The election of a new president in Lebanon after a vacuum of two and a half years marks the beginning of the end of the country’s political deadlock.
The country’s legislative process had essentially ground to a halt. While parliament can pass laws, a president is required to put them into effect. Apart from passing several urgent bills this October, the Lebanese parliament’s last legislative session took place in November 2015.
Many Lebanese may welcome the formation of a more active government capable of addressing the nation’s many challenges.
Yet it may be bad news for the 1 million-plus Syrian refugees living in Lebanon.
Most of the Lebanese political elite have taken an anti-refugee stance since large numbers of people began fleeing from neighboring Syria in 2011. Lebanon’s new president, Michel Aoun, and his political party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), are no different.
Now there is fear in Lebanon that the new president and his government will actually implement this anti-refugee agenda.
Most concerning for refugees in Lebanon is the possibility that the new government will send them back to Syria.
President Aoun used his inaugural speech to parliament last week to call for the swift return of refugees to Syria, claiming that the refugee camps may turn into “security threats.”
The idea of returning refugees to “safe zones” inside Syria has been circulating among the highest echelons of the Lebanese government for a while.
Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, told E.U. foreign ministers last October that identifying and sending refugees to safe zones in Syria is “the only solution.”
Some Lebanese officials have identified locations for possible safe zones. Social affairs minister Rashid Derbas has referred to the border town of Jarablus, which Turkish-backed rebel forces seized from the so-called Islamic State in August. While some Syrian refugees in Turkey, seeing few prospects of a political solution to the conflict, did start moving back to Jarablus in September, the area is still far from safe.
In September, Lebanon’s labor minister Sejaan Azzi disclosed a plan to incrementally send back refugees to Syria. The plan includes the formation of a committee of U.N. and government officials to relocate Syrians near the border to designated safe zones or alternative locations of their choice, to mitigate what he calls “terrorist infiltration.” Azzi called on the U.N. to cooperate with his two-year repatriation plan starting in 2017.
That cooperation is not likely to be forthcoming. Sending refugees back to a country where they are not safe and face the threat of persecution violates international law, specifically the principle of non-refoulement.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has not yet commented on the labor minister’s plan. But UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abu Khaled said in September, “Current conditions in Syria are not appropriate [for return].”
Lama Fakih, the Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Human Rights Watch, said there are no areas that would qualify as “safe zones” in Syria. “These measures which have been discussed in the past are clearly inadequate and in violation of international law,” she said.
Ties to Assad
Without U.N. cooperation, Lebanon would likely find it difficult, both politically and practically, to return over 1 million refugees.
Yet the new president’s relationship with the Syrian government means that sending refugees from Lebanon back to Syria is no longer a far-fetched notion.
Aoun has the support of the Syrian government, as he formed an alliance with Lebanese Shiite political movement Hezbollah in 2006. Hezbollah is a key ally of the Assad regime, and its involvement in the Syrian battlefield helped shift the momentum of the war. In 2014, Assad endorsed Aoun as a presidential candidate, and his election was celebrated by state-allied media last week.
Aoun’s call for refugees to go home echoes statements from President Assad, who has also called on refugees to return. The Syrian government is trying to promote an image of legitimacy, and the return of refugees could help them in that.
Many Syrians displaced by war, however, fear retribution or forced conscription were they to return to government-controlled areas.
Even without the mass return of Syrians, the new Lebanese president is unlikely to change recent policies that have made life harder for refugees in Lebanon.
No Lebanese government has yet expressed interest in easing barriers for refugees to enter, register or integrate into the country.
In January 2015, Lebanese authorities started implementing policies that made the process of renewing residency permits for Syrian refugees onerous and expensive. Without residency permits, Syrian refugees have no freedom of movement, access to public services, or even the ability to report abuse to the police. The lack of legal status also makes refugees more vulnerable to arbitrary detention and deportation to Syria.
Lebanon has also rejected a U.N. proposal that all host countries provide the opportunity for refugees to apply for temporary citizenship. As most Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims, making them citizens would have a significant impact on Lebanon’s fragile “confessional” political system, which ensures sects are proportionally represented in all branches of government. Gebran Bassil recently warned that Syrian refugees “threaten the Lebanese identity.”
If there is one thing that Lebanese politicians agree on – regardless of political affiliation – it is that Syrian refugees need to go back as soon as possible. Now with a new president and a reinvigorated government, there is a danger that these plans will be put into action.