while Lebanon’s plan to return roughly 15,000 Syrian refugees has not come to fruition, the current process is still worrying the Syrian refugee population – many of whom do not wish to return to Syria. Importantly, it also raises important policy questions amidst a rapidly deteriorating context for refugees in Lebanon.[i]

Lebanon faces the worst economic crisis of any country in the last two centuries.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), approximately 822,600 refugees, asylum-seekers, and stateless people live in Lebanon.[ii] Other estimates range upwards of 1.5 million refugees, most of whom are Syrian refugees fleeing conflict. The UNHCR currently has roughly $560 million budgeted for 2023 to support the refugee population in Lebanon, fully supporting the displaced in Beirut’s absence as Lebanon faces the worst economic crisis of any country in the last two centuries. This is due to massive government failures stemming from cronyism, corruption and a deeply sclerotic political environment.

Willem Staes, Policy Adviser at Refugee Protection Watch (RPW), highlighted the difficult reality for Syrian refugees in Lebanon today.[iii] He explained in an interview that “they are increasingly stuck in a limbo, with no perspectives on any durable solutions. The situation inside Syria does not allow for a safe return, tensions and violence are rapidly increasing in Lebanon, and the number of resettlement places to European countries continue to be very low.”[iv]

Indeed, experts have extensively documented – not limited to Amnesty International,[v] and Human Rights Watch (HRW)[vi] – Lebanon’s continued use of direct (e.g., arbitrary detention and torture[vii]) and indirect (e.g., policies that prevent Syrians from getting housing or job permits[viii]) coercive measures to push refugees out of the country and into Syria. In parallel, Syria remains unsafe for return and the responsibility to protect refugees still falls to Syria’s neighbours, forcing them to take on substantial displaced populations.

Against this backdrop, the Lebanese government has been promoting its plan to return 15,000 refugees to Syria for over a year. Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of the Displaced, has championed the plan and met with Syria’s Minister of Local Administration, Hussein Makhlouf, to discuss it on multiple occasions.[ix] Charafeddine continuously repeats Damascus’s promises that the Syrian government will provide shelter and safety for returnees, and he has decried criticisms of the Syrian government’s word, Lebanon’s plan and concerns about threats to returning refugees  as a “fear campaign.”[x] Importantly, the UNHCR has been excluded from Lebanon’s conversations about returning refugees, in no small part because it does not support what it correctly views as coercive and unlawful returns and their contribution to questionable Syrian government rhetoric.

Regardless, Lebanon has operationalised Charafeddine’s plan. This culminated in the unlawful return of at least 751 Syrian refugees to Syria across two convoys in October – falling short of the planned 15,000 people.[xi] To be sure, Beirut originally shared a list of roughly 2,400 Syrian refugees with the Damascus-based government. However, the Syrian government only approved 1,700 of those individuals after security checks, of which over 1,000 ultimately decided against returning when the time came.

In all, the return effort was a massive failure. Not only did Lebanon fall short of its stated objective, but it also failed to effectively convince Damascus to accept more refugees. That said, neither shortcoming is surprising. Lebanon neither has the institutional strength to conduct such a massive operation nor the influence to convince the Syrian government to accept individuals it arbitrarily considers security risks. This says nothing of the perspective of Syrian refugees, most of whom refuse to return to a country they know is unsafe. Regardless of their security status – determined by the lawless nature of the intelligence services, the ongoing war and economic freefall – a significant majority of Syrian refugees do not want to return. Indeed, as Staes noted, RPW’s recent fieldwork found that only 2 percent of Syrian refugees are considering a return to Syria in the next 12 months.[xii]

Lebanese officials are attempting to sidestep UNHCR’s efforts to inform refugees.

“The security check system in Syria is very opaque and inconsistent,” noted Marie Forestier, Researcher and Advisor on refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International.[xiii] “It is true that many people who have tried to check with the Syrian government if they are on the wanted list received an answer either formally or informally that they are on a wanted list and cannot return. But that is not the key issue – the key issue is that people who thought they would be safe are facing human rights violations.”

“This is the problem with Lebanese returns,” Forestier added. “Although the Lebanese authorities said they checked with Syrian officials if people were clear to return, this process is not reliable. So, the Lebanese government checking is not a guarantee that people will be safe if they return.”

This explains why Syrians refuse to return, even while they live in difficult conditions in Lebanon. If no single authority can guarantee their safety upon return, why would refugees hand themselves over to the Syrian authorities after nearly 12 years of government brutality against the civilian population from which they fled? More importantly, returns are inherently illegal if the host country cannot guarantee the safety of individuals sent to their home country, as this violates basic conceptualisations of non-refoulement, which outlaws any return if those individuals face human rights violations.[xiv]

Unfortunately, Beirut appears to care little for the interests of Syrian refugees and its legal obligations to them. The Lebanese General Security Office (GSO), which handles return applications and dialogue with UNHCR, best reflected this disinterest via its minimal communication and coordination with the UN agency. Staes argues that this should concern policymakers: “GSO has shared the lists of returnees only 24-48 hours in advance with UNHCR, which leaves insufficient time for UNHCR to reach out to the hundreds of persons on such lists and assess whether these returns can be considered truly ‘voluntary.’” Such advance notice is ultimately crucial for ensuring basic protection standards for refugees returning to their home communities as these individuals and families need to understand their rights, the conditions they face upon return and other crucial information that ultimately impacts their decision to return.

Such issues suggest Lebanese officials are attempting to sidestep UNHCR’s efforts to inform refugees as Beirut knows it would shift return decisions and undermine their efforts to drastically lower Lebanon’s refugee population via coercive means. It speaks to the bad-faith approach of the Lebanese government and the March 8th Alliance politicians close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – although certainly amongst broader implicit and explicit buy-in across the Lebanese political class – leading it.[xv]

Wealthy states with influence in Lebanon can and should apply varying degrees of pressure.

For both Staes and Forestier, the international community must counter Beirut’s returns. Any approach to engagement with Lebanon must centralise the understanding that no refugees should be returned to Syria under present conditions. Forestier correctly notes that the West – especially the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand – must become more open to refugees and “share their common responsibilities of protecting and hosting Syrian refugees,” arguing Syria’s neighbours bear too much of the burden. Indeed, Lebanon is in no position to properly support Syrian refugees alongside international organisations, as proven by informal Syrian tent communities across the country that lack basic resources.

Staes adds that international stakeholders must monitor the inadequate protections offered to Syrian refugees, calling for “an independent mechanism, with an international mandate, to monitor the conditions for safe, voluntary, informed, and dignified return to Syria.” Further, the UNCHR and other UN agencies should halt programs that could incentivise premature and unsafe returns or contribute to demographic engineering, such as Area-Based Return Support (ABRS). ABRS is a UN approach towards return assistance programming that allows host and home countries to dictate how, where and when UN return assistance should be implemented, thus leaving displaced Syrians at the mercy of the Syrian government to resettle them.[xvi] Given the Damascus government’s long history of demographic engineering, this approach is quite flawed.[xvii]

Ultimately, a combination of monitoring, advocacy and engagement on the issue in the form of increased refugee resettlement operations to wealthier Western countries would constitute a system-wide solution to the current situation. Additionally, wealthy states with influence in Lebanon can and should apply varying degrees of pressure in the form of carrots and sticks to further this approach, perhaps by conditioning deeper development and financial aid with respect for Syrian refugees. Whilst this latter point raises ethical concerns and deserves a much deeper analysis before implementation, it must be considered alongside broader and increased international engagement for the sake of Syrian refugees.

[i] “Syria refugees frightened as Lebanon plans to deport them despite safety concerns”, The New Arab, 21 July 2022. https://www.newarab.com/news/syrian-refugees-frightened-lebanon-plans-deport-them.
[ii] “Lebanon”, The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 2023. https://reporting.unhcr.org/lebanon.
[iii] RWW is a coalition of five Syrian, Lebanese and European organisations conducting research and advocacy on the protection situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and conditions for safe return in Syria.
[iv] Interview with William Staes of Refugee Protection Watch (RPW). 28 November 2022.
[v] Marie Forestier, “‘You’re Going to Your Death:’ Violations Against Syrian Refugees Returning to Syria”, Amnesty International, 7 September 2022. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde24/4583/2021/en/.
[vi] Nadia Hardman, “‘Our Lives Are Like Death:’ Syrian Refugee Returns from Lebanon and Jordan”, Human Rights Watch, 20 October 20, 2022. https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/10/20/our-lives-are-death/syrian-refugee-returns-lebanon-and-jordan.
[vii] “Lebanon: Torture of Syrian refugees arbitrarily detained on counter-terror charges”, Amnesty International, 23 March 2021. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2021/03/lebanon-torture-of-syrian-refugees-arbitrarily-detained-on-counter-terror-charges/.
[viii] “Lebanon: Syrian Refugee Shelters Demolished,” Human Rights Watch, 5 July 2019. https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/05/lebanon-syrian-refugee-shelters-demolished.
[ix] William Christou, “Lebanese and Syrian ministers meet to plan deportation program”, The New Arab, 16 August 2022. https://www.newarab.com/news/lebanese-and-syrian-ministers-plan-deportation-program.
[x] Kareem Chehayeb, “Lebanon hopes to repatriate Syrian refugees within months”, Associated Press, 6 July 2022. https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-syria-lebanon-united-nations-b899025139e1210008bba194effa9557.
[xi] “Recap: Lebanon Sending Syrian Refugees Back Home”, The Syrian Observer, 28 October 2022. https://syrianobserver.com/news/79787/recap-lebanon-sending-syrian-refugees-back-home.html.
[xii] Refugee Protection Watch, “Advocating for the rights and protection of Syrian refugees”, Twitter; Refugee Protection Watch, 17 September 2022. https://mobile.twitter.com/RPW2019/status/1438728673457283072/photo/1.
[xiii] Interview with Marie Forestier of Amnesty International. 23 November 2022.
[xiv] “The principle of non-refoulement under international human rights law”, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Migration/GlobalCompactMigration/ThePrincipleNon-RefoulementUnderInternationalHumanRightsLaw.pdf.
[xv] “March 8 Alliance”, Oxford Referencehttps://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780191835278.001.0001/acref-9780191835278-e-183.
[xvi] “Rights Groups Urge UNHCR Chief Grandi to Halt Syria Return Programme”, Amnesty International, 12 September 2022. https://www.amnesty.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/MDE2460192022ENGLISH.pdf.
[xvii] Yousif Faher Aldeen and Rabi’ Al-Sharity, “A Crime Titled ‘Reconstruction’”, Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research (SCLSR), 1 July 2021. https://sl-center.org/language/en/archives/1804.

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.