Lebanon: An Unwilling Host for Syrian Refugees

MDC Summer 2016 intern Hannah Nowikow explores the issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Syrian refugees harvesting olives in Lebanon. Credit:  pixabay.com

Following the civil war in Syria which has killed over 300,000 and displaced more than half of Syria’s 22 million citizens since 2011, Syria’s much smaller neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan have been overwhelmed with refugees. Lebanon, whose political system has been plagued by deep divisions, now boasts that roughly one in every four people residing in its territory is a displaced person of Syrian descent. Even the most sympathetic politicians have been unable to muster up any kind of medium-term plan as a result, and many political figures have openly expressed anti-refugee sentiments. It bears mentioning that it was only on August 17th, 2010 that Lebanese politicians managed to pass some sort of progressive legislation to help Palestinian “refugees” (i.e., descendants of Palestinian refugees who possessed very few civil or labor rights from their arrival in 1948 and after 1970). The enforced ambiguity of status by the inaction and incompetence of the Lebanese political establish puts pressure on Syrians to either return to Syria or endure a lifestyle lacking fundamental civil rights in Lebanon. If the treatment and immersion of Palestinian refugees into Lebanese society is any indication of future policy for the 1.1 million Syrian refugees formally registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), then the path to political, societal and economic equality for these newly displaced individuals will be plagued with legal challenges and continued socioeconomic deficiencies for decades to come. 

As a result of decisive conflicts between the sectarian groups within parliament, no president has been elected into power since May 2014, leaving Lebanese NGO’s and local governments the task of formulating policy to mitigate the crisis at hand. Although the ruling political elite, divided along the lines of Christian, Sunni and Shi’ite sects, has contrasting means of dealing with the refugee crisis that would further their own respective agendas, the Lebanese municipalities have been informally given unregulated authority. Subsequently, since August 2014, more than 45 restrictive curfews have been enforced upon the refugees by local police forces. Even though municipalities do not have the jurisdiction to administer such legal policy, given the current national political deadlock, there is no one to disband the measures. Further compounding the issue of municipalities “taking the law into their own hands” is demonstrated following suicide bombings in late June in the Christian village, al-Qaa, after which the municipalities invoked more curfews. Such measures by the government serve to solidify to the Lebanese public that refugees are the source of all the problems within the country. 

Initially, Lebanon was commended for its humanitarian act of extending an “open-door” immigration policy toward displaced Syrians, and the country even went a step further as to offer the new residents the same domestic rights given to other foreigners. However, increasingly more stringent restrictions regarding who was permitted entrance were enacted and some even accuse the Lebanese policy as being constructed in such a way that purposefully aimed to exploit the incoming Syrians. The difficulty related to renewing residency permits has directly caused the number of Syrians lacking legal residency papers to increase. Although international law mandates that no person-seeking asylum can be forced to return the place in which their lives are threatened, Lebanon has not technically established any official refugee policy and consequently is able to treat Syrians as foreigners susceptible to exploitation, deportation and arrest. 

Some analysts argue that the no long-term solution will be formulated in order to prevent a Sunni majority of seats within Parliament. However, Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, Gebran Bassil instead contests that the creation of a long-term solution is not hindered by differing sectarian political agendas, but rather the result of Lebanon being a country unable to accommodate the basic needs of so many vulnerable individuals. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Bassil says, “But are we handling it? Not at all. We are suffering. We are losing a lot of security. In economic terms, we are spending more than $10 billion on the refugee crisis. We are suffering a lot, and the promises of the international community have not been met.” Given the current state of the Lebanese central government and economy, this is a relatively valid point. 

Lebanon’s history regarding Palestinian refugees and the lasting impression it has left on the country, the majority weighs heavily on future policy for displaced Syrians, even if the circumstances are different and it is not inevitable that the country will repeat its former mistakes. For instance, despite having received the right to access some forms of formal employment, poverty and unemployment still obstruct Palestinian refugees from a satisfactory way of living. Additionally, Lebanese citizens still harbor animosity toward these refugees exhibited through discrimination and marginalization in all aspects of society. 

The international community has to step up in terms of funding given to the government, specifically in areas related to improving access to education, water and electricity. However, it is worthy note that given the lack of political cohesiveness, the potential for corruption is increased and subsequently the misused allocation of international aid is definitely in the realm of possibility. Furthermore, giving Syrians legal residency and access to formal employment will serve to benefit all members of the country. Legal residency will allow Syrians the freedom to search for work in areas beyond their checkpoints, without fear of detainment or fines. If unemployment rates decrease, then parents will be able to sustain their families without being forced to make their child work, thus lowering child labor and increasing enrollment in non-formal and formal education. 

Who is to blame? Is it the international community that has not provided the already fragile Lebanon with adequate support to properly deal with the influx of 1.5 million refugees into the country? Is it the fault of the Lebanese government for not permitting the legal residency of these displaced individuals because that would cause a shift in the demographic in favor of a Sunni Muslim majority? Wherever or whoever the finger should be pointed at does not change the dire situation of these severely impoverished and neglected human beings.