Katherine Hajiyianni reports from a special session in Parliament on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
On 30 January 2020, the South Asia and Middle East Forum hosted a special session on the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon in the House of Commons. Moderated by Chairman Khalid Nadeem, the forum brought together an eclectic but relevant group of people to look at the impact of the crisis on Lebanon.
Chairman Khalid Nadeem opened the special session by highlighting the heavy burden Lebanonis shouldering today. Approximately one third of the nation’s population are refugees: a condition already exerting considerable pressure on this small nation without added rising tensions between the Lebanese people and the government. Last October, this reached boiling point as civilians took to the streets in peaceful protest, leading to the dismantling of the government. With the country now once again in turmoil, and events in the wider Middle East dominating headlines, it is essential that the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the mounting strain this puts on the country is not forgotten.
Lebanese Ambassador Rami Mortada led the speakers, opening his presentation with a word of caution that the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis is relevant not only to Lebanon’s stability, but to that of the entire region and beyond. He spoke proudly of his people’s compassion at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, adopting without hesitation an open borders policy from a civilian level. This policy went unquestioned until 2016 when Lebanon began to buckle under the weight of the ongoing mass influx. Today, in the ninth year of the crisis, he asserted that Lebanon’s response must be urgently reconsidered with a more visionary approach than simply protracted crisis management. His address was oriented to the need for innovative, creative solutions that reach beyond humanitarian aid, envisioning that such solutions may be found in encouraging mutually beneficial economic opportunities for both refugees and Lebanese nationals in the country’s stagnant job market.
The Ambassador addressed the three viable options for the future of Syrian refugees; firmly stating that integration is not an option for Lebanon. Having already sustained the mass influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948, to integrate one third of the population into a nation built on a delicate demographic equilibrium would result in Lebanon as we know it ceasing to exist. He contended that Lebanon should not be expected to sacrifice its delicate balance; an intrinsic and existential part of Lebanese national identity, to accommodate for the wrongdoings of others. Reasoning that resettlement offers little more than a symbolic gesture, he concluded that ultimately repatriation is the only sustainable solution, both for Lebanon and for Syriato rebuild.
Ambassador Mortada noted that Syria has become the theatre of operation for proxy confrontations between various regional and international stakeholders. In order to pursue effective conflict resolution schemes, he recommended that domestic, regional and international dimensions to the Syrian conflict must all be incorporated. Closing his presentation, he reemphasised that the Lebanese government remains open to eventualities whilst being fully committed to the safe and voluntary return of refugees to Syria.
Sir John Hayes, Chair of the APPG for Lebanon, celebrated Lebanon’s rich and sophisticated culture, highly educated society, and capacity to overcome adversity. He identified what he perceived to be Lebanon’s two key dilemmas; erroneous perception by the West as a nation defined by crisis and conflict, and the size and scale of its diaspora. Emphasising that with one third of the population now a refugee, Lebanon should not simply be expected to cope by the international community. He noted the UK’s humanitarian assistance to help alleviate the crisis in Lebanon but acknowledged that neither aid nor resettlement represent a long-term solution.
Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper offered a wide-ranging commentary of the regional context and urged that any effective solution for the refugee crisis in Lebanon will require an end to the war in Syria. He determined that if repatriation is ultimately the only sustainable solution then refugees would require guarantees under national agreement of personal security, unachievable in the context of war. He commented on the fear Syrian males face of being conscripted into the army, and the difficult and dangerous challenge of retrieving homes and property when returning after such a protracted length of time. Mr Cockburn emphasised that the war in Syria is not over, and given the rising political temperature in the region and an increasingly militaristic Iran, the situation will inevitably continue to deteriorate for refugees.
Lord Alf Dubs, who in the previous week condemned parliament’s decision to vote down its pledge to reunite unaccompanied child refugees with their families in the UK after Brexit, spoke passionately of the UK and Europe’s poor response to the crisis. With the exception of Germanyand Sweden, he argued Europe has fallen far short of honouring its responsibility to Syrian refugees and the international community. Agreeing with Ambassador Mortada that humanitarian aid is not enough, he called for a greater international response and the implementation of a Europe-wide policy on refugees. Lord Dubs reemphasised that the UK must demonstrate its willingness to do better, and honour its shared international responsibility, both to help refugees in the region and those who have made their way to Britain.
Jim Shannon MP opened his speech by restressing that the problem the Syrian refugee crisis presents for Lebanon cannot be ignored by the international community. He noted that as a result of the crisis approximately 200,000 additional Lebanese have been pushed into poverty, and that Lebanon has struggled for too long without adequate international support. Synchronously, he reflected that the Lebanese government’s recent policies towards Syrian refugees have been problematic, noting that over 15,000 Syrians have risked returning home, citing harsh policies and deteriorating conditions within Lebanon. He also discussed the unique difficulties faced by threatened Christian refugee minorities. Mr Shannon concluded in agreement with previous speakers, warning that a crisis in Lebanon has potential consequences for the UK and other parts of the world.
Georges Ghali, Regional Humanitarian Campaign Coordinator at OXFAM in Lebanon offered a local perspective of the context. He argued that years of corruption and mismanagement of resources has catalysed Lebanon’s current popular uprising, exacerbated by the Syrian refugee crisis. He stressed that accountability and transparency must be increased on the part of both donors and the Lebanese government to ensure previous policy commitments are properly implemented.
Mr Ghali also highlighted both how severely the poverty rate amongst Syrian refugees has worsened in the current economic situation, and protection concerns faced by refugees due to restricted access of legal status. Currently, approximately 74 per cent of Syrian refugees do not have legal residency in the country and are considered by the Lebanese government to be illegal or irregular. These refugees face arrest at checkpoints.
Renouncing implications of the back and forth movement of some Syrian refugees between Lebanon and Syria as being motivated by financial aid, Mr Ghali rationalised that the travel costs involved would render the figures unfeasible. When asked about the implications of this on legal protection, he reminded the Forum that prevalent nepotism and bribery make it possible for some Syrians to enter Syria without exposing themselves, and so this does not necessarily denote general safety for returning refugees in Syria. He stressed that this conjecture is dangerous, and more research must be done on a case by case basis.
Mr Ghali agreed with the Ambassador that creative solutions must be reached with a more holistic view, rather than focusing solely on one solution such as repatriation. Adding that many countries with high GDPs are not pulling their weight when it comes to resettlement or financial assistance, he noted that global resettlement spaces are decreasing consistently every year, exacerbating the pressure on hosting countries in the region, concluding that the responsibility should not fall to Lebanon alone, but rather there is an international obligation for fairer responsibility sharing.
Máiréad Collins, Christian Aid’s Senior Advocacy Adviser on Syria, Iraqand Lebanon, delivered a potent address highlighting the human impact of the crisis. Paying tribute to the enormity of Lebanon’s responsibility, she simultaneously challenged the Forum to reverse the perspective; to consider the impact of Lebanon on the Syrian refugee crisis, rather than the impact of Syrian refugees on Lebanon. Ms Collins gave illustrative evidence of how structural policies in Lebanon have claims in negatively impacting refugees and worsening the crisis.
Highlighting the complicated and prohibitively expensive process in place to apply for residency, she noted that lack of understanding around the process of registering births and marriages has significantly increased the potential for Syrian refugees to face statelessness. She added that many refugees have been forced to take up badly paid work in sectors with few if any protections, increasing their risk of abuse and exploitation. In many cases, the lack of opportunities for work for adults has meant that children have been required to become their families’ main breadwinners, depriving them of education and exposing them to abusive environments. This often results in these children resorting to criminal behaviour, or being criminalised due to their lack of documentation, plus other negative coping mechanisms that have been widely reported, including sexual exploitation and early child marriage.
Echoing Mr Ghali, she argued that whilst there is no official policy of forced return, there have been steps taken, often outside the formal rule of law, to create a psychological forced return; where remaining in Lebanon is so difficult for refugees that returning to Syria appears to be a better option. Reminding those present that the war in Syria extends beyond the bombardment of Idlib, she noted that ongoing sporadic arrest campaigns across the country and an overall climate of fear mean that repatriation is still a dangerous and frightening prospect. Ms Collins added that Lebanon’s strict policies have been increasingly accompanied by hostile language towards refugees in the public sphere. Subsequently calls for return to Syria are likely to intensify and gain greater support, increasing the pressure on Syrians to unwillingly return.
She concluded that policies towards Syrian refugees have resulted in intensifying the crisis; with 69 per cent now living below the poverty line and 74 per cent forced into illegal status, refugees will only continue to become more heavily reliant on aid. She added that the Lebanese host community’s most vulnerable will also now need to be included in any crisis response. She suggested considering a system where refugees can engage and work with Lebanese society for the mutual benefit of all involved. Closing her presentation she appealed to the UK and the international community not to reduce or cease funding towards Syrian refugees within Lebanon, and for Lebanon to address its policies towards refugees that leave them in such a heightened state of desperation.
In his closing remarks, Chairman Khalid Nadeem restressed the need for the international donor community to step up its efforts in supporting Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He suggested that Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatarand Kuwaitneed to dramatically increase their humanitarian aid. He concluded with the suggestion of a Marshall Plan of aid underwritten by the UK, EU, USA and the Gulf countries, as the key to invigorating Lebanon’s economy; stimulating employment and job prospects both for the host Lebanese population and Syrian refugees living in Lebanon today.