When Syria’s regime was readmitted into the Arab League and its president, Bashar al Assad, rehabilitated after years of ostracism for his brutal crackdown on anti-government protests and his role in the ensuing civil war, its survival strategy was validated. Though this development may not yield significant rewards for Arab states or for the regime, it is bound to have secondary repercussions, especially on the Syrian refugee crisis that has become more salient with refugees’ growing angst at the prospect of being forcibly deported from countries in which they have found refuge only to be arrested and detained by a cruel and rancorous regime back home. Normalization with the Syrian regime and the sense it brings that “Syria is safe again” is providing the perfect excuse for governments that want to rid themselves of Syrian refugees—among them Lebanon. As of 2022, there were over 12 million Syrians who remain forcibly displaced from their homes, 5.4 million of whom are in neighboring countries, including an estimated 1.5 million in Lebanon.
Even though the official government policy in Lebanon was to host Syrian refugees until the Syrian conflict ends, polarization around the issue has increased with the acceleration of government actions meant to coerce them to leave. This change in approach is undoubtedly linked to Lebanon’s tenuous economic situation. The country is presently teetering on the edge of a self-inflicted economic collapse that has forced the value of its currency to plummet, sent 82 percent of the population into multidimensional poverty, and drained the Central Bank’s foreign currency reserves, with an estimated $70 billion in financial losses. Social assistance programs are now practically unavailable and food prices are skyrocketing, forcing families to skip meals. While Lebanon has signed a staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund to jumpstart economic recovery, its leadership has stalled in meeting the conditions to receive the $3 billion bailout package that would unlock additional billions in aid already pledged and restore Lebanon’s standing among international investors.
Lebanese authorities have made it difficult for Syrians to obtain official residency, without which they are exposed to arrest and deportation.
Lebanese authorities had already imposed hurdles on the legalization of refugees’ status, making it difficult for Syrians to obtain official residency, without which they are exposed to arrest and deportation. An estimated 80 percent of Syrian refugees over 15 do not have valid residency permits, and their economic activity is strictly limited to the agriculture, construction, and sanitation sectors—though the majority who are employed work illegally. Syrians are also deprived of freedom of movement, the ability to acquire property, and in the rare instances of formal employment, are entirely dependent on their sponsors. In addition, they are subjected to pervasive discrimination and exclusion. Politicians of all persuasions have used the refugees as scapegoats by trying to blame them for the multiple crises facing the country, and have increasingly made their lives difficult by ramping up arbitrary deportations. However, despite living in dire economic straits and being made to feel unwelcome in Lebanon, Syrian refugees are unlikely to voluntarily return to Syria anytime soon because of the persistent threat of violence and insecurity in Syria today. Furthermore, forced mass returns would violate the international legal principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits countries from returning people to places where they might face serious human rights violations. Syrian refugees in Lebanon have thus settled into the status of a permanent underclass.
The Situation and Impact of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
The discourse claiming that Syrians can or should go back home is nothing new, and has been touted for years in Lebanon. As recently as July 2022, caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charafeddine announced a controversial plan to repatriate 15,000 refugees per month that was widely opposed by the international community, leading to a renewed emphasis on voluntary returns. But in April and May 2023, hundreds of undocumented Syrians were abruptly deported by the Lebanese Army against a backdrop of resurgent anti-Syrian rhetoric coming from populist politicians aiming to deflect blame for the country’s woes. Syria had already been officially advertised by the Lebanese government as a place that was supposedly safe to return to, with the full knowledge that those who are returned are likely to be forcibly conscripted (as many are draft evaders or deserters) or disappeared. Despite this, the Lebanese public’s desire to see the Syrians leave remains pervasive.
The majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty, are food insecure, and are deprived of basic needs, including clean water, sanitation, health, and education. Thirty percent of school-aged refugee children have never attended school. Given that the majority of refugees lack legal residence (their registration by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] was suspended by the Lebanese government in 2015) they cannot access public services and are subjected to daily harassment, abuse, and exploitation. At the same time, the refugee situation has strained the country’s already frail infrastructure and placed unprecedented pressure on livelihoods, negatively impacting vulnerable Lebanese host communities. The pressure on Lebanon’s health services and hospitals, combined with shortages in doctors and health workers, has raised the costs of healthcare untenably. Lebanese public education, already severely underfunded, was also compromised when refugees were given access to the public school system, with the added effect of inflating its costs at a time of waning public resources. Competition for limited jobs is also believed to have increased with new arrivals willing to work for lower wages and in more taxing conditions, while general unemployment has spiraled to 29.6 percent (with youth unemployment at 47.8 percent) and labor market conditions have been significantly degraded by an increase in those searching for employment at a time of economic downturn. Even though refugees are probably doing worse that their hosts, the large Syrian presence has inevitably stirred up social tensions.
The arrival of Syrian refugees has contributed to the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon.
Syrians cannot be blamed for Lebanon’s economic decline, itself the result of dubious financial engineering by a political class that remains in power and has little interest in undertaking the urgent reforms that would unlock foreign assistance and rescue the country. However, the arrival of Syrian refugees has contributed to the humanitarian crisis, putting pressure on resources and negatively impacting social cohesion. This has been compounded by the fact that some of Lebanon’s poorest regions took on the bulk of incoming refugees—a function of the leniency and hospitality of municipalities and the availability of affordable housing and agricultural work—heightening frictions with host communities. The perception among the Lebanese public that refugees are receiving more international assistance did not abate these pressures.
Tensions between host and refugee communities simmered as refugees were increasingly subjected to discrimination and violent attacks, especially with mounting food insecurity. In one instance, bakeries were ordered to prioritize giving subsidized bread to Lebanese citizens over refugees, which led to brawls. A number of municipalities imposed discriminatory curfews on Syrians living within their jurisdictions. Hate speech also flourished in the form of divisive, anti-refugee media and social media campaigns, including the trending hashtags “our land is not for displaced Syrians” and “no to Syrians in Lebanon” and sectarian rhetoric highlighting the influx of “radical Muslims” (in contrast to the “liberal Lebanese”). Such discourse frames the presence of Syrian refugees as a burden, stirring up fears that they will never leave and advocating for their repatriation, especially to non-conflict areas in Syria. This has all been exacerbated by equally threatening government statements that have fueled the negative public perception of refugees. It was ominous, for example, that presidential candidate Suleiman Frangieh promised as part of his presidential campaign to use his connections with the Syrian regime to facilitate a solution to the crisis and effectively deport all refugees. Hezbollah, the powerful militia-cum-political-party that backs Frangieh, has furthermore offered its assets to help ensure refugee returns, and has called for pressure to be put on the West to provide financial incentives to the Syrian state to facilitate returns.
Syrian Regime Normalization and Voluntary Returns
Lebanon is at a breaking point; it is difficult to imagine how, with all its misfortunes, it could absorb so many refugees. And the refugee crisis is unfolding absent any progress toward a political solution to the Syrian conflict that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people and enables safe returns without fear of retaliation. Instead, Arab governments’ normalization with the Assad regime has culminated in the reinstating of Syria’s membership in the Arab league, a win for Assad after years of isolation despite the continued persecution of the Syrian population and the entrenchment of malign forces within Syria’s territory. Renewed Arab engagement with the regime has ostensibly been motivated by a desire to curb Syrian-driven drug trafficking and limit Iran’s influence; but the underlying reason is likely the conviction that pressure against the Assad regime has neither resolved the conflict nor halted extremism, nor altered the regime’s behavior and longevity. Hence there exists the emerging (pragmatic) consensus that reintegration in the Arab world could incentivize the regime to cooperate and reform, in turn unlocking reconstruction assistance and paving the way for a more lasting Syrian solution.
It is difficult, however, to imagine the prospect of such a scenario based on the Assad regime’s track record. It is likewise easy to doubt the regime’s sincerity in facilitating returns, especially because most of the refugees are dissidents and do not want to return to Syria under current conditions. Case in point, a 2021 Human Rights Watch report tallied in 65 documented testimonies of Syrians who returned to Syria between 2017 and 2021 “21 cases of arrest and arbitrary detention, 13 cases of torture, 3 kidnappings, 5 extrajudicial killings, 17 enforced disappearances and 1 case of alleged sexual violence.” It is also unlikely that the regime would seriously curtail its involvement in the Captagon trade—an industry worth some $10 billion a year—given how instrumental it is in the continued survival and indeed the viability of the regime.
Protracted Displacement and the International Response
While foreign assistance has been channeled to support Lebanon’s ability to meet refugees’ needs and keep the situation stable, the international community has essentially evaded the responsibility of hosting refugees. The large amount of aid poured into Lebanon to alleviate the impact of the refugee presence—over $9 billion since 2015, with the EU leading the charge—has predominantly sought to address short-term relief and emergency needs without any longer-term development strategies for ensuring livelihoods and rights or finding more sustainable solutions. This has enabled Lebanon’s tolerance of Syrian refugees only as long as they stay invisible.
Twelve years after the start of the Syrian conflict, these refugees—many now displaced for over a decade—have become visibly ingrained in the local fabric, even if at its fringes. Without a durable approach to integrating them into Lebanese society, they will continue to create an undue burden on the local economy and infrastructure. Here, boosting their self-reliance is critical, but will require investment in local services and employment generation, as well as creating ways for them to contribute productively to the local economy. This cannot be done, however, without simultaneously supporting vulnerable host communities and enhancing social cohesion to minimize the likelihood of conflict and instability.
Access to resettlement and complementary legal pathways for Syrian refugees in other countries needs to be broadened.
Given that current conditions in Syria do not meet the requirements for safe return, access to resettlement and complementary legal pathways for Syrian refugees in other countries needs to be broadened, and this should also cover Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey. In particular, the EU’s controlled resettlement quotas, far below capacity and falling short of needs, risk further damaging the credibility and commitment of European countries to a refugee protection agenda. In 2022, only around 8,300 refugees were resettled to Europe from Lebanon. The international community must ramp up the resettlement of Syrian refugees as a clear commitment to sharing the burden with Lebanon.
Can the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon Be Solved?
Ultimately, international law prohibits the forced return of refugees, which means that Syrian government cooperation is as necessary to resolve this question as is the refugees’ own desire to return home. For many Syrians who fled their country, the conditions prompting their departure—violence, repression, and insecurity, but also corruption and poverty—have not changed. They dread reprisals and the likelihood of being arrested, killed, or forcibly disappeared, all of which are tried and tested repressive methods of the Assad regime. At the same time, the backlash that the refugee presence has generated in Lebanon should not be surprising in the broader context of Lebanon’s history, politics, social make-up, and current economic trajectory. Rather, it should underscore the need to find a durable and humane solution to the untenable Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon.
The sad reality, however, is that given the far-flung prospect of a satisfactory resolution of the Syrian conflict, it is unlikely that refugees will be able to safely return home anytime soon, or that there will be much to return to if and when they do. In the end, the outcome of the Syrian refugee question in Lebanon will be contingent upon a comprehensive regional settlement that addresses the root causes of the Syrian refugees’ flight and displacement and in the process ensures their safe and voluntary return.
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 credit: Shutterstock/Richard Juilliart