Lebanon Needs Help in Dealing with Its Syrian Refugees

The dangerous saber-rattling and bloody confrontations between Hezbollah and Israel have partly obscured serious domestic challenges facing Lebanon and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati. These include Lebanon’s continued presidential vacuum, its conditions of near economic collapse and the attendant social repercussions, and the failure of the confessional political system to create strong state institutions. But of special concern today is the growing demand for dealing with the presence of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, who find themselves in an untenable situation of rising xenophobia and racism from a large segment of the Lebanese public.

Two interrelated realities have imposed themselves on Syrian refugees in Lebanon: a frustrated and pauperized Lebanese population looking for a scapegoat, and a Syrian regime putting up obstacles for Syrians wanting to return home. Looming is the quasi-state of war on the border with Israel, a conflict that most Lebanese oppose. A full-scale war will worsen conditions in the country and exacerbate the problems of internal displacement by adding pressure on the already exhausted infrastructure and inadequate social safety net. Without an organized Lebanese state response to the refugee issue, and with the Syrian regime’s continued neglect of its people in Lebanon, the problem could become a flashpoint of internal discord and violence.

A Precarious Existence

Syrian refugees started entering Lebanon in 2011 after the Syrian regime commenced its atrocities against protesters and their cities and neighborhoods. Over the past 13 years, the crisis has displaced more than 12 million people inside and outside of Syria. There are 815,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon according to official figures, but the Lebanese government estimates that the total number is 1.5 million. Lebanon has neither signed the Refugee and Statelessness Conventions nor passed legislation governing the status of refugees; instead it utilizes ad hoc laws and regulations that apply to all foreigners in the country. In 2015, Lebanon asked the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to stop registering new entrants from Syria in an attempt to stop the influx, which perhaps explains the disparity between the number of those registered and the total number. One thing is sure, however. Those unregistered cannot officially obtain humanitarian assistance from international organizations, receive medical services, or enroll their children in schools, among other limitations.

Unregistered Syrians in Lebanon cannot officially obtain social services nor humanitarian assistance.

Refugees from Syria are scattered around Lebanon, often in unofficial and illegal camps. Many live in old and dilapidated housing in Palestinian refugee camps, and others reside in poorly maintained rental properties. Both those with and without residency permits work in construction, agriculture, and delivery services. In fact, Syrians can be considered the “backbone of the low-wage labor force” that the Lebanese themselves shun despite the poor economic situation. According to UNHCR, nine out of ten Syrian refugee households in Lebanon live in poverty as inflation soars and resources dwindle. Along with nearly 600,000 Lebanese, more than 400,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon are acutely food insecure—numbers that are expected to rise in the coming months.

Today, with the serious deterioration in Lebanon’s economic, political, and social conditions, Syrian refugees are increasingly subjected to severe restrictions by the Lebanese government and by different municipal authorities. The main aim is to force Syrians to return to Syria, apparently without regard to the dire conditions there. For instance, the Syrian authorities routinely arrest returnees for supporting the opposition and quickly conscript those young enough into the army in order to satisfy their compulsory military service requirement. Many children of refugees do not even have Syrian identity cards because their parents could not travel to Syria to register them upon birth.

Calls for Syrians to return home have become louder in Lebanon as economic conditions have worsened and as the Lebanese government practices what one writer has termed “a policy of non-policy” on refugees. On various occasions since 2011, there have been calls by some political factions for restricting the entry and movement of refugees in various locations in the country. But since April 2024, following the murder of Pascal Sleiman, an official in the Lebanese Forces Party (LF), many municipalities have actually moved to limit Syrians’ freedom of movement within their jurisdictions. According to the Lebanese Army, a Syrian gang abducted and killed Sleiman and dumped his body in Syria, prompting the LF to declare his death a political act because of his party’s critical stance toward the Syrian regime. In June 2024, the LF and the Free Patriotic Movement of former President Michel Aoun called on schools not to register the children of Syrians residing illegally in the country.

Like migrants from elsewhere around the Mediterranean, many Syrian refugees try to reach Europe by fleeing Lebanon by boat. But with the increasingly anti-immigrant sentiments spreading on the continent—as evidenced by the unprecedented success of right-wing parties in the recent elections for the European Parliament—whatever welcome mat has existed in Europe may soon be rolled up for Syrians and others. In early May, the European Union announced that it would give Lebanon €1 billion (about $1.06 billion) in four installments to enhance its border control mechanisms. In fact, the writing appears to be on the wall regarding the treatment and fate of Syrian refugees wherever they reside, necessitating a comprehensive approach to addressing their plight. Affirming this conclusion were the attacks on Syrian refugees in Turkey earlier this month, tragic events that highlighted the unsustainability of their presence in that country.

Regime Complicity and Economic Conditions

The return of refugees to Syria is more in the hands of the Bashar al-Assad regime than of any other party. Their return could have commenced and been finished years ago, as the regime has regained control over much of the country and cannot continue to claim that military operations hinder repatriation. Instead, the regime has made return nearly impossible by continuing its illegal and anti-humanitarian practices and by demanding that regional and international powers rehabilitate Assad’s image and restore his long-lost legitimacy. Aiding in this grim situation is the inability of the international community to find a viable political solution to the Syrian crisis that would guarantee a safe return for all refugees.

One impediment to the return of many Syrians is the regime’s requirement of compulsory military service by all able-bodied Syrian men between 18 and 42 years of age. For those who fled Syria during the height of military activities around the country after 2011 and who cannot return to their destroyed homes or are opponents of the regime, conscription becomes a default reason for their arrest or detention if they return. Syrians residing outside of the country, including in Lebanon, have to abide by the conscription law or pay an exemption fee of between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on the length of their stay abroad, exorbitant amounts for many. In fact, the Syrian government has used the granting of conscription exemptions to extract hard currency for its reserves from impoverished Syrians and displaced refugees. Many refugees decide to remain outside of Syria because they refuse to join the Syrian Army, but they can only do that if they have legal residency in their country of asylum. Illegals are deported when caught, making refugees’ lives a constant worry. In Lebanon, those whom the Lebanese Army and security services are forcefully repatriating to Syria because they lack legal residency find themselves either conscripted in the Syrian Army or arrested for desertion.

A series of laws and decrees enabled the regime to restructure the country’s ownership landscape.

Another obstacle is the Assad regime’s concerted effort to seize absentees’ homes and properties through quasilegal means. The Syrian Network of Human Rights reports that between 2018 and 2023, the regime used laws promulgated since 2011 to deprive people of their properties. The report details regime efforts targeting three groups: the entire displaced population (12 million); the forcefully disappeared (some 113,000 persons); and the dead (some 500,000 people, the majority of whom have not been documented as deceased). A series of laws and decrees issued between 2012 and 2018 enabled the regime to restructure the country’s ownership landscape, especially in opposition areas that witnessed the army’s worst atrocities, and very likely to alter Syria’s demographic composition. In other words, any refugees wishing to return from Lebanon—or from Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and elsewhere—may not be able to reclaim their property and thus may prefer to remain outside.

Then there is the general state of economic near-collapse in Syria after more than a decade of military operations and wanton destruction. The halving of Syria’s gross domestic product since 2011 has wrought extreme poverty, while inflation and dependence on imports have helped to sharply devalue the national currency. Lebanon’s economic collapse since 2019 has added to the decline in Syria’s production and trade, since the country acted as a conduit for Syrian financial and business dealings during the Syrian conflict. International and American sanctions have also limited economic activity and exchanges with the outside world. On top of the terrible economic situation, conditions of brutal authoritarianism and regime control makes it impossible for at least those in the opposition to return. All others must contend with a poor economy in a country in desperate need of reconstruction. Although the Arab governments have rehabilitated the Syrian regime and accepted the continuation of Bashar al-Assad in power, there appears to be no regional plan for any large-scale project to restore Syria’s economy.

Help Needed

The Syrian refugee crisis cannot be resolved through piecemeal measures or location-specific steps. Indeed, their plight is the same across their areas of shelter in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere. What is required is a comprehensive approach that combines humanitarian efforts, financial contributions from international institutions, states, and private donors, and political pressure on the Syrian regime. Lebanese authorities thus should not hope to resolve the complicated status of their Syrian guests on their own, unless they are ready to utilize coercive measures of forced repatriation that are likely to generate opprobrium around the world.

The international community today is busy with Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and the devastating Sudanese civil war, among other confrontations. But despite the attendant difficulties, Arab and western countries should devote time and energy and exercise necessary pressure on the Syrian regime to accept a political solution for the country’s stalemated conflict that would allow for a transition from authoritarian rule. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 still constitutes a good roadmap for such a solution and a transition. The Arab League’s 2023 decision to rehabilitate the Syrian regime after years of ostracism and end its regional isolation, without first requiring any meaningful political reform in Syria has made the regime more resistant to compromise. The return of refugees from Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and beyond remains contingent upon the Syrian regime’s acceptance that these citizens have a right to live in dignity, freedom, and prosperity in a democratic Syria.

Lebanon will continue to pay the high cost of hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees so long as the Assad regime continues to put up obstacles to their return and Syria’s economic conditions remain dire. It is doubtful that Lebanese political and military authorities will be able to execute a forced repatriation plan, mainly because there is no national consensus on the matter. But Lebanon cannot be seen as the gendarme defending Europe from migrants daring the seas to its shores. Instead, Lebanon needs help dealing with the economic and social wellbeing of both its own people and its Syrian guests.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors. 

Featured image: Shutterstock/Ahmad Zikri