27 June 2023
Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Syrian refugees have been portrayed as an added strain to the catastrophic situation in Lebanon and even scapegoated as a cause of the crisis, with many Lebanese advocating for their return. As the livelihoods situation worsened in Lebanon due to the economic crisis and political impasse, politicians and the public engaged in a discourse on refugee deportation. In 2018, the General Security Agency devised a plan to repatriate Syrian refugees who voluntarily want to return home – it was halted due to COVID-19. In early 2022, as the compounding crises exacerbated the situation, a committee was formed to develop a proposal to repatriate 15,000 Syrians monthly.
UNHCR raised concerns about the breach of the fundamental right of all refugees to a voluntary, safe, and dignified return that would entail as a result of this decision, and Human Rights Watch reported how repatriated Syrian refugees who returned between 2017 and 2021 faced human rights abuses and struggled to secure basic needs. Moreover, only 1.1% of surveyed Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan between 2021 and 2022 expressed their intent to go back to Syria in the coming year.
Yet, the proposal went into effect, or was revived, by the end of 2022 as the Minister of the Displaced claimed that “[the proposal to repatriate Syrian refugees] is a humane, honourable, patriotic and economic plan that is necessary for Lebanon.” The ministry also announced that it will only be repatriating ‘illegal’ refugees who do not have residency or work permits in the country. It is worth mentioning that in 2015, Lebanon requested that the UNHCR no longer register new refugees and de-register more than 1,400 refugees who arrived after January 5 of the year, proliferating informality rates in the country.
Nevertheless, accounts of violent raids by the Lebanese Army to refugee camps, as well as the detainment of Syrians after they cross the border, including UNHCR registrees, are abundant. Many refugees divulged that they are scared to stay in their homes or go to work; some explained that they were handed to human smugglers at the Lebanese border; some were told that they were not cleared for entry after reaching the Lebanese-Syrian border; and others disclosed that they had to split from other family members.
Complicating matters further, incidents of Lebanese citizens trying to frame Syrians as a threat to national security were also reported. This comes as a consequence of the systemic positioning of Syrian refugees as a security threat by Lebanese political parties and media outlets. The incohesion between the host community and Syrian refugees also stems from the portrayal of Syrians as an increased pressure on the country’s economy and infrastructure. The disinformed narrative that Syrian refugees benefit from international assistance more than vulnerable Lebanese people amplified the tension between Lebanese and Syrians residing in Lebanon.
While acknowledging the strain on service provision and infrastructure that refugees add to host countries, it has been shown that refugees have no effect on major indicators related to the Lebanese economy. According to the International Rescue Committee, “each USD 1 that beneficiaries spent [from cash assistance assigned to Syrian refugees] generated USD 2.13 of GDP for the Lebanese economy.” Syrian refugees tended to accept work in low-skill and low-wage sectors more than Lebanese workers, filling in the gap and transforming said sectors into Syrian employment almost exclusively. Furthermore, there has been a notable influx of governmental and international funding allocated to numerous formerly vulnerable and marginalised regions, primarily due to the encampment of refugees within them. Job creation in the humanitarian sector is also a noteworthy effect of the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Even so, the possible positive impacts of the presence of refugees seem to
be overshadowed by the negative portrayal of their presence fuelling the advocacy for repatriation discourse.
Reports on the number of repatriated Syrian refugees vary, with some documenting around 300 forcible deportations and others more than 750 up to this date. Noting that Lebanon hosts approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the relatively low number of arbitrary arrests and repatriations does not seem tangible enough to have an impact on the economic situation of the country, its failing infrastructure, nor its fragmented politics.
This raises the question: are political actors scapegoating Syrian refugees, again, to cover up governance ineptitude? Bearing in mind that many political parties in Lebanon were against the admission of Syrian refugees into camps to begin with, due to their predominantly Sunni majority, as they threaten the fragile sectarian power-sharing system and ‘balance’ between communities, the repatriation decision might merely be a continuation of their efforts to protect the established system.
Compounded with Lebanon’s domestic politics on refugee governance – dubbed as a no-policy policy – and the clash between the discourses of different parties and local communities, regional geopolitical dynamics might have a hand in the decision to repatriate Syrian refugees. The earthquake that devastated Turkey and Syria has helped the re-establishment of diplomatic relationships between Syria and many other Arab states. Furthermore, as the Chinese-brokered deal to repair the Saudi-Iranian relationships and the reinstatement of Syria into the Arab League were successful, the focus on returning Syrian refugees to their country was heightened. The ‘normalisation of relationships with the Assad Regime gives countries leeway to send refugees back to Syria, and at the same time benefits the Assad Regime as returning refugees reflect an end of conflict and establishment of stability under his sovereignty.
Considering that Lebanon is grappling with a range of pressing issues, inter alia, the collapse of the banking sector, presidential vacuum, and IMF negotiations, resolution pathways through Syrian refugee repatriation seem improbable, or greatly ambitious at best. Refocusing ad-hoc policies and government personnel’s efforts on livelihood issues such as access to healthcare, restructuring the banking sector, and so on would certainly be a better “humane, honourable, patriotic and economic plan that is necessary for Lebanon” and all its residents.
Picture: Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash
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