The country has hosted the most refugees per capita in the world—and it’s now out of patience.
BY ANCHAL VOHRA | JULY 31, 2019, 3:39 PM
ince 2011, Lebanon has taken in 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Officially, the country’s policy has been to host them until the war in the neighboring country has ended. In reality, it has recently started coercing them to leave.
The Lebanese government has been intentionally making life harder for its Syrian refugees, instilling a fear of detention and eventual deportation on top of the daily deprivations inflicted by the absence of any material safety net. Over the last few months, the Lebanese authorities have ordered Syrians to demolish their cinder-block homes in the border town of Arsal, barged into refugee camps and detained Syrians on the charge of unofficially entering the country, and, more recently, imposed crackdowns on some of Beirut’s hippest cafes, bars, and restaurants, threatening employers with hefty fines unless they either fire their Syrian staff or ensure they have long-term residence and work permits.
The turn in Lebanese refugee policy is ostensibly driven by the country’s crumbling economy and high unemployment. But it also stems from a deep-seated culture of xenophobia and sectarian nationalism.
The Lebanese government’s occasional off-the-cuff warnings of imminent deportations, which were floated for years, turned real this May. In just one month, 301 Syrians were summarily deported as Lebanese security agencies implemented an official decision to send back anyone who entered the country illegally after April 24.
Even before these deportations, the Lebanese government has officially maintained that Syria is safe for returns, turning a blind eye to reports of unabated arrests, torture, and conscription under Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Mohammed from Saida, in southern Lebanon, said his brother Raed was handed over to the Syrian authorities after the decision. (Mohammed did not share their last name to ensure their protection.) “He had been here since 2014 but briefly went back to Syria for health treatment, unaffordable in Lebanon. But upon his return, he was interrogated and deported,” Mohammad said. “He is petrified that he might be sent to Idlib to fight alongside the armed forces and get killed or treated as a traitor and imprisoned.” Technically, Raed reentered Lebanon after the April 24 cutoff date. The fact that he had previously been living as a refugee in Lebanon for almost five years made no difference.
Many activist and legal rights groups say that under the new rules, most Syrians living in Lebanon are at risk of deportation because they lack the paperwork to prove their date of entry. In 2015, Lebanon stopped the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from registering Syrians, although that did not stop the exodus of men, women, and children fleeing war and persecution. They climbed the porous mountains on the Syrian border, often braving freezing temperatures, and landed in Lebanon. On arrival, however, they typically became classified as Syrians who entered the country illegally.
The Lebanese authorities have promised not to deport Syrians involuntarily. However, they have also been accused of tricking refugees into signing forms simply posing the question of whether they “wish” to return to Syria and offering the choice of answering “yes” or “no.” Abbas Habroush, a Syrian from Hama currently living in Zahle at the foot of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, showed me one such form, saying he was tricked into saying yes. Ahmed Samy Lotf, an activist with the Access Center for Human Rights, an NGO in Lebanon that is tracking the deportations, said this enabled the Lebanese authorities to fudge the data and make the case that the Syrians were ready to go back. “We think they are making them sign these forms so they can show to the international world that Lebanon is not forcing Syrians to go but that they want to leave voluntarily,” he said.
Much of what is being done to dissuade Syrians from continuing their stay in Lebanon has a veneer of legality. It is true, after all, that all foreigners, not just Syrian refugees, need paperwork to remain in the country and to work. The activists, however, say that in the case of Syrians who have fled war and persecution, the deportations violate the country’s international obligations. Lebanon has neither ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, the internationally accepted formal framework for refugee policy, nor has it come up with a coherent domestic policy of its own. Nonetheless, the activists say, it is bound by international laws governing nonrefoulement, which stipulate that anyone whose life and freedom could be threatened in their home country must not be forcibly returned. Eight Lebanese NGOs have demanded that Lebanon’s decision to deport Syrians, even those who arrived after April, must be annulled and any future deportations must go through a legal process wherein those to be deported have the right to take their cases to court.
Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer with the NGO Legal Agenda, said the right to seek asylum in Lebanon was guaranteed by the Lebanese Constitution and that any deportation order must “grant the foreign national the opportunity to challenge it before its execution.”
However, despite the fears of activists, local and foreign, that the refugees are being forced to face the same dangers from which they fled in the first place, there remains widescale public support in Lebanon for the policy: Many simply want to see Syrians gone.
The Syrian war, now in its ninth year, displaced 6 million people internally and turned almost as many into refugees. A million and a half ended up in neighboring Lebanon among its own population of just over 4 million, giving it the highest ratio of refugees to native population in the world.
Even academics sympathetic to the plight of the Syrians admit that the influx worsened the already dilapidated civic infrastructure and placed a burden on Lebanon’s public finances. The animosity between the hosts and the refugees increased as politicians claimed, contrary to the analysis of many economists, that Syrians were taking jobs meant for Lebanese. According to the World Bank, almost 200,000 Lebanese have been pushed into poverty, and 250,000 are estimated to have become unemployed because of the Syrian crisis. However, it’s unclear whether this is the result of a reduction of exports to Syria and a decline in tourism or if it’s directly because of the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. What’s clear is that it’s far-fetched to blame Syrians for Lebanon’s broader economic crisis. Lebanon’s government is the third-largest borrower in the world, but structural inadequacies—rampant corruption, lack of job-creating industries, and shortsighted fiscal policies—existed even before the arrival of the Syrian refugees.
Nevertheless, Syrians are often portrayed in Lebanon as parasites, using up health care, educational, and other amenities and harming the environment by contributing to Lebanon’s dysfunctional sanitation infrastructure. A second and perhaps underlying reason for the policy’s popular support is the belief that most Syrian refugees are conservative Sunni Muslims, in comparison to so-called open-minded Lebanese. In terms of sect, most of the Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslim, and their conservatism is seen as culturally insular and religiously backward by many Lebanese, particularly Christian Lebanese.
The antagonism is further abetted by politicians who peddle the idea that, like the Palestinians before them, also largely Sunni Muslim, the Syrians will never leave and end up profoundly altering Lebanon’s sensitive demographic and cultural balance. Under the 1989 Taif Agreement, which marked the end of Lebanon’s own bloody 15-year civil war, power in Lebanon is shared on a sectarian basis between a Christian president, a Sunni prime minister, and a Shiite parliamentary speaker. That reflects a population divided roughly equally among Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and Christians.
Sami Nader, a renowned Lebanese analyst, criticized the fearmongering but said that in the end, in a tiny state like Lebanon, numbers do matter. “Lebanon cannot absorb a single additional Sunni if I can put it in a blunt way,” he said. “Already we have 300,000 Sunni Palestinian refugees. We have to maintain an equilibrium between the different sectarian groups, and absorbing the Sunni Syrians would call for a reconsideration of the Lebanese formula and at the cost of the form of the state as it is now.”
It is understandable that a country the size of Lebanon, with its many problems, should find it daunting to absorb so many refugees. But there are no quick fixes for Lebanon’s conundrum. The international community talks of finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis, one that will enable the refugees to return without fear of reprisal. Such a solution, however, is nowhere in sight. The war continues in Idlib, with the possibility of new conflicts in the north and east. The regime’s repression also continues unabated. Meanwhile, the sectarian basis of Lebanon’s own politics is firmly anchored in place.
The most promising way forward may be to tie the international community’s promised emergency financing to Lebanon to specific plans for infrastructure development that could both employ Syrians and provide opportunities for Lebanon’s own unemployed. Syrians, after all, are both a pool of labor and an important consumer base for Lebanon’s economy. Those who think that Syrian refugees are a burden may discover that their mass deportation could produce its own economic shock due to a loss of their economic contributions and spending