Lebanon, famously, hosts more refugees per capita than any other country on the planet. Visitors unfamiliar with the country’s history and politics would perhaps not be surprised by that statistic, recognising the outgoing, warm and hospitable reception that they received on a holiday or a business trip. Yet beneath that innate cultural hospitality there lies a more complex mosaic and attitude towards those who’ve fled the devastating conflict in Syria.
I’ve heard the phrase before that ‘someone who understands Lebanon, understands the Middle East.... but you can never understand Lebanon’. Indeed the facade of a formal state disguises the subtitles of sectarian divisions and political fault lines that have developed since the state was first created. Some of these divides are obvious, others less so.
Lebanese refugees and those displaced for shorter periods of time, once flocked to the Syrian safe haven when their own civil war burnt deeply between 1975 and 1991, turning their cities into rubble and leaving a trail of massacres and death. Now it is the Syrians turn to experience such anguish yet as weeks turn to months and into years, the atmosphere in Lebanon has shifted. Partly as a consequence of the country’s own fragile politics, partly due to the narrative of victory emerging from Damascus and also due to time itself leaving some to fear the status quo becoming more inevitably permanent.
In late May the Lebanese town of Faraya made international news when it put up signs announcing the banning of ‘foreigners’ - targeting Syrians - from its Main Street. Such an incident is not unique or isolated in nature and is evidence of a wider pushback against refugees after over eight years of conflict.
Whilst recently visiting Kuwait Lebanese Foreign Minister Jibran Bassil said that troubles on 80 percent of Syria's territories "have been resolved" thus the situation is convenient for refugees' return. Also in May Lebanese Public Health Minister, Jamil Jabak, highlighted the impact of the Syrian displacement on the health care system in Lebanon.
Indeed, despite Idlib, home to some three million Syrian civilians, there appears to be a ratcheting up of Lebanon’s more hardline stance to those Syrian refugees within its borders.
Lebanese security officials earlier in May denied allegations by human rights groups that they have forced Syrian refugees to sign documents saying they agreed to return to their home country. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and four other groups alleged in a report that staff at Lebanon's General Security Directorate deported at least 16 Syrians after forcing them to sign "voluntarily repatriation forms".
Meanwhile at least 15,000 Syrian children are facing homelessness as their homes in north-east Lebanon are scheduled for demolition, international aid agencies warned at the start of June. Aid agencies themselves are coming under more pressure with two of them, World Vision and Intersos, being sued by a Lebanese local authority over accusations of polluting a local river.
At the start of June a local Lebanese paper reported that 621 Syrian refugees returned to the country as part of a Russian strategy to return some 890,000 refugees. This small number came from Nabatieh, Tripoli, Beirut and Bekaa, but is still a reminder of the ambitions and drip, drip nature of the undertaking.
What happens when Syrian refugees do return, nominally with the permission of the State, is harder to discern but a front-page Washington Post investigation revealed that hundreds of returning refugees were going missing, being arrested or being tortured and extorted by the Regime’s security forces.
This is the very real dilemma being faced by as many as 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon today. A worsening of their relations with their hosting State and the prospect of returning to a country where all the factors that led them to flee in the first place are still very much the reality of the current situation.
All this is happening against the backdrop of Lebanon’s attempt to implement draconian austerity policies whose budget cuts may further the resentment of Lebanese who feel that the international community is only concerned with Lebanon’s refugee population.
Whilst the current Lebanese Government is both recent and relatively untested, it is critical that it takes a step back from the day to day of all the incidents that are currently occurring, to chart a strategy forward for the continued presence of Syrian refugees in the country and being clear as to what’s needed from the international community for that to be sustained in a manner that reduces internal tensions.
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