Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Returning Home

Written by: Sara S. Al Aloul, American University of Beirut

Abstract

The impact of the Syrian crisis had not only spilled over into neighboring countries, but other continents as well. As of December 2018, according to a Mercy Corps report, there were 5.6 million Syrian refugees around the world, and 6.2 million internally displaced people[1]. This huge number has taken a toll on host countries and talks of ensuring safe return of Syrian refugees to their home countries have been instigated at the international level. This paper will explore the problems associated with the return of Syrian refugees and their reintegration into their home country. It will explore the social and economic dynamics of their return in line with international human rights law. This paper is not written for an organization but is a product of individual policy research on the problem. I will begin by exploring the nature of the problem and its major points then proceed to identify the stakeholders concerned with this policy problem. The data collection method is mainly a synthesis of existing literature and evidence on the issue, provided by international organizations and policy research groups. My target audience is international bodies actively working on the return of these refugees and providing the logistical support this process requires. I will provide recommendations based on the evidence I have found and the method of implementation. 

The Problem

The state of Syrian refugees in the past 2 years has been a central concern of many international and humanitarian organizations working to provide them with the means to continue their life sustainably. Syrian refugees are scattered around the world in countries like Turkey, Germany, Lebanon, and Jordan. The case in Lebanon is especially alarming because of the limited size and capacity of the country to sustain its own citizens, and due to the actual state of living of the refugees in Lebanon. According to the UNHCR, over 50% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty[2].

In 2017, Hezbollah worked on the return of refugees from the Arsal border area. According to Mohammad Afif, Hezbollah’s media spokesperson: “Through mediators and under specific conditions, a certain amount of refugees will be returning to certain villages in the western Qalamoun”[3]. However, this was an informal operation that occurred without the intervention of the Syrian and Lebanese governments, just between the party and the opposition groups. This posed a great danger on the rights of the refugees returning to their home countries, and the need for entities like the UNHCR to supervise such operations. Professor Hilal Khashan at the American University of Beirut expressed that this incident reveals the amicable relationship and networks of Hezbollah in Syria. President Michel Aoun expressed in the Arab summit in early 2019 the urgency of the need to return refugees from Lebanon to Syria due to the pressure their presence has had on the already struggling economic crisis in Lebanon[4]. Lebanon’s Minister of State, Adel Afioni, said his country will follow the Russian strategy for the return of Syrian refugees. This strategy was produced after a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16, 2018[5]. It specifies 76 residential areas in Syria to enable the return of around 360,000 Syrian refugees as a first step. 

The second step is to ensure the rehabilitation of the houses to allow for the return of half a million more refugees within a period of two years. As of December of 2018, Lebanon has reported the return of 1000 Syrian refugees to their homeland under the supervision of the Lebanese General Security and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)[6]. Russia’s interests in the return of refugees stretch beyond the concern for the refugees’ rights and liberties though. Russian interests lie in the urban and infrastructure reconstruction of Syria[7]. The reconstruction of Syria will promote competition amongst the involved players as they will benefit from major economic bursts. Moreover, since Russia still maintains significant political influence over Assad, it is likely that Russia will win many contracts of such reconstruction.

The main dimensions of this case include the political, legal, social, and economic concerns that come with the return of refugees to their home country[8]. This return should come hand in hand with preservation of rights, and a ‘voluntary’, ‘safe’, and ‘dignified’ return. The concept of safety, according to the UN and the EU[9], implies that their return must be linked to credible security guarantees, not just the absence of direct war. Political, legal, social, and economic safety must be guaranteed before planning and launching an initiative like the return of refugees. The concept of ‘voluntary’ return is blurry and must be explicitly defined to avoid loopholes that can pose a potential threat to the rights of refugees. Voluntariness is not simply the consent-giving action of refugees but can be further divided into two indicators: information and lack of coercion. First, refugees wishing to go to Syria based on certain terms of return must have vital information about the nature of their return and their situation after the return. Information about the areas they are returning to must be provided for them to make informed and conscious decisions. The status of their housing, land, and property must be made clear to them. Their status in Syria and their fate is of major importance before returning these refugees. The risk of detention or forced displacement after their return also exists, and it should be communicated to them properly as well as the employment of measures to ensure these incidents do not occur. 

Second, the ‘consent’ of these refugees is not valid in cases where they feel direct and indirect pressure from country officials and certain political groups who have an interest in their return[10]. In June and July of 2018, Bekaa Valley municipalities conducted an extensive return campaign. They contacted refugees across camps and asked them to fill out surveys about their stance on returning to Syria, asking why they have not returned yet. According to the information in the surveys, the questions were framed in a biased way to encourage return and Syrians felt threatened by this[11]. Another study was conducted earlier this year in Germany, asking Syrian refugees their perspectives on returning to Syria, and addressing the concept of ‘voluntariness’. Syrian nationals were interviewed face to face as they entered and exited from refugee registration centers. The main hypotheses of this study were: a) refugees who experience direct safety threats during conflict are more likely to consider returning after the restoration of stability in their countries and b) refugees with higher education levels are more likely to return, only if their countries transition to democratic systems of government[12]. The study examined the influences on refugee decisions to return to their home countries. The results supported the hypotheses and presented the importance of informed refugee decision making. However this study was limited by the absence of ethnic and religious identities from the data and evidence. These two factors are of major importance to individuals and can often be deciding factors. Ethnic and religious identities can be the causes of social distress for returning individuals. Attention must be paid to where refugees are returning and if their return is impacted by the social and cultural rights afforded to them in their home countries. 

Stakeholders

Such a mass scale problem is bound to have numerous stakeholders. For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on stakeholders involved in the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon. Two clear stakeholders are the Syrian and Lebanese governments. Without their combined efforts and resources, the UNHCR and other humanitarian bodies cannot undergo the process of returning refugees home. Their material and political resources are of substantial value for the possibility of the safe return of refugees and the protection of their rights. However, some speculate that the return of Syrian refugees, from the perspective of the Assad regime, bolsters the claim that the regime won the war and is re-establishing control in the country. As a result, the Syrian regime benefits from this image of Syria being ‘safe’ and stable,’ establishing a positive international and local, political and military image. 

The United Nations is another very important stakeholder as it can be the medium of political discussions and negotiations between countries, with its political and human resources providing it with strong influence. The United Nations has the legitimacy needed to provide recommendations to host countries planning the return of Syrian refugees and pressure leaders to abide by international human rights law. The UN stated that conditions in Syria do not allow for large number of Syrians to return to their homes, even if the fighting has subsided[13]. Organizations like SAWA for Development and Aid and Mercy Corps provide great sources of research and investigation on issues faced by refugees around the world, especially Syrian refugees. Such organizations and other civil society groups can help provide data and evidence as well as policy recommendations for decision makers and political leaders to take into consideration. Unfortunately, their power is somewhat limited to only human resources because they have little to no effect on how political decisions pan out at the end of the day, due to deep-rooted political interests in each country. 

Solutions

The primary data collection method I used for this paper was the synthesis of existing evidence from studies conducted on the prospects of returning refugees and the impact of returns on them on the long-term. I also conducted an individual face to face interview with a Syrian man living in Lebanon. The recent report produced by the UNHCR found that security is the single greatest factor that determines the return of refugees. [14]Refugees hoping for return are concerned with the basic services they need to live a healthy and developed life. Health, education and good infrastructure are the driving factors for return. In the report, 10% of the refugee population showed prospects of return if the rate of security doubled and the implementation of services tripled within the next five years. The report emphasized that voluntary return under good conditions can improve welfare while policies with focus only on maximizing the number of returns will reduce welfare. The report claimed that a more broad approach can have long-term positive impacts. This means that focusing on improving conditions for the Syrians and their host communities can increase the chance for voluntary return. 

On May 7th, 2018, I interviewed a 28 year old Syrian refugee living and working in Lebanon. For the purpose of his privacy the alias Abbas will be used. Abbas fled Syria in 2014 amidst security threats to him and his family. He is originally from Der El Zor and his family owned 100 acres of land in the area. During the war, their house was partially destroyed and their farming and heavy machinery were destroyed. Property valued upwind of $100,000 was lost or destroyed and no prospect of life seemed possible. I asked Abbas what major factor would contribute to his return to Syria, and his response supported studies previously mentioned. Land and security are the two driving factors that would prompt Abbas and his family to return home to their village. Land is the significant economic factor here, and security is  a widely cited factor. I asked Abbas if he would return to a different town in Syria if it had economic potential for his family, and his response was one I had not heard before. He said: “absolutely not,” as social factors would burden him and his family because the new town would have different social/cultural tendencies. This prompted me to ask if he would consider migrating to a European or other Arab country and his response was again a negative. Abbas expressed urgent desire to return back home to his hometown and land, saying nothing else would replace that. “You either go back to where you belong, or you don’t at all” were the words Abbas chose. This however, is not the case for all Syrian refugees, particularly as some of the refugees’ hometowns are completely destroyed. But this draws attention to the importance of the social aspect of the problem, and the need for further investigation into the social reintegration of refugees into their communities. 

Implementation

The first and most important step in implementation is collecting the necessary information regarding refugees returning through self-organized methods. This poses a threat to their security but they do so because they distrust Lebanese authorities and all other involved actors. Second, little is known about the magnitude of the start-to-finish costs of implementing the return of refugees back to Syria. The General Security returns cost around $200 while others organized by local communities may cost $100[15]. This does not include the arrangement of independent transport across the border. In terms of the role of the UNHCR, clarity should be provided because refugees are unaware of the exact role of the UNHCR, specifically on whether it covers the General Security costs or acts as an informal observer. Such information is key to the concept of ‘voluntary’ return. Without such information, refugees cannot make informed decisions. International humanitarian intervention should be limited to protecting the refugees’ post-return and ensuring safety conditions in the areas they will be returning to. Such a massive policy cannot be implemented abruptly, and a gradual approach may provide for better results in the long term. Refugees in urgent need for return should be prioritized based on criteria set by the Human Rights Watch and similar bodies to ensure fair and equal return of all refugees. 

Conclusion

According to the data synthesized in this paper, the major points of concern regarding the safe and dignified return of Syrian refugees rely on both voluntary return and security conditions post-return. Due to the territorial sovereignty of Syria, it will be difficult, yet not impossible, to implement security standards of protection for returning refugees. The UN can distribute humanitarian aid in the towns that need assistance the most and promote social cohesion between the returning population and the current residing Syrians. The research regarding this problem lacks the financial and logistical tactics needed to employ solutions. Financial experts on return and restructuring of cities must weigh in on the policy and provide the necessary expertise to ensure the effective implementation of this for the sake of long-term impacts. 


[1]Quick Facts: What You Need to Know about the Syria Crisis.” Mercy Corps, August 26, 2019. https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/iraq-jordan-lebanon-syria-turkey/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-syria-crisis.

[2]“Beirut, Damascus Working Together for Return of Syrian Refugees.” Press TV,2018.

[3]Nazih Osseiran and Rhys Dubin. “Detained Lebanese ‘in Good Health’.” The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon), 2017.

[4]Lebanon Uses Arab Summit to Call for Syrian Refugees’ Return. Postmedia Network Inc, Toronto, 2019.

[5]Aoun, Putin talk Russian role in Syrian refugee returns. Daily Star, Lebanon. Mar 26, 2019.

[6]Lebanon to rely on Russian strategy for return of Syrian refugees: Minister (2019). . Tehran: SyndiGate Media Inc.

[7]Anchal Vohra. Russia’s Payback Will Be Syria’s Reconstruction Money. Foreign Policy. May 5 2019

[8]Mhaissen, 18

[9]Reardon, Christopher. “Eight years on, Syrian refugees weigh thorny question of return”. UNHCR.  https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2019/3/5c83eafa4/eight-years-syrian-refugees-weigh-thorny-question-return.html

[10]Mhaissen, 19

[11]Mhaissen, 23

[12]Serdar & Orchard, 5

[13]Schlein, Lisa. UN warns against mass return of Syrian Refugees from Lebanon. VOA News January 10, 2019 3:01 PM https://www.voanews.com/a/un-warns-against-mass-return-of-syrian-refugees-from-lebanon/4737514.html

[14]Bank, World. The Mobility of Displaced Syrians: An Economic and Social Analysis Washington, DC: World Bank, 2019. 8, 262.

[15]Mhaissen, 26


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