Lebanon Is Failing Syria’s Refugees

Lebanon Is Failing Syria’s Refugees

Very few countries have proven to be hospitable to Syrian refugees in recent years. Lebanon is no exception.

Very few countries have proven to be hospitable to Syrian refugees in recent years as the country’s long-running war has resulted in a de facto partition of the country. Lebanon offers no exception to this dynamic, as proven by the numerous attempts by the Lebanese government to return some of the 800,000 to 2 million registered and unregistered Syrian refugees within its borders forcibly and illegally to their home country.

The latest iteration of this dynamic arose last month, as the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) arbitrarily detained hundreds of Syrians across Lebanon, turning them over to Syrian security services at the border. Yet while the army’s intervention in the refugee space is a new development, the political underpinnings behind the operation are not.

No Home for Syrians

Reports emerged in mid-April indicating Beirut’s renewed efforts to identify, detain, and return Syrian refugees after a brief lull in such efforts. In this context, an anonymous LAF official confirmed to local media that roughly fifty Syrians were deported in the first half of April, led by army intelligence. According to the official, the operation prioritized locating undocumented Syrians living in Lebanon. This is operationalized through a 2019 Higher Defense Council administrative procedure allowing immediate deportation of anyone entering the country “illegally” after April 24, 2019.

This number ultimately grew, with many reports indicating over 400 Syrian detainees across roughly sixty raids in April. Of this group, approximately 130 were forcibly returned to regime-held areas in Syria. Other reports highlight 1,100 arrests and 600 deportations across seventy-three raids as of May 4. The raids focused on individuals with invalid residency permits, supposedly under the orders of caretaker Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar. The Lebanese General Security Office (GSO) is not conducting deportations—an irregular move given they handle such cases.

Hajjar is a member of the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and has openly derided the presence of Syrian refugees, warning of a “big explosion” if tensions are not reduced between Lebanese and Syrians in his country. He has also claimed that Syrian refugees make up 40 percent of Lebanon’s population, arguing “no country in the world would accept” such conditions. The minister has plans to lead a ministerial delegation to Damascus to discuss the refugee issue in a similar fashion to previous Lebanese ministers.

However, Hajjar claims that GSO is leading deportation efforts—conflicting reporting focused on the LAF. In this regard, Acting General Security Director Elias Baissari—officially tasked with the refugee file—reportedly visited Damascus last week to meet with Syrian officials about refugees. Following up on these efforts, Prime Minister Najib Mikati on April 27 assigned Baissari with the task of developing a mechanism for returning Syrians.

In parallel, Lebanese interior minister Bassam Mawlawi ordered his ministry to survey and register Syrian populations on May 2, demanding municipalities ensure Syrians are documented before permitting them to buy or rent property. This coincides with a slew of curfews for Syrians in many municipalities, as well as checkpoints and roadblocks to identify undocumented migrants. Finally, Mawlawi, alongside other ministers, demanded the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) revoke the refugee status of any Syrians who go to Syria and return to Lebanon.

Government Failure and Scapegoating

These evolving dynamics surrounding the refugee file suggest a new level of engagement on the part of the Lebanese government. While the GSO has traditionally held authority over the refugee file, the inclusion of the LAF and multiple ministers suggests Beirut is shifting toward a whole-of-government approach as it prioritizes the issue even further in 2023—although such an approach could be decentralized along political alliances. For example, some have argued that the LAF’s involvement suggests Joseph Aoun is catering to the public and other politicians in support of a presidential run.

To be sure, this does not suggest the existence of any serious or effective strategy, nor that multiple governing entities were not previously working on the file. Rather, the intensity of anti-refugee efforts is increasing, albeit amidst a government that is incapable of doing much of anything well—which lies at the core of the situation.

Just as Beirut failed to implement its 2022 refugee return plans, stipulating the return of 15,000 Syrian refugees a month, recent efforts suggest the limits of and impediments facing the Lebanese government. Indeed, while any illegal returns in violation of basic non-refoulment clauses—the international legal statute outlawing forced returns to unsafe conditions like Syria—must be actively fought at all levels, recent efforts to return between 130-600 Syrians highlight Lebanon’s limited capacity to operationalize and scale such a program or any other serious government action today.

This suggests what many migration experts and human rights advocates have argued for years: that Lebanese political figures and elites continue to operationalize a Syrian refugee scapegoating strategy as opposed to any serious return program or domestic reform agenda. Given Lebanon’s historic economic collapse at the hands of a septuagenarian elite that is primarily interested in retaining a corrupt and sect-based political system, defenseless Syrian refugees present an easy target.

Human rights groups have rightly condemned this approach, with Amnesty International releasing a statement on April 24. The NGO cited previous research documenting human rights violations experienced by Syrian refugees upon return to regime-held areas in Syria—not limited to arbitrary detention, torture, and disappearance. Given that these constitute the norm under Assad’s government, Amnesty put it simply: “The Lebanese authorities must immediately stop forcibly deporting refugees back to Syria.”

Syrian Refugees and the Future

Unfortunately, Lebanese officials are not listening. Indicative of broader anti-Syrian hate speech prominent across Lebanon, FPM minister of parliament George Atallah stated that Amnesty should “mind its own business” and “not interfere in the sovereign decision of Lebanon.” This echoed responses to the human rights organization’s tweet on the issue, in which many identified Syrians as synonymous with violence, economic collapse, and land theft.

The heightened rhetoric draws a direct path to Lebanese political actors, producing increasingly violent hate speech and actions against Syrians in Lebanon. The unfortunate reality of this dynamic is circular in that elite rhetoric informs the population, which in turn expresses support for increasingly brutal anti-refugee policies. This scenario mirrors hate speech against Syrians in Turkey.

Thus, 2023 will likely continue to present a rapidly deteriorating situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The latest iteration of efforts to make conditions unbearable for refugees will not be the last this year, especially amidst rapidly evolving re-normalization efforts between Arab states and Damascus. 

Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl.

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