The Fears of Civil Society Organizations Amid Lebanese Government Restrictions

The pressure of the Lebanese Government on civil society organizations working with Syrian refugees


This research paper is issued by Access Center for Human Rights on the pressures exerted by the Lebanese Government on civil society organizations working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The research paper outlines the main role played by NGOs in responding to the refugee crisis in Lebanon which began to worsen in 2012, and changes that civil society has witnessed as a result of this crisis. It also explains the grants offered to Lebanon, and the Lebanese Government’s management of the Syrian refugee file and its policies since 2011 until today.

            The paper documents the most prominent challenges and difficulties that local civil society organizations face, starting from the establishment and registration, then the funding and project implementation stages, reaching the harassment and security prosecutions of workers in these organizations. The paper also presents an analysis of local and international laws that preserve the freedom of peaceful assemblies and associations, as it focuses on their application and respect in Lebanon. 

            Lebanon is characterized by an economic and political system based on sectarian quotas and a government incapable of meeting its citizens needs in various sectors including public services. The inability of the Government was and remains widely criticized, especially given its inability to solve the crisis that has worsened in the last months leading to a significant deterioration in the local economy impacting all residents of the country. Additionally, the government did not put forward any coherent and comprehensive national plan to regulate the presence of refugees and protect them, due to divided political opinions within the government between those supporting and protecting refugees and those supporting the Syrian Government by pressuring refugees to return to Syria, until the Ministry of Social Affairs adopted an initial plan to regulate the return of refugees on 14 July 2020, containing many inconsistencies that will be discussed successively.

            The burden caused by the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon could have significantly benefited the Lebanese Government had it adopted a coherent and comprehensive national plan to regulate their presence on its territories since the start of the refugee crisis. However, the Government was and continues to indirectly pressure them, through codifying the violations under the pretext of protecting the security and the Lebanese economy, (discussed in our previous reports and research papers) and has still not found a solution to protect rights of  refugees except by breaching laws and international treaties. 

            Local non-governmental organizations responded to refugees needs and the local host communities with support from United Nations agencies and international organizations who prefer working with local NGOs due to their lack of trust in the Lebanese Government. Their response contributed to the Lebanese economy and in establishing voluntary groups and several initiatives to implement new projects. During the early years of the refugee crisis, civil society initiatives focused on direct relief aid and health services given the urgency at the time. Meanwhile, its initiatives today are concentrated on education, vocational training, and protection. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, Lebanon has received great amounts of grants and aid in support of hosting refugees. 

            Since the beginning of the year 2013, several international conferences were held in support of the Syrian people and the neighboring host countries,  most notably, the Brussels Conference on Supporting the future of Syria and the region, as Lebanon holds the largest quota of the States’ and the European Union’s support. Additionally, funds were established to meet refugee needs, and grants reached their peak in 2015. However, they began slowly shrinking since that year, especially the aid given to the Lebanese Government, which is criticized in several regards over the mismanagement of the refugee file and its lack of financial transparency in expenditures.

            As of 2014, the Lebanese Government began demanding refugee returns at international conferences. Despite renouncing its demands of establishing “safe areas” in Syria  in preparation for their return, the Lebanese Government still stresses the need to repatriation and considers it the “only solution” for the refugee crisis. Furthermore, it has increased pressures on refugees through forced deportation which is considered one of the most prominent violations practiced by the Lebanese Government in the last year, in addition to arbitrary detention, night curfews and the reoccurring crackdown of foreign labor especially against Syrian labor and Syrian commercial stores, in accordance with the decisions of the Ministry of Labor.

            Moreover, security agencies place pressure on civil society organizations working with Syrians refugees in Lebanon, especially following the repercussions of Arsal in August 2014. Syrian refugees have since been subjected to security prosecutions  and arbitrary detention, some of which based on fabricated or unfounded charges. On the other hand,  Syrian organizations and local organizations working with Syrian refugees face difficulty in the registration and establishment process or in obtaining official permits, as well as, with money transfer operations and opening bank accounts. Most of the associations that we interviewed were unregistered, or face many difficulties in registration. Funding remains the main challenge they face, considering the complexity of grants requests to Lebanon, and the observed preference of the United Nations agencies and the European Union in contracting with international organizations or with civil society organization networks with international expertise in the humanitarian field instead of supporting the small local organizations and associations, and those who have the required field expertise to implement projects of international networks and organizations and even those of United Nations agencies. 

            The Lebanese authorities are putting pressure on projects that target Syrian refugees especially in the fields of vocational training and medical services, by preventing or blocking them. The organizations witness an increase in security inspections to their offices and confiscation of official documents for Syrian employees, in addition to, interrogating and summoning them to the investigation offices for the General Security and the State security. Criminal laws are also implemented and administrative decisions and decrees are issued to restrict the freedom of associations in Lebanon in contradiction with international treaties and charters in which Lebanon must abide by, and contrary to the local laws, most notably the Lebanese Constitution which enshrines the principle of the freedom of associations. Article 13 of the Constitution states: “The freedom to express one’s opinion orally or in writing, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of association shall be guaranteed within the limits established by law.”[1]

            Therefore, the Lebanese Government must respect the local and international laws that it has ratified, and thus secure the necessary freedom and protection to ensure the work of civil society organizations and refrain from placing pressure and conducting recurrent security inspections and visits. In addition, we call for facilitating the legal procedures related to associations and their employees, such as opening bank accounts, receiving and transferring direct funds and registering organizations and associations. We stress the need to facilitate the procedures to encourage organizations/associations to transparently deal with the Government within the legal frameworks. 

            Furthermore, we suggest that the international community, donors and supporting States adopt a monitoring mechanism, in cooperation with civil society organizations, to evaluate Lebanon’s response to the crisis, and the distribution of the funding in support of the Lebanese community and refugees. We affirm the need of public inclusion of  all stakeholders in regards to the grants of the European Union and the funding countries, including civil society organizations, and supporting them in their field of work in order to expand their response activities in refugee communities. In addition to, supporting them in their advocacy work and pressuring Lebanon to abide by the International Bill of Human Rights and to include civil society organizations in monitoring processes. We also recommend the Special Rapporteurs to strengthen observation of Lebanon’s violations of international conventions, treaties, and agreements, and increase effective communication with concerned civil society organizations.

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