Syrian refugees await registration at the UNHCR compound in Tripoli. Work starts at 7.30 in the morning; 1,500 refugees are registered (or re-registered) here every day. Image Credit: UNHCR/Lynsey Addario

Dubai: The horrific fallout of the seven-year-old civil war in Syria has seen a mass exodus of refugees to neighbouring countries and beyond. Since 2011, more than 5.5 million Syrian have fled their country, and 6.1 million have been internally displaced. This, out of a pre-war population of about 20 million.

While more than 3 million have found refuge in Turkey, between one million and 1.5 million have made their way to neighbouring Lebanon, and 650,000 to Jordan. Another half million Syrian refugees now live in Europe.

With the Syrian regime seemingly on the path to winning the war, there have been growing calls in host countries for the refugees to go back. Nowhere else has this been more pronounced than in Lebanon.

I am tired of Lebanon but I cannot leave. I’m illegal so I have to pay $1,200 on the border for me and my family. My salary is only $333 per month and my rent is $166.

 - Ammar | Syrian refugee

Lebanon is now home to the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. According to the UNHCR, 995,512 registered Syrian refugees reside in Lebanon. The Lebanese government claims that another 500,000 refugees are in the country informally, increasing the estimated total to around 1.5 million.

Living conditions

A survey by the UNHCR, Unicef, and WFP in January this year found that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are more vulnerable than ever, with more than half now living in extreme poverty and over three quarters living below the poverty line.

58% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty

The annual Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees (VASyR) revealed 58 per cent of households are now living in extreme poverty – on less than $2.87 per person per day. This was some 5 per cent more than a year ago. And the number of households living below the overall poverty line – less than $3.84 per day – has also continued to rise; 76 per cent of refugee households are living below this level.

This means over three quarters of Syrian refugees in Lebanon now live on less than $4 per day, leaving refugees with dwindling resources to meet their most basic needs. Refugee households are now spending on average just $98 per person per month – $44 of which is spent on food.

The overall survey results paint an alarming picture of the growing vulnerabilities facing Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the UN said. Seven years into the crisis, they are more reliant than ever on humanitarian aid. Self-reliance opportunities are extremely limited in an economy deeply affected by the conflict in Syria. And external funding is insufficient to keep up with the growing needs; in 2017, only 36 per cent of the total funding needed to provide adequate humanitarian support in Lebanon was received, as of the beginning of December.

Lebanese government approach

At a governmental level, Lebanon seems keen on refugee return. This position is based on the country’s unique situation and laws. There are already about a million Palestinian refugees and their descendants who live in Lebanon. They fled Israel’s various wars and massacres over the decades, and their numbers were recently bolstered when Palestinian refugees who lived in Syria became refugees for a second time as a result of the civil war, moving to Lebanon.

Many Lebanese, especially the Maronite Christians, are opposed to Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon as they see them as changing the demographic balance in the country, as the vast majority of these refugees are Sunni Muslims.

According to the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre, which has done extensive research on the issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the Lebanese approach is “largely being shaped by four factors: the enormity of the refugee burden for a small country; demographic fears; previous experiences with refugees; and domestic political dysfunction that has contributed to an incoherent refugee policy”.

‘Tawteen’ and Syrian refugees

$2.87 amount average Syrian refugee lives on per day

The Lebanese constitution prohibits something called ‘tawteen’. This has been roughly translated as “colony” or “naturalisation”. In other words, the constitution stipulates that there cannot exist a ‘tawteen’ – whether Palestinian or Syrian – in Lebanon.

Before parliamentary elections, Lebanese President Michel Aoun asked Arab countries to help secure the return of refugees. His son-in-law and foreign minister, Gebran Bassil rejected the declaration by the UN and European Union at the end of the recent Brussels conference of Syria donors for recognising that “conditions for returns, as defined by the UNHCR and according to international refugee law standards, are not yet fulfilled”.

Maja Janmyr is a Professor in international migration law at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights. She has written extensively about Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Asked where do the Syrian refugees fit in vis-a-vis the ‘tawteen’ concept in Lebanon, she told Gulf News: “During the Lebanese civil war, tawteen was used in a mobilising manner to pinpoint the enemy’s intention, and that which is threatened – the homeland and the nation. Importantly, it was used to denounce ‘a conspiracy’, which aimed at transforming Lebanese territory into a substitute homeland for foreigners (i.e the Palestinians). It is noteworthy that Lebanese political actors have more recently tied the concept of tawteen explicitly to the country’s Syrian refugees, showing how Lebanon’s history with Palestine refugees has now been directly linked to its response to the Syrian influx.”

Janmyr said when the EU and UN warned conditions in Syria were not conducive to voluntary return of refugees in safety and dignity, Lebanese political actors slammed these statements and claimed they aim to resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

“The Lebanese President even said this international statement collides with his constitutional duty to ‘preserve Lebanon’s independence and the integrity of its territories’. President Aoun referred to the preamble of the Lebanese constitution, which states that there shall be no ‘tawteen’ in Lebanon ... Underlying this opposition is the concern that the presence of refugees will bring demographic changes that may affect political representation, which is currently apportioned by sect according to Lebanon’s confessional political system.”

Refugee fears

Most international resolutions and meetings on Syria – like the Geneva process sponsored by neutral parties like the UN, and the Astana talks held under the auspices of the regime’s chief patron, Russia – have assumed the refugees will eventually go home. However, it is important to note that a vast majority of the 5.5 million Syrians who have been forced to leave Syria are anti-regime. What they are being asked to do is to put their faith in Bashar Al Assad, and return.

But this is not an easy thing for them to do. Given the brutal nature of the regime, the refugees can hardly be blamed for fearing for their safety and security. Despite the hardships the displaced Syrians face – especially in the refugee camps of Lebanon and Jordan – they are reasonably safe there. Returning refugees must undergo a security check by local police. All of the Syrian regime’s myriad security services have a track record of engaging in extreme torture, and refugees have valid fears that they might be at the receiving end of regime brutality if they approach the police.

Obstacles to return

$18bn amount that Lebanon’s economy has lost due to the refugee crisis

Besides, recent actions by the Syrian regime have not given any cause for optimism. A case in point is the now-infamous Law 10, Syria’s new property law. Recently, Human Rights Watch warned that it does not satisfy international standards and amounts to the “forced eviction” of vulnerable people unable to prove land ownership.

The law allows Syria’s regime to seize private property for zoned developments, compensating owners with shares. The owners inevitably lose their property and can only claim shares if they prove ownership within 30 days after the zone is announced. Essentially, this law is aimed at dispossessing Syrians in areas that were anti-regime, and rewarding loyalists, who will be tasked with the redevelopment of Syria. The losers will be the refugees who either cannot return or who fled without property deeds. In the long run, such policies could make exile permanent for many refugees.

Another key obstacle to refugee return is Syria’s mandatory military conscription for men between 18 and 42. Sectarian grievances also play a part in this fear. Given that the Alawites dominate Syria’s ruling political class, some Sunni youth told Carnegie’s researchers that they believe they will be sent to the frontlines to die, while Alawite conscripts will receive safer deployments.

According to Carnegie, economic opportunity was less of a concern for most refugees than political stability. When asked if they would return to Syria under favourable political conditions, even if they lacked economic opportunities or housing, most refugees stated that they would.

The Al Assad regime has also opportunistically used the question of refugee return to gain leverage: to amplify its territorial gains and to initiate its reintegration into the international community. This is especially the case given that host countries want to see the refugees go back.

Impact on Lebanon

So what impact has the Syrian refugee presence – social, political, and economic – had on Lebanon? Janmyr told Gulf News: “Even though Lebanon adopted a ‘disassociation policy’ towards the conflict in Syria in July 2012, the situation in Syria has exacerbated Lebanon’s political instability – we have to keep in mind that one of the most influential and important Lebanese political actors, Hezbollah, is deeply embedded in the Syrian conflict.

The Lebanon Crisis Response Plan also estimates that at the end of 2015, the crisis had cost the Lebanese economy an estimated $18.15 billion due to the economic slowdown, loss in fiscal revenues and additional pressure on public services.

“Unemployment and high levels of informal labour were already a serious problem pre-crisis. Long-standing inequalities are nevertheless deepening and tensions at local level have been rising during the course of 2017, mostly over perceived competition for jobs and access to resources and services. The presence of refugees has increased demand on infrastructure and social services, which lack the capacity to meet increased needs.”