The political debate over the future status of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is marked by a strong reluctance to discuss the massive changes the country has been undergoing since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Instead the approach has followed a short-term, crisis-management logic focused on limiting the inflow of refugees and stressing their temporary status. Long-term solutions, including permanent residency and naturalization, are particularly sensitive given that such permanent integration would deeply rock Lebanon’s sectarian dynamics and substantially shake the post-civil war Taif Agreement. The Syrian civil war itself has already exacerbated political and sectarian divisions in the country, and the prospects of a shift in the domestic sectarian balance could further complicate the already frail domestic political system. But this understandable focus on weathering the storm with short-term solutions may, paradoxically, usher in socio-political crisis that could destabilize the country and undermine its imperfect yet resilient democracy.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the UN Refugee Agency has registered over one million Syrians in Lebanon. The influx of Syrians—adding to the roughly 450,000 Palestinian refugees already there—means Lebanon now has the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world. Refugees represent nearly one-quarter of the combined Lebanese population. There has been a notable absence of efforts for long-term socio-political and economic integration. Even debate of potential long-term solutions has been absent; it has been overshadowed by urgent, short-term considerations and a security-oriented approach. To deal with this monumental challenge, Lebanon’s policy has relied on a functional and politically expedient notion of a temporary crisis—one shared by other host countries.
Lebanon has been seeking to limit the impact of the refugee crisis, first by attempting to regulate the inflows of Syrians. The country shifted from an initial open-door policy and—especially since January 2015—introduced significant restrictions to obtaining or renewing residency permits. Under the new regulations, the number of Syrians able to cross legally into Lebanon diminished. An increase in security controls also hampered the number of Syrians able to enter via informal crossings. As a result, the official number of refugees has more or less been at a standstill since 2015, with a slight decrease due to refugees leaving the country.
In parallel, the number of Syrians already present in Lebanon without a recognized status has increased, either because they entered Lebanon through unofficial crossings or, more frequently, because they entered officially but now lack documentation or financial resources to renew the residency permits. This is highly problematic: the increase in the number of people lacking a recognized status is leading to an increase in those socially marginalized and vulnerable to exploitation. This has significant long-term consequences from both a social and security point of view.
In addition, to further stress the nature of their “Lebanese sojourn,” Lebanon grants Syrians only a temporary residency. As such, Syrian residents face a number of restrictions; most significantly difficulty in obtaining work permits, severely limiting chances of entering the labor market. As a result, Syrians in Lebanon for the most part lack both job security and a stable income and are mostly poor—70 percent of households living below the Lebanese poverty line and roughly 90 percent are in debt. In addition to hurting Syrian refugees, these measures—designed to protect the Lebanese workforce in the short term—may backfire on Lebanese economy and society. For example, the difficulties of entering the job market legally make refugees especially vulnerable to exploitation. It can also lead them to compete with Lebanon’s lowest socio-economic strata over temporary and low-income, contributing to an overall decline in wages and erosion of labor rights. These dynamics harm local resilience in Lebanon’s poorest communities while fanning social tensions.
Social tensions have already risen in the past few months, with implications for security. As a result, municipalities are taking harsher measures on refugees’ informal settlements, leading at times to clashes between the local and the Syrian refugee population. Moreover, the presence of over one million individuals with limited rights and protection could not only strongly entrench new and old forms of social and economic marginalization, but also erode Lebanon’s democratic fabric and its social practices of coexistence. The focus on managing the emergency without considering long-term solutions to issues such as working rights or economic and social integration is leading to the de facto creation of another group of second-class residents, much like Palestinian refugees, with limited rights and opportunities and who struggle with institutional discrimination. This could foster growing social inequality and facilitate opportunities for exploitation and marginalization, undermining social cohesion and stability in general.
Many domestic politicians seem to recognize the dire economic and social impact of the current predicament, but they still only point to the future return of Syrians to their homeland as the best or only solution. Indeed, there has been no serious discussion about long-term coexistence and integration at the political level. Unsurprisingly, Lebanon’s complex historical legacy of hosting Palestinian refugees has generated a general cross-party opposition to considering any option that would allow Syrian refugees to naturalize or acquire a permanent status. The refugee trauma has deeply shaped Lebanon’s policies, from rejecting the establishment of official Syrian refugee camps to fueling some of the anti-refugee rhetoric.
A number of political figures have been forceful in arguing that only repatriation can solve the current predicament, going so far as to put together plans to begin sending Syrians home in the near future. This attitude is by no means exclusive to Lebanon: EU politicians have voiced similar comments about the temporary nature of the refugee crisis, leading to comparable emergency-management policies. But the brutality of the war and the extensive devastation in Syria make the option of a quick and mass return tragically unlikely.
Thus the short-term crisis-management logic, combined with the refusal to discuss long-term integration, risks heightening rather than solving the crisis, while cementing or worsening existing cleavages within the Lebanese society. These risks are relevant to both sides of the Mediterranean, but the unique combination of a fragile political architecture, foreign interference, and the magnitude of refugee crisis make the Lebanese situation especially complex. To be sure, addressing the crisis through a rights-based, coexistence-focused, and long-term approach is also risky—especially politically—but it is also more in line with reality and, importantly, more likely to help Lebanon avoid increasing domestic polarization and inequality.
There are thus strong reasons to welcome a domestic discussion focused on the future and well-being of both Lebanese citizens and of those, like Syrians or Palestinians, who find themselves in de facto limbo. This is a monumental challenge for Lebanon, which will need strong international support—financial and political—to truly move forward.
Benedetta Berti is a Robert A. Fox Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), a TED senior fellow, and a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and the Modern War Institute at West Point. Follow her on Twitter @benedettabertiw.