Refugee rights not up for de­bate

Le­banon can­not force re­turns with­out con­tra­ven­ing in­ter­na­tional law

Executive Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By Bas­sam Khawaja

In the past month, Le­banon has seen a num­ber of trou­bling de­vel­op­ments re­gard­ing the pres­ence of Syr­ian refugees, with lead­ing politi­cians height­en­ing calls for the re­turn of refugees to Syria and mak­ing un­founded ac­cu­sa­tions of an in­ter­na­tional con­spir­acy to set­tle them in Le­banon.

As coun­tries around the world have turned their backs on refugees, Le­banon is host­ing an es­ti­mated 1.5 mil­lion Syr­i­ans, by far the high­est num­ber of refugees per capita in the world. At the Friends of Syria donor con­fer­ence in Brus­sels in April, Le­banon made im­por­tant com­mit­ments to refugee rights, in­clud­ing on res­i­dency sta­tus, ed­u­ca­tion, le­gal pro­tec­tion, and non­re­foule­ment—the pro­hi­bi­tion on re­turn­ing peo­ple to places where they are in dan­ger. These could have a real and pos­i­tive im­pact on the lives of Syr­i­ans in Le­banon—if they are car­ried out. But since then, things have taken a turn for the worse.

Fol­low­ing Brus­sels, Le­banon’s pres­i­dent, speaker of par­lia­ment, and for­eign min­is­ter slammed a joint EU-UN state­ment that men­tioned a “choice to stay,” say­ing that it sug­gested per­ma­nent set­tle­ment in Le­banon. But that phrase was part of a rec­om­men­da­tion that only re­lated to peo­ple dis­placed within Syria, not to refugees in Le­banon.

Just af­ter Le­banon recom­mit­ted in Brus­sels to not forcibly re­turn­ing refugees, politi­cians turned up the vol­ume for their re­turn. Al­though not call­ing out­right for forced re­turns, Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun said he would seek a refugee “so­lu­tion” with­out the UN. He also called on the United Arab Emir- ates, Saudi Ara­bia, and Egypt to help fa­cil­i­tate refugee re­turns. The For­eign Min­istry, mean­while, sum­moned the UN refugee agency’s coun­try rep­re­sen­ta­tive and ac­cused the agency of scare­mon­ger­ing af­ter UNHCR put out a neu­tral state­ment say­ing it was not in­volved in the re­turn of 500 refugees to Syria in April.

Most re­cently the caretaker For­eign Min­is­ter Ge­bran Bas­sil gave UNHCR two weeks to de­velop a strat­egy for refugee re­turns and al­leged that it is try­ing to dis­cour­age re­turns to Syria. He then froze res­i­dency per­mits for UNHCR staff in Le­banon—with­out the govern­ment’s back­ing—ac­cus­ing UNHCR of hin­der­ing the re­turn of Syr­ian refugees by “spread­ing fear.”

Bas­sil claimed that by in­ter­view­ing Syr­i­ans prior to their re­turn, UNHCR was caus­ing refugees to fear re­turn­ing to Syria. But these in­ter­views are part of UNHCR’s core man­date to pro­tect the rights of refugees and en­sure they are aware of the con­di­tions in Syria so they can make an in­formed choice about whether to re­turn at this time. UNHCR can­not “en­cour­age” or fa­cil­i­tate re­turns of refugees be­fore it has as­sessed that con­di­tions in Syria are safe.

The at­tacks on UNHCR are a trou­bling es­ca­la­tion of pres­sure on refugees. Since the be­gin­ning of the cri­sis, Le­banon has gen­er­ally re­spected the in­ter­na­tional pro­hi­bi­tion on re­foule­ment, and has—with some ex­cep­tions—not forcibly re­turned refu-

gees to Syria. But while there is no ev­i­dence that re­cent re­turns of Syr­i­ans have been forced, Hu­man Rights Watch found that re­turns from Ar­sal last year were not vol­un­tary, but were the re­sult of harsh liv­ing con­di­tions, largely as a re­sult of Lebanese poli­cies that have re­stricted le­gal res­i­dency, work, and free­dom of move­ment.

Refugees who want to re­turn to Syria vol­un­tar­ily are free to do so. But un­der in­ter­na­tional law, Le­banon can­not force or co­erce refugees or asy­lum seek­ers who have a well­founded fear of per­se­cu­tion in Syria to re­turn. Lebanese politi­cians have claimed that ar­eas in Syria are “safe,” but this ig­nores the volatile na­ture of the Syr­ian con­flict, in which more than 900,000 peo­ple have been dis­placed within Syria in the first four months of 2018 alone.

And aside from gen­er­al­ized con­flict, many refugees fear ar­rest, tor­ture, and forced con­scrip­tion if they re­turn. These fears are well founded. Hu­man Rights Watch has for years doc­u­mented wide­spread pat­terns of ar­bi­trary de­ten­tion, tor­ture, and deaths in Syr­ian govern­ment cus­tody. If Lebanese politi­cians are so ea­ger for refugees to re­turn, they should stop us­ing UNHCR as a scape­goat and fo­cus their ef­forts to ad­dress­ing the real bar­ri­ers to re­turn, in­clud­ing Syria’s un­law­ful de­ten­tion prac­tices and the govern­ment’s use of ur­ban plan­ning laws to seize pri­vate prop­erty with­out due process or com­pen­sa­tion.

Lebanese politi­cians have jus­ti­fied these calls for re­turn by claim­ing that Syr­i­ans are hurt­ing Le­banon’s econ­omy—ar­gu­ments made largely with­out ev­i­dence. The pres­ence of Syr­i­ans has cer­tainly put a strain on ser­vices in­clud­ing waste man­age­ment, elec­tric­ity, and ed­u­ca­tion, but these ser­vices have also been bol­stered with in­ter­na­tional aid in re­sponse to the cri­sis. And while the war in Syria has cer­tainly taken a toll on Le­banon’s econ­omy, there is lit­tle con­crete ev­i­dence that the pres­ence of refugees has done the same. Mean­while, refugees con­tribute to Le­banon’s econ­omy, pay­ing for rent, phone bills, and shop­ping in Lebanese stores—aside from the bil­lions of dol­lars in hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to Le­banon.

But de­spite aid to Le­banon, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s strik­ing fail­ure to re­set­tle mean­ing­ful num­bers of refugees has con­trib­uted to the cri­sis here. Syr­ian refugee ad­mis­sions to the US have dropped al­most to zero. The Euro­pean Union is still hid­ing be­hind the EU-Turkey deal to keep refugees out of Europe.

There is an ur­gent need for a fact­based dis­cus­sion around the is­sue of refugees in Le­banon. The govern­ment should keep the com­mit­ments it made in Brus­sels and end at­tacks on the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity and base­less spec­u­la­tion about an in­ter­na­tional plan to set­tle refugees in Le­banon. Men­while, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity should step up both hu­man­i­tar­ian aid and re­set­tle­ment of refugees to demon­strate that Le­banon has not been aban­doned to bear this bur­den on its own.

There is an ur­gent need for a fact-based dis­cus­sion around the is­sue of refugees in Le­banon.

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