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Opinion

The tragic case of Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Lebanon wants the refugees out, but Syria does not want them back in.

A young Syrian refugee takes a rest at a firewood distribution point at Idomeni refugee camp on May 3, 2016. Photo: Gili Yaari/Flash90
A young Syrian refugee takes a rest at a firewood distribution point at Idomeni refugee camp on May 3, 2016. Photo: Gili Yaari/Flash90
Jacques Neriah. Credit: Twitter.
Jacques Neriah
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly a foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

Electing a president and nominating a government to replace the caretaker government that governs Lebanon since the vacancy of the presidency in Oct. 2023 are topics of utmost interest to all Lebanese.

However, this is not the most important topic of discussion compared to the existential threat to Lebanon’s national fabric represented by the presence of masses of Syrian refugees who flocked into Lebanon with the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian nationals fled from the terror initiated by the Assad regime against whoever dared to challenge it.

The issue of the Syrian refugees is at the top of the Lebanese political agenda and is being addressed by politicians, opinion-makers and social media alike, making it the number-one problem of the Lebanese state.

The overarching dilemma is not the massive explosion at the port of Beirut in Aug. 2020 which destroyed a third of the Lebanese capital, the devastated economy, the shortcomings of the judicial system in dealing with “phantom” culprits who are never brought to justice, the crumbling economy, the threat of Hezbollah to start a war with Israel that would bring devastation on Lebanon, nor the paralysis of the political system by the same Shiite Iranian proxy.

The Syrian refugees are by far the issue that unites all Lebanese. Historically, they are considered by the Lebanese as a labor workforce and servants in households and businesses, and are detested by the Lebanese who experienced a 30-year military presence and occupation by Syria (1976-2005).

Today, the Syrian refugees could not expect any better treatment by the Lebanese. Moreover, amid an unprecedented economic crisis that has pushed most of Lebanon into poverty, anti-Syrian sentiment has grown disproportionately, while the Lebanese authorities call for refugees to return to Syria and have instructed security forces to wage a campaign of organized deportation to Syria since the beginning of 2023.

Syrian refugees are blamed for the economic crisis hitting Lebanon, but it is the Syrian refugees who are suffering. Thirty percent of school-age children have never attended school, while about 30,000 refugee children are engaged in child labor. The human and sex trafficking of Syrians in Lebanon is rife. One in five girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is married. Nine out of ten refugees live in extreme poverty. In June 2023, more than 50% of Syrian refugee families were food insecure.

A flagrant example of the hostile, racist and apartheid-like attitude can be found in a decree published by the mayor of Ras Baalbeck on Nov. 10, 2021. According to the decree, the salary of a Syrian worker should be limited to 40,000 Lebanese pounds ($2.67) for a seven-hour working day. A Syrian woman working in a household would be paid 10,000 Lebanese pounds per hour ($0.60). Syrians living in Ras Baalbeck are forbidden to receive at night guests from other areas. Syrian refugees must abide by a curfew from 7 pm until 6 am the next day.

Syrian refugees in the refugee camps have to pay rent for their cramped tent dwellings, costing $20 per month—the total amount they receive from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Yet, they are still the object of jealousy by the Lebanese.

Since the Damascus regime regained control of most of Syria with the active help of Russia, Iran and Iran’s proxies, and the end of hostilities is within sight, the main host countries are trying to expel refugees.

The anti-refugee rhetoric has exacerbated the domestic debate in Lebanon, leading to some landlords exploiting refugees by charging inflated rents in U.S. dollars. Some landlords even evict refugees despite regular rent payments, and without signed contracts, refugees struggle to provide proof of their lease.

Additionally, unverified reports suggest that bribes may be exchanged between refugees and local authorities for the necessary documentation to remain in Lebanon.

According to unconfirmed rumors (and there are plenty of these malicious rumors circulating in Lebanon), Lebanese citizens are renting refugee certificates from refugees: These papers grant the holder the right to obtain medical treatment and medicines and even to undergo surgery for free. The rental fee ranges from $100 a day up to several thousand dollars, if needed for surgery. Without the refugee documents, ordinary Lebanese would have to pay a fortune for these treatments, or not be able to obtain them at all due to the shortage of doctors and medicines.

There are also reports about Syrian refugees who live in their homes in Syria but enter Lebanon once a week to receive food packages or medicines to which their refugee status entitles them. While such cases are apparently few, that is all it takes to create the image of “the rich refugee” who is sucking Lebanon’s blood, and the manipulator who is stealing medicines from impoverished Lebanese citizens or exploiting his status to profit from their suffering.

In the context of the campaign conducted by the Lebanese authorities who aim to deport them en masse back to Syria, the real issue the Syrian refugees are confronting is to what extent their life is safe and their former dwellings are there to receive them.

According to recently published reports, hundreds and possibly thousands of homes belonging to Syrians who fled the country have been stolen by people from the Assad regime—military commanders or agents who have seized abandoned houses. Syrians who were expelled back to Syria from Lebanon report that they were arrested and interrogated by Syrian army forces, with anyone of military age being compelled to enlist.

Once across the border, some of the men have disappeared into Syrian custody—detained by authorities for past political activity or evasion of army conscription, according to human rights groups, who are calling for a halt to what they say are unlawful deportations. Refugees returning to Syria are being subjected to killings and forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, sexual violence and other human rights violations.

Lebanese authorities have long pushed for Syrian refugees to return, and have made several repatriation efforts they describe as voluntary, but which rights groups say are forced.

Lebanon has deported dozens of Syrians back to the war-torn country they fled from as anti-Syrian sentiment grows amid a dire economic crisis. Lebanon’s army intelligence units had been cracking down on undocumented Syrians, arresting them and handing them to border guards, who then expelled them from Lebanon.

According to Amnesty International, “Lebanon has pursued an aggressive returns agenda, with decrees and regulations designed to make Syrian refugees’ lives difficult and to pressure them to leave. They have forced Syrian refugees to dismantle their concrete shelters, imposed curfews and evicted refugees from some municipalities, obstructed the renewal of residency permits, and summarily deported thousands of Syrian refugees.”

However, Lebanon is facing a big hurdle: The Syrian regime conducts a very severe vetting of the Syrians asking to return and specifically concentrates on those of army enlistment age. Then there is the political dispute within Lebanon: To send the refugees back, the Lebanese government must reach an agreement with the Syrian government. A memorandum of understanding was signed between the two states in 2019, but the Covid pandemic did not allow its implementation. The Lebanese government is trying today to revive this understanding with little success.

Opponents of the plan argue that any coordination with the Syrian government lends legitimacy to the regime and support for its claim that Syria may now be considered a safe country where returning citizens face no danger.

Lebanese are aware that they are prohibited from sending anyone back to a country where they are at risk of persecution. However, despite the government’s promise of returning only Syrian refugees who entered illegally, documented evidence shows that deportations include both registered and unregistered refugees. By deporting them, Lebanon violates the principle of non-refoulment, which prohibits sending individuals back to a country where they may face torture, cruel treatment or other forms of harm.

The Lebanese authorities are not impressed by Amnesty International’s warnings that by deporting refugees who would be subject to mortal danger in their homeland Lebanon is breaking international law and violating conventions that Lebanon has signed. The aid organizations and the refugees themselves are seen as a mere backdrop to the political show.

The Lebanese authorities differ from the international bodies tasked with dealing with the settling of refugees worldwide. While the international bodies (especially UNHCR) claim that more than 800,000 are registered with the U.N.—the highest number of refugees per capita in the world—the Lebanese Minister for the Displaced, Issam Sharaf El-Din, told Al Jazeera TV in an interview that the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon was 2.3 million.

Such a number is probably inflated for obvious reasons. Even if we accept the number of 1.5 million refugees that appears in almost every publication and on social media, it is still an enormous burden in a country that officially claims to be populated by 3.5 million Lebanese, while almost 15 million Lebanese live in the Lebanese diaspora scattered over five continents.

The number of Syrian refugees does not include the half a million Palestinians claimed by the Lebanese authorities to have entered Lebanon following the Arab war with Israel in 1948, nor Armenians, Kurds, Melkites, Assyrians or Yazidis, who established themselves in Lebanon together with scores of Arab political opponents seeking asylum after fleeing persecution in their countries of origin. This number also does not include almost 350,000 foreign workers from India, Sri Lanka and other Asian countries who mostly live and work illegally in Lebanon, unprotected by the Lebanese judicial system.

According to Sharaf El-Din, since 2011 Lebanon has received $11 billion from the international community to assist the refugees while the Lebanese treasury has spent $30 billion for the same purpose, putting an unbearable strain on the Lebanese economy and being one of the reasons for its economic collapse.

Moreover, the blame for preventing the return of the Syrian refugees to Syria is to be put on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, a body which, according to the minister, is not facilitating the return because of political reasons originating from the donor countries which still consider Assad’s regime as a pariah not to be trusted.

The minister chose purposely to ignore the commitments signed by Lebanon and the fact that the conditions in Syria are not ripe for the return of those refugees who could face the death penalty, torture and extortion.

Realizing that the Syrian refugees in Lebanon “are here to stay,” the Lebanese authorities know very well that even at a non-stop pace of 15,000 Syrians per month returning to Syria, which once was considered feasible in Lebanon, it will take years to restore the status quo ante. The experience of Lebanon in that specific field has shown that Lebanon will continue to treat the Syrian refugees as it has treated the other refugees who have arrived in Lebanon since 1948 and earlier and were never assimilated or integrated into Lebanese society.

Having said that, it is obvious that the Lebanese are trying to convince donor countries that they must receive constant financial assistance, bearing in mind the economic disaster in Lebanon.

In fact, it is all about money. Abbas Ibrahim, the former head of Lebanon’s General Security, said the deportations are effectively an appeal for Western countries’ assistance: “Come and pay, come and do something for us, so that we slow down” the deportations.

International donors meeting in Brussels at the beginning of June said they would commit $10.3 billion in aid for millions of Syrians battered by war, poverty and hunger, both at home and as refugees abroad. Lebanon knows very well that it is not the only needy child in town. There are others with much more pressing needs: The five million Ukrainian refugees and over seven million displaced because of the war with Russia, the civil war in Sudan that has created another refugee problem and food shortages all over the world following the Covid pandemic.

Nevertheless, Lebanon is claiming that it must be compensated generously. Some Lebanese observers state that Lebanon rightly deserves at least $25 per day for every Syrian refugee in Lebanon. This is over $10 billion per year that would most probably end up in the pockets of Lebanese politicians.

Without this compensation, it is more than likely that the Lebanese government will continue its harassment of Syrian refugees, bearing in mind that the Assad regime has no interest in letting those refugees return to their former and now newly occupied dwellings.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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