Be­tween forced dis­place­ment and forced re­turn

The fate of Syr­ian refugees in Le­banon

Executive Magazine - - Economics & Policy -

Re­cent news re­ports have sur­faced on a pos­si­ble United StatesRus­sia deal to ar­range for the re­turn of refugees to Syria— re­ports that co­in­cided both with the an­nounce­ment that thou­sands of Syr­i­ans have died in regime prisons, and with one of the worst mas­sacres in the con­flict, per­pe­trated by ISIS in the city of Swaida. The US-Russia deal has been wel­comed by Le­banese politi­cians, par­tic­u­larly those who have been schem­ing to repa­tri­ate Syr­i­ans for years now. But, un­sur­pris­ingly, the absence of a clear and co­her­ent strat­egy for repa­tri­a­tion by the Le­banese gov­ern­ment puts Syr­ian refugees at grave risk.

In June, UNHCR in­ter­viewed Syr­ian refugees in Ar­sal who had ex­pressed their will­ing­ness to go back to Syria in or­der to ver­ify that they had the doc­u­men­ta­tion needed for re­turn and to en­sure they were fully aware of the con­di­tions in their home coun­try. In re­sponse, care­taker For­eign Min­is­ter Ge­bran Bas­sil ac­cused the agency of im­ped­ing refugees’ free re­turn and or­dered a freeze on the re­newal of agency staff res­i­dency per­mits.

This tug of war raises two main ques­tions: What are the con­di­tions in Le­banon that are push­ing refugees to­ward re­turn­ing to Syria while the con­flict is on­go­ing and dan­gers per­sist? And what are the ob­sta­cles pre­vent­ing some Syr­i­ans from re­turn­ing freely to their homes?


Syr­i­ans be­gan flee­ing to Le­banon as early as 2011, but the Le­banese gov­ern­ment failed to pro­duce a sin­gle pol­icy re­sponse un­til 2014, lead- ing to ad-hoc prac­tices by donors and host com­mu­ni­ties.

By the end of 2014, the gov­ern­ment be­gan in­tro­duc­ing poli­cies to “re­duce the num­ber of dis­placed Syr­i­ans,” in­clud­ing clos­ing the bor­ders and re­quir­ing Syr­i­ans to ei­ther reg­is­ter with UNHCR and pledge not to work, or to se­cure a Le­banese spon­sor to re­main legally in the coun­try and pay a $200 res­i­dency per­mit fee every six months. In May 2015, the gov­ern­ment di­rected UNHCR to stop reg­is­ter­ing refugees. These con­di­tions put many Syr­i­ans in a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion: with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion, vul­ner­a­ble to ar­rest and de­ten­tion, and with lim­ited mo­bil­ity. Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have been im­ped­ing free­dom of move­ment as well, by im­pos­ing cur­fews on Syr­i­ans and even ex­pelling them from their towns.

In ad­di­tion to the dif­fi­cul­ties im­posed by the state, Syr­i­ans face dis­crim­i­na­tion and vi­o­lence on a day-to-day ba­sis. Refugee set­tle­ments have been set on fire, Syr­i­ans have been beaten in the streets, and camps are reg­u­larly raided by the Le­banese army. All the while, Le­banese politi­cians foster and fuel the ha­tred of Syr­i­ans, blam­ing them for the coun­try’s mis­eries and paint­ing them as ex­is­ten­tial and se­cu­rity threats.

De­spite the po­lar­iza­tion among Le­banese politi­cians re­gard­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Syria, there is a con­sen­sus that the Syr­ian refugees are a bur­den that Le­banon can­not bear. Politi­cians across the board have been ad­vo­cat­ing for the im­me­di­ate repa­tri­a­tion of refugees, and state of­fi­cials are be­gin­ning to take ac­tion. Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun made a state­ment in May declar­ing that Le­banon would seek a so­lu­tion re­gard­ing the refugee cri­sis with­out tak­ing into ac­count the pref­er­ences of the UN or the Euro­pean Union. This was fol­lowed by Bas­sil’s move, to freeze the res­i­dency per­mits of UNHCR staff, the lead­ing agency (de­spite its many short­com­ings) pro­vid­ing ser­vices for, and pro­tect­ing the in­ter­ests of, Syr­ian refugees. While UNHCR main­tains that there are no safe zones in Syria as of yet, Le­banon’s Gen­eral Se­cu­rity has be­gun

fa­cil­i­tat­ing the re­turn of hun­dreds of refugees from Ar­sal and nearby towns. This process has been mon­i­tored by UNHCR to en­sure that the re­turns are vol­un­tary. Hezbol­lah has also es­tab­lished cen­ters to or­ga­nize the re­turn of Syr­i­ans to their homes in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Syr­ian regime.


As the sit­u­a­tion for Syr­ian refugees in Le­banon be­comes more and more un­bear­able, con­di­tions for them back home re­main trou­bling. Since 2012, the Syr­ian regime has been tak­ing de­lib­er­ate measures that would ef­fec­tively make the sit­u­a­tion for re­turn­ing Syr­i­ans ex­tremely dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous.


Syr­ian males aged 18 to 42 must serve in the Syr­ian Armed Forces. While ex­emp­tions were al­lowed in the past, a de­cree is­sued in 2017 bans ex­emp­tions from mil­i­tary ser­vice. Re­fus­ing to serve in the Syr­ian army re­sults in im­pris­on­ment or an $8,000 fine, which most Syr­i­ans are un­able to pay, thus risk­ing hav­ing their as­sets seized by the regime.


Law No. 66 (2012) al­lowed for the cre­ation of de­vel­op­ment zones in spec­i­fied ar­eas across the coun­try. Un­der the pre­tense of re­de­vel­op­ing ar­eas cur­rently host­ing in­for­mal set­tle­ments or unau­tho­rized hous­ing, the law is ac­tu­ally be­ing used to ex­pro­pri­ate land from res­i­dents in ar­eas iden­ti­fied in the de­cree, which are mostly for­mer op­po­si­tion strongholds such as Daraya and Ghouta.

Law No. 10 (2018), passed in April, speeds up the above process. This law stip­u­lates the des­ig­na­tion of de­vel­op­ment or re­con­struc­tion zones, re­quir­ing lo­cal au­thor­i­ties to re­quest a list of prop­erty own­ers from pub­lic real es­tate au­thor­i­ties. Those whose have prop­erty within these zones but are not reg­is­tered on the list are notified by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and must present proof of prop­erty within 30 days. If they are suc­cess­ful in pro­vid­ing proof, they get shares of the re­de­vel­op­ment project; oth­er­wise, own­er­ship re­verts to the lo­cal author­ity in the prov­ince, town, or city where the prop­erty is lo­cated. Hu­man Rights Watch has pub­lished a de­tailed Q&A that ex­plains the law and its im­pli­ca­tions.

These laws, cou­pled with sys­tem­atic de­struc­tion of land reg­istries by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, fully equip the regime to dis­pos­sess hun­dreds of thou­sands of Syr­ian fam­i­lies. Re­ports in­di­cate that the regime has al­ready be­gun re­con­struc­tion in ar­eas south of Da­m­as­cus.


Syr­ian of­fi­cials have made sev­eral pub­lic state­ments that re­veal their hos­til­ity to­ward refugees. On Au­gust 20, 2017, at the open­ing cer­e­mony of a con­fer­ence held by Syria’s for­eign min­istry, Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad gave a speech in which he said: “It’s true that we lost the best of our young men as well as our in­fra­struc­ture, but in re­turn we gained a health­ier, more ho­mo­ge­neous so­ci­ety.” On an­other oc­ca­sion, As­sad stated his be­lief that some refugees are ter­ror­ists.

In Septem­ber 2017, a video of Is­sam Zahred­dine, a com­man­der in the Syr­ian Armed Forces, went vi­ral. In the video, Zahred­dine threat­ens refugees against re­turn­ing, say­ing: “To ev­ery­one who fled Syria to other coun­tries, please do not re­turn. If the gov­ern­ment for­gives you, we will not. I ad­vise you not to come back.” Zahred­dine later clar­i­fied that his re­marks were meant for rebels and ISIS fol­low­ers, but that clar­i­fi­ca­tion should be taken with a grain of salt given his bloody track record in the war up un­til his death in Oc­to­ber 2017. Along sim­i­lar lines, leaked in­for­ma­tion from a meet­ing of toprank­ing army of­fi­cers just last month re­ported the fol­low­ing state­ment by the head of the Syr­ian Air Force In­tel­li­gence ad­min­is­tra­tion, Gen­eral Jamil Al-Has­san: “A Syria with 10 mil­lion trust­wor­thy peo­ple obe­di­ent to the lead­er­ship is bet­ter than a Syria with 30 mil­lion van­dals.”


Con­sid­er­ing the un­wel­com­ing poli­cies in Le­banon and the treach­er­ous con­di­tions in Syria, what is the fate of Syr­ian refugees, specif­i­cally those who op­pose the As­sad regime? Un­til now, the re­turn cham­pi­oned by Le­banese politi­cians im­plies re­turn to a fas­cist regime that has caused the largest refugee cri­sis since the Se­cond World War and un­apolo­get­i­cally com­mit­ted count­less war crimes. While Le­banese politi­cians con­tinue to fo­cus on repa­tri­a­tion, they are fail­ing to ac­knowl­edge the ma­jor bar­ri­ers pre­vent­ing Syr­i­ans from re­turn­ing home: the As­sad regime and on­go­ing mass vi­o­lence.

We can­not speak of safe, dig­ni­fied, and sus­tain­able re­turns with­out de­mand­ing jus­tice and ac­count­abil­ity. Regime change and tri­als for those who com­mit­ted war crimes over the span of the last seven years are a long way off, and all ev­i­dence cur­rently points to­ward the As­sad regime re­tain­ing power. Any strat­egy must there­fore pri­or­i­tize the safety of Syr­i­ans who are likely to be de­tained, tor­tured, and killed for their po­lit­i­cal views upon re­turn, or sim­ply de­nied en­try to Syria al­to­gether. Le­banese pol­icy mak­ers must take into ac­count that Syr­i­ans re­sid­ing in Le­banon are not a ho­moge­nous en­tity, and some may never be able to re­turn to their homes. Those Syr­i­ans should not be forced to choose be­tween a bru­tal regime that will per­se­cute them and a coun­try that strips away their rights and dig­nity. It is time for Le­banon to adopt clear poli­cies on asy­lum, re­set­tle­ment, and re­turn that en­sure the right of all Syr­i­ans to lead a safe and dig­ni­fied life.

JOUMANA TAL­HOUK is a re­searcher at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut’s Depart­ment of Po­lit­i­cal Stud­ies and Pub­lic Ad­min­is­tra­tion and a fem­i­nist youth ac­tivist.

Syr­ian refugees pack their be­long­ings as they pre­pare to be trans­ported out of the south­ern Le­banese vil­lage of She­baa on July 28, 2018, to re­turn back to Syria.

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