A combination of security, economic, and above all political considerations has the Lebanese government seeking for the first time to limit, and ultimately reduce, its Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian refugee population. Human rights groups have criticized these new restrictions on Syrian refugees, saying the denial of refuge to those in need violates fundamental principles of international law. But Lebanon’s political power brokers are fearful of more than just the economic and social burdens of Syrian refugees.
The exact details of the new stipulations, passed by cabinet in June, vary for Syrians and Syrian-Palestinians (that is, Palestinian refugees previously residing in Syria). Refuge will, from now on, only be granted to those “coming from regions where battles are raging near the Lebanese border,” in the words of Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, with “humanitarian and necessary” exceptions. Additionally, all refugees traveling to Syria, for any reason or duration of stay, are stripped of refugee status upon their return. On top of these restrictions, Syrian-Palestinians also face further monetary charges and onerous administrative requirements that amount in practice to a near-total ban on coming to Lebanon.
Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian refugees number well over a million and are expected to comprise a third of Lebanon’s population by the end of the year. At present, refugees are scattered across the country, living wherever they can afford to, including in over 1,200 ad hoc, self-built camps. A proposal that has been contemplated since the start of the crisis would set up formal camps to house existing refugees along the Lebanese-Syrian border. While this is unlikely to move forward at present for a number of reasons, it could potentially be adopted in a partial or revised form in the future. A recent revival of the proposal divided Lebanese officials, with the health minister calling it the only solution, while the foreign minister vowed to “oppose [it] no matter the pressure.” The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) came out against it, arguing the state would be able to provide neither the infrastructure nor the security necessary for it to succeed.
Either way, there is clearly a new mood shared among Lebanon’s power brokers with regard to the refugees. Although the underlying factors fueling it have been accumulating since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the translation of this mood into executive action was largely triggered by a single event. On May 28, 2014, tens of thousands of Syrians waving Hezbollah flags and posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad descended upon the Syrian embassy east of Beirut to vote in their country’s presidential elections, which were widely regarded as illegitimate. The unexpectedly vast turnout halted traffic across the capital for hours, and led to mild clashes with overwhelmed Lebanese soldiers guarding the embassy.
Within hours, Lebanon’s anti-Assad March 14 coalition, which holds over a third of cabinet seats, issued furious condemnations of the spectacle, calling it a “provocation” orchestrated by Syrian intelligence and Hezbollah, and demanding the deportation of all Syrian supporters of Assad. Less than a week later, on June 2, the cabinet decided on the new entry restrictions, and while the official explanation was “security concerns,” a Western diplomatic source cited the embassy controversy as a likely stimulus.1 Similarly, UNHCR said the government had acted in the hope of “ensuring that actions by refugees (including exercising their right to vote inside Syria) do not provoke adverse reactions inside Lebanon or stoke hostility between refugees and the communities in which they reside.”2
To be clear, it was not the relatively benign happenings at the embassy itself that mattered so much as what they represented. Until then, the refugee presence had arguably been politically useful for March 14. More than a million destitute men, women, and children were daily reminders of the tragedy of a brutal war they could blame on Assad and their key domestic rival, Hezbollah. However, seeing that the same refugees could also be mobilized—whether on their own or coerced by political groups—in their tens of thousands against them was an unwelcome surprise for March 14’s public as much as its politicians.
This shifted March 14’s outlook to something closer to that of its pro-Assad rivals, the March 8 coalition, who have never been comfortable with the Syrian refugee presence. Christian members of March 8 in particular, such as the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), have long been accused of stirring xenophobia and paranoia with their public allegations of “conspiracies” to settle the refugees permanently and thereby change Lebanon’s sectarian demography. In 2013, one FPM member, who has since become foreign minister, went as far as calling for deporting all refugees. While March 14’s large Sunni Muslim constituency has no such anxieties about the predominantly Sunni refugees, the embassy episode nevertheless resulted in a degree of convergence of political opinions and interests between the two blocs.
That convergence against the presence of Syrian refugees was also made possible by the shared burden of an economic collapse brought on by a more than 25 percent population increase in three years. Social Affairs Minister Derbas recently put the direct cost to Lebanon of the refugee crisis at $7.5 billion, or 17 percent of GDP. Unemployment in some regions has doubled as Lebanese manual labor is undercut by Syrian competition. Electricity and water resources, already insufficient to meet Lebanese demand alone, have had to be spread that much thinner. The overall impact of the Syrian war and its occasionally bloody “spillover” into Lebanon has been a decline in GDP growth from 7 percent in 2010 to 1 percent in 2014, according to latest IMF estimates. Tourism, which in better years would make up a quarter of national income, has particularly suffered. While none of this, of course, is the refugees’ fault, it has predictably bred resentment and revived xenophobic sentiments picked up during 29 years of Syrian occupation. In short, Lebanese of all political persuasions have become fed up.
For the refugees themselves, the government’s new policy adds yet another source of hardship to an already grueling existence. It is unclear how many Syrians have been turned away since the June 2 decision, but a new Amnesty International report documents a number of what it calls “shocking” cases among Syrian-Palestinians, including pregnant women fleeing the besieged Yarmouk camp in Damascus being denied refuge at the border, and children in Lebanon being separated from parents who entered Syria briefly to renew identity documents. Syrian-Palestinians make up less than 5 percent of all refugees from Syria. As the restrictions spread to the broader Syrian refugee population, the new policy will likely have widespread humanitarian repercussions. All of this serves to underscore the need for a far more determined global response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Alex Rowell is a Beirut-based journalist reporting for NOW Lebanon, among other outlets.