The official repatriation of Syrian refugees from Lebanon started on October 26, with the Lebanese General Security announcing that 750 refugees were expected to return to Syria on that day. This operation took place two weeks after Lebanese President Michel Aoun announced that the country would soon start sending Syrian refugees back home, after months of various plans put forward by several members of the Lebanese authorities.
The plan comes in contrast with a move spearheaded by Lebanese caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charafeddine to forcefully repatriate refugees back in August. Lebanon’s government said the president’s announcement was part of an old plan to send refugees back “voluntarily,” and that refugees wishing to return will have to sign up at the General Security to ensure their safe return. The details of how “voluntary” those repatriations will be are still not clear.
In what was then the heaviest escalation in years, Charafeddine visited Damascus back in August, and met with Syrian Minister of Local Administration and Environment Hussein Makhlouf with whom he decided on a plan to repatriate 15,000 refugees from Lebanon to Syria per month. Charafeddine’s announcement was accompanied by an increased wave of scapegoating and targeting of Syrian refugees, with citizens and officials blaming them for allegedly worsening Lebanon’s economic freefall.
His plan, however, was unofficially postponed after Prime Minister Najib Mikati gathered a ministerial committee to follow up on the return of displaced Syrians to their country in safety and dignity, which excluded Charafeddine. Mikati at the time had said that Charafeddine’s acts were outside of his mandate, and that the ministries of social affairs and foreign affairs were the ones in charge of it. Mikati’s main issue was that Charafeddine’s plan did not receive approval from the committee, lightly criticizing the minister of the displaced for acting on his own. The prime minister did, however, reiterate his and the committee’s support for the eventual repatriation of Syrian refugees. Charafeddine, on the other hand, claims Mikati backed down due to external pressure.
A dangerous journey
Human Rights Watch documented that at least 282,283 Syrian refugees have willingly returned to Syria from various countries, including Lebanon, between 2016 and May 2021. Those interviewed cited economic difficulties in host countries, as well as barriers in getting jobs and housing. Lebanon’s financial collapse made it especially difficult for Syrians, who were already economically marginalized, to get by.
Syrians who have willingly returned to their country from Lebanon or Jordan have often reported cases of arrest, torture, kidnappings, disappearances, and even killings. While many areas in government-held Syria are not battlegrounds anymore, Human Rights Watch found that the Syrian government continues to impose heavy pressure on those who came back.
Charafeddine claims that Syria will pardon refugees who return to their homeland, but given the Syrian regime’s track record, one cannot rely on simple words. Not too long ago was the case of Mazen Hamada who returned to Syria after years of anti-government activism abroad. Hamada claimed he was ready to reconcile with the government, and a friend of his said the Syrian government assured him he was not on their wanted list. However, after arriving at Damascus airport, he was stopped by the Syrian intelligence agency. His whereabouts are unknown to this day and he has become yet another case of forced disappearances. Charafeddine, on the other hand, suggested opposition activists be deported to other countries or pledge to their government that they “not engage in any negative action in Syrian territory.”
In addition to the political issues, cities and towns that were subject to battles and bombings are a shadow of their former selves. Reconstruction in Syria has been very slow, with the government accused of favoring loyalist areas while keeping former opposition strongholds in rubble, as a form of punishment. Syrians originally from these areas will not have much to return to, as several have already complained of increasingly difficult living conditions in the areas they came back to.
Syrians in Lebanon: economic lies and realities
While officials in Lebanon often claim refugees are behind many of the country’s economic hardships, the reality is much more complicated than that.
Syria’s conflict was one of the elements that negatively impacted Lebanon’s economy over the past decades, as investors pulled their money out, fearing the country was too close to the fighting on the ground. The conflict also meant that land economic routes for Lebanon were completely shut down. However, those are the effects of the war itself, not the refugees escaping it.
The Lebanese authorities estimate that there are around 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. According to a 2020 UN report, 9 out of 10 Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty (up from 55 percent in 2019), despite the amount of aid money Lebanon received to support refugees. Some of the aid was even recently lost to the country’s banks due to inconsistent exchange rates against the dollar.
The percentage of Syrians with residency permits, which provide them with more legal protections and easier access to jobs, has also decreased since Lebanon tightened its rules against Syrians. Indeed, in 2014, the Lebanese government increasingly sealed its border with Syria, making it much harder for refugees to enter the country. This was done to decrease the number of refugees in the country. This development made it more difficult for Syrians to secure a clear legal status, meaning they started facing major restrictions on freedom of movement and access to basic services, compounded with being considered “illegally” present in Lebanon.
These developments mean that Syrians largely work in the informal sector, barring them from job security or financial protection. Nonetheless, they have become an essential, but highly unprotected component of the Lebanese workforce, and important contributors to Lebanon’s economy ever since their arrival. Refugees pay for rent and food in many cases in Lebanon, meaning that only a small portion of their revenue might be spent outside of Lebanon as remittances to their families back home.
This has not stopped most of Lebanon’s political parties and religious authorities from using refugees as a scapegoat for the many issues the country is facing. At least one member of parliament belonging to the “Forces of Change” movement, which claims to represent the country’s anti-establishment movement, recently blamed the presence of refugees for the security tensions in the northeastern town of Arsal.
With the difficulties faced by all populations in Lebanon, tensions have been rising as some Lebanese accuse Syrians of exploiting their stay by receiving foreign aid in dollars and using the country’s resources. Last month, as Lebanon was going through a bread crisis, several clashes took place in which Lebanese citizens accused Syrians of taking bread, which they believe should be given to them first. Some bakeries even started segregating the bread queues between Lebanese nationals and foreigners.
In this time of unprecedented collapse, international aid programs could further enlarge their scope of work to include more vulnerable Lebanese populations as well as refugees. This has been done in some cases but having active programs focusing on every vulnerable person in the country, regardless of nationality, could help reduce tensions.
Donor fatigue has significantly reduced the aid sent to refugees and organizations supporting them. Compounded with many countries’ refusal to take in more Syrian refugees, the issues surrounding Syrians who escape their war-torn home is an international responsibility.
Forced deportations should be openly condemned, and repatriation programs only considered if the safety and wellbeing of those returning can be ensured. The status of Syrians in Lebanon remains highly unstable. Lebanon to this day is facing the consequences of its “policy of no policy” at the beginning of the refugee crisis, and any plan regarding the conditions of Syrians in the country must abide by international treaties and standards.
Nader Durgham is a journalist and researcher focusing on the Middle East.