Blog post by Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Director of the Institute for Migration Studies; Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Migration Studies, Lebanese American University and Global Fellow on Migration and Inequality, Centre for Policy Research, United Nations University

Introduction: Syrians, Refuge and Lebanon

Over a decade after the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Lebanon, similar to other countries across the MENA region, insists on treating Syrian refugees within its borders as temporary, unwelcome and in transit. For a long time, the Lebanese government remained almost entirely disengaged from the management of the Syrian refugee influx, ultimately placing this power in the hands of local municipalities, who themselves, continue to lack a comprehensive and unified strategy. The Lebanese government would not engage with Syrian refugees until 2014. The 2014 decision would see the approval of the ‘Policy Paper on Syrian Refugee Displacement’ – a paper outlining regulations preventing Syrians from entering Lebanon, and imposing increased restrictions on residency and work permits for Syrians already inside the country. Until early 2015, Lebanon maintained its open-border policy with Syria – permitting more than one million Syrian refugees to enter the country in the absence of a Lebanese strategy, policy or any form of regulation. Alongside closing its border in 2015, Lebanon would go on to request that UNHCR no longer register new refugees, with only “minor exceptions made for certain humanitarian cases”.

Prior to 2015, a longstanding 1991 agreement between Lebanon and Syria allowed for the circulation of goods and people across the border with very minimal administrative burdens. By virtue of this agreement, neither visa requirements nor passports were needed for border crossings. Syrians could remain in Lebanon for up to six months without a permit, and could obtain one-year residency for 200 USD if they wanted to stay. Often lumped into numbers circulating about Syrian refugees who entered the country after 2011, Syrians workers who were already living in Lebanon prior to the Syrian conflict were estimated to be as many as 600,000 across both informal and formal labor. Importantly, Lebanon prohibited the establishment of formal camps for Syrians, ultimately pushing Syrian refugees to settle in different types of shelters including perceivably ‘temporary’ informal tented settlements. Though these regulations were aimed at the reduction in the number of Syrians in Lebanon, as well as the discouragement of more Syrians from entering the country, Lebanon’s exclusionary approaches only further increased refugees’ vulnerability and backfired – eventually creating a state of permanent temporariness as the protracted crisis persisted.

After years of mismanagement, fragmented ad hoc directives, and lack of a national refugee policy, conversations on refugee return intersected with Lebanon’s inevitable decline in 2019, following decades of political and economic corruption. In 2019, Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council instructed security agencies to move forward in deporting Syrians entering Lebanon through “illegal border crossings.” According to an Amnesty International report, Lebanon’s General Security deported 6,002 Syrians in the second half of 2019, and 863 in 2020 –  with these deportations only halting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By late 2022, this plan had been conveniently revisited. Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of the Displaced announced a  plan to repatriate 15,000 Syrian refugees to Syria every month, insisting that “the war is over and the country has become safe” – albeit falling short in outlining how the end of the war and safety of the country had been determined. To date, a clear strategy attached to these plans has not been made public, nor has a comprehensive agreement between the Lebanese and Syrian government. Lebanese security and army officials said that Lebanese authorities did not coordinate recent deportation efforts with Damascus, and UNHCR remains excluded from this conversation and process as well.

Shaping Anti-Refugee Narratives, Disinformation and Public Sentiments

Lebanon’s broadcasting agencies do not seem compelled to partake in conversations on return for different groups of Syrian nationals in Lebanon in a nuanced manner. Following government suit, these agencies continue to strategically move the narrative from a humanitarian one, to a conversation on crimmigration and national security threats – ultimately, lumping all Syrian nationals together in referring to them as illegal, criminals and a “ticking time bomb ready to explode” (Lebanon’s last explosion had nothing to do with refugees). This approach by the country’s local broadcast media has had an important indirect impact on the violence propagated against the refugee community – as reports continue to surface about violent incidents and clashes between refugees and hosts.

Alongside propagating these false narratives, broadcast media leaves one important component out of reporting when discussing the refugee question – that is, the support international humanitarian organizations provide for Lebanon’s vulnerable host communities and the country’s public services. Broadcast media has also led misinformation campaigns about just how much financial support Syrian refugees receive per month, often inflating amounts to 150 USD/month baselessly. Conversely, official numbers provided by UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP) place this support at between 35-80 USD per month at most (paid exclusively in Lebanese Pounds).

Broadcast media is indeed not doing this alone through its own “reporting”. Political leadership continues to use different local channels to push forth increasingly alarming anti-refugee sentiments. Whilst drawing on the agreement between Turkiye and the EU, whereby the EU “[…] pays Turkiye for refugees,” a Lebanese politician called on the EU to either “pay us [Lebanon] for refugees,” or else “we [Lebanon] will throw them on boats or into the sea.” This is not an isolated incident, nor a new phenomenon. Lebanon’s broadcast media has additionally had no issue with providing a platform for those who compare the presence of Syrian refugees fleeing persecution to Syrian occupation of Lebanon, nor has it shied away from increasingly deceptive reporting that insists that “[…] the numbers confirm the following: the share that the corruption had in [Lebanon’s] collapse, is just as equal as the share that displacement has had.”

These sentiments have moved off the screen, or at least attempted to, in multiple cases. A protest that was scheduled for April 26 in front of the UNHCR offices in Beirut calling for the deportation of Syrian refugees from Lebanon was canceled, after Lebanon’s caretaker Interior Minister ordered the ISF to halt demonstration or counter-demonstration from taking place over fears of clashes between Syrians and Lebanese. In a separate call to action, Lebanon’s General Federation of Trade Unions announced a “National Campaign to Liberate Lebanon from the Syrian Demographic Occupation” on the premise that “[…] Syrian displacement in Lebanon has become an occupation, we are patriotic, and we refuse to sell Lebanon to non-Lebanese.”

Prosecution, Detention and Deportation

In 2018, Lebanon opened registration for “voluntary return” for Syrians. The Syrian government needed to approve these lists prior to Syrians’ departure. According to Lebanese officials, by 2020, 21,000 refugees had returned to Syria through this process. According to UNHCR, an estimated 76,500 Syrians have returned voluntarily from Lebanon since 2016, either Lebanon-aided or on their own. While conversations around return had largely been framed as voluntary and safe by the Lebanese government prior to April 2023, the voluntary nature of return has seemingly escaped the narrative in recent months.

Throughout the month of April, varying and fragmented estimates have circulated on Syrian deportations and arrests carried out by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). On April 5, 2023 the LAF reportedly detained 46 Syrian refugees in the Chouf region after home raids – many of which are still under investigation. According to multiple sources, between April 10 and 11, the LAF deported between 64 and 66 Syrian refugees in two separate incidents. The deportations were carried out following arbitrary security raids in a number of regions as part of LAF’s recent crackdown on individuals with expired residency or lack of legal documentation. The detainees were then transferred through the al-Masnaa border. In a separate incident, the LAF carried out mass forcible transfers of 35 Syrian refugees in the Wadi Khaled area in North Lebanon. Detainees were transferred to the Sarba military barracks in Jounieh before being moved to the Chadra checkpoint in Akkar, where they were reportedly handed over to Syria’s Fourth Division.

Later in April, the LAF arrested hundreds of Syrian refugees across Burj Hammoud, Chouf, Bar Elias, Aley and Zaleh. In many cases, those arrested reportedly included entire families and minors. Detainees were transferred to al-Masnaa border crossing or to the Jusiyah border crossing near Homs. Different sources insist that Assad forces arrested between two and four of the refugees deported, pushing them into compulsory military service. Since the beginning of April, at least 450 Syrian refugees have been detained, many of whom’s fate remains unknown. The Syrian Network for Human Rights insists that 168 Syrians have been returned in April alone. UNHCR has confirmed that across April, at least 13 raids have taken place to detain Syrians for future deportation – including those who are known and are registered with the UNHCR.

While Lebanon has infamously insisted on dodging the refugee definition (and the Refugee Convention) for decades now, it has long upheld the non-refoulement principle, and remains signatory to other international conventions that bind them to protecting refugees. Along these lines, and in the absence of legislation targeting refugees, a significant number of Syrians in Lebanon have had a precarious ‘legal status’ for over a decade – with the Lebanese government not only well-aware of this reality, but importantly, turning a blind eye to it until they want to leverage refugees at various points in political history. For over a decade, Syrian refugees arrested had been typically released days later – often let off with a “a written warning” to get their paperwork in order or mandating their return to Syria. Syrian refugees were very rarely actually deported, and even then only after conviction of a serious crime. Indeed, Syrian refugees that commit serious crimes in Lebanon should not see no legal action being taken against them; however, what crimes are we discussing here exactly?

A report from 2014 suggests that the General Directorate for Internal Security Forces (ISF) directed several heads of various police stations to “[…] ignore Syrian refugees who have entered the country illegally or failed to renew their residency visas.” As a consequence police pursuits were limited to those suspected of other crimes, such as drug dealing, theft and arms smuggling. It is a matter of public record that one judge halted the pursuit of a Syrian refugee who entered Lebanon irregularly on the grounds that “[…] the right to seek asylum is an inviolable and inalienable right.” So what has changed recently? One would argue, the times. Presently, Syrian refugees live in legal limbo as a direct result of the Lebanese government giving them little to no options to get their paperwork and documentation in order, or register with UNHCR. With no (or unrealistically expensive) ‘legal’ options available, on what basis are Syrian refugees being prosecuted? More importantly, what constitutes an actual crime in this conversation?

Persecution and the Responsibility to Protect: Who Was Syria Never Safe For?

Interestingly, Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of Social Affairs has shared that Syrians who “qualify” as refugees with UNHCR would not be deported – albeit the UN Agency has confirmed that UNHCR registered refugees have been. Importantly, this is one of the rare incidents (if not the only incident) where Lebanese officials have even entertained the thought of categorizing Syrians as refugees – having conventionally either opted for strategic categories of convenience, or for using the blanket “temporarily displaced” categorization for over a decade. Even more important to this conversation, is the understanding of persecution in the eyes of the Lebanese government. For it is at the intersection of the “category” the Lebanese government will be using, and the “working definition” of persecution it will be adopting, that conversations on the responsibility to protect lie explicitly.

While discussions on the persecution Syrians faced as a result of the Syrian conflict was never explicitly unpacked in Lebanon as part of their response to the Syrian influx, Lebanon upholding the non-refoulement principle is indicative that the Lebanese government did in fact factor in Syrians’ persecution. And while experts have repeatedly insisted that Lebanon is not bound by the 1951 Refugee Convention, that has never mattered, as the Convention is not exactly where persecution is defined. Persecution in the 1951 Convention is rather “[…] flexible, adaptable and sufficiently open in order to reflect ever-changing forms of persecution,” – ultimately rooted in conversations on well-founded fear on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Independent of whether or not Lebanon is signatory to the 1951 Convention, it has bound itself to an understanding of persecution (as well as a well-founded fear) by its mere upholding of customary international law and the non-refoulement principle, in addition to being signatory to other Conventions it is bound by. This pertinently includes the Convention Against Torture – which “[…] forbids the expulsion, return (refoulement), or extradition of individuals who face the danger of a specific sort of persecution, that is, torture.”

As the non-refoulement principle guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm, what has changed along these lines recently exactly? One could argue that the rationale for accepting refugees ten years ago has not changed, because the fate of refugees if they return has not changed. Refugees are still being persecuted, regardless of whether or not the nature of conflict itself has changed – in its intensity, its geographic reach, or its realities on the ground. The truth is that Syria remains unsafe for a number of reasons – all of which hold true under the non-refoulement principle, and all of which stand today, just as much as they stood in 2011 when Lebanon first committed to upholding this principle. Once again, based on the original rationale to let Syrian refugees into Lebanon, how and why has the Lebanese government determined that this rationale no longer applies? More importantly, who does the Lebanese government think it no longer applies to? It is not so much whether or not Syria is “safe,” but rather “safe for whom?”

The lack of a comprehensive domestic legal framework covering refugees has resulted in a series of patchwork politically driven directives and decisions which consistently changed over the years, and consistently failed at addressing protection concerns faced by refugees in all their diversity. And what this lack creates is ultimately a space where refugees are homogenized, and more importantly, an overall absence of an intersectional approach to refugee management. Reports highlight the fact that Syria remains a space of fear and uncertainty for Syrians, as testimonies describe everything from forced conscription, detention and torture, to forced disappearances and an overall sense of insecurity. Alongside the aforementioned, persecution on the grounds of religion, nationality, gender, membership in a particular social group and political opinion have long-formed part of the Syrian landscape. Syria has long been unsafe for critics of the Assad regime, Sunni nationals, LGBTIQ+ nationals, and human rights activists. In the absence of a conversation on intersectional and layered forms of persecution, how are we having conversations on safety?

Concluding Remarks: Selective Outrage and Scapegoatism

The artform that is the Lebanese selective outrage is center stage as we unpack aspects of the country’s anti-refugee narrative – importantly, its political scapegoatism and its timing. Conveniently, deportations and arrests of Syrian refugees coincide with the normalization of the country’s worsening economic crisis, the Lebanese Parliament’s postponement of the municipal elections, the dismissal of the Lebanese state’s lawsuit against Governor Riad Salameh on charges of embezzlement, the revelation that six Lebanese communications ministers were involved in a series of violations that squandered 113 million USD in public funds, the demands of retirees from the public sector for their pensions (where in protests, they were confronted with tear gas by riot police), as well as renewed demands from the families of the Beirut Blast victims to push for the resumption of investigations – and this has been April alone. Interestingly, none of these incidents received close to as much (if any) air time throughout this period – ultimately, pushing Lebanon’s general public to divert their outrage from where it is well-founded, towards the political elite and broadcast agencies’ newest target: vulnerable refugees.

Trump never had to actually build the wall; he only needed to build the wall in people’s minds to shape, construct and further anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments for political gain. A politics of convenience and divergence is not an exclusively-Lebanese phenomenon – nor is the creation (and then manipulation) of a culture of fear. In an important lesson in scapegoatism and selective outrage, we conclude that as the protracted Syrian refugee crisis persists, efforts aimed at excluding them from broader conversations on human rights, labor, economic integration and protection ultimately fail. Excluding Syrians from these conversations, propagating false narratives, limiting their access to information, as well as inciting violence at the local level between refugees and hosts only increases both sides’ vulnerability, reduces chances at successful (and safe) repatriation, and pushes durable solutions out of reach. Discussing refugee return in this manner will not solve the refugee crisis, nor will it solve poverty in Lebanon. It will only pit vulnerable groups who are each victims of corrupt governments against each other, and permit for the governments of Lebanon and Syria to evade responsibility and accountability towards their citizens. As conversations on integration of refugees to varying extents, even if temporary, remain absent from this space, escalating tensions at the local level will only continue to divert from the real problems. Lebanese people’s built up rage and frustration with the country’s ongoing decline is certainly justified. It is quite simply, misdirected.

This piece forms part of Dr. Diab’s broader work in the areas of safe return for Syrian refugees from Lebanon including her recent working paper and blog article for the United Nations University Center for Policy Research.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.