Will Lebanon Force a Million Syrian Refugees to Return to a War Zone?

Will Lebanon Force a Million Syrian Refugees to Return to a War Zone?

Will Lebanon Force a Million Syrian Refugees to Return to a War Zone?

As anti-refugee sentiment grows in Lebanon, desperate Syrians may be forced to choose between staying in a place that doesn’t want them and returning to a broken country.


Before Zahour al-Wais left her home in southern Syria six years ago, she put all of her most treasured possessions into a plastic bag and buried it under a tree in her family’s garden. The bag contained a diary full of notes about her daily activities and happiest memories; certificates of achievement given to her by teachers in school; and small gifts, like seashells, that she had traded back and forth with her friends. Once the bag was safely in the ground, Zahour and her parents and eight siblings crowded into a bus packed with as many of their possessions as they could fit and then headed toward the border with Lebanon.

Zahour was 15 at the time, and the war in Syria was still in its first year. The peaceful protests that began in March 2011 had been met with brutal repression by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and as the uprising spread and more and more people fell to the bullets of regime soldiers and snipers, the opposition started to arm. The spiraling conflict had not yet reached the town of Adra in the countryside of Damascus where Zahour and her family lived, but it was getting close. The sound of airplanes and fighting in the distance was ominous and frightening, and Zahour and her younger siblings asked their father if they could leave.

“Everyone around us was starting to flee. So we decided not to stay there and die, but to come here and live,” Zahour, now 21, says while leaning against a pillow in the tent she calls home in a makeshift refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

By leaving Syria, Zahour and her family became part of a massive exodus. More than 5 million people—nearly a quarter of Syria’s prewar population—have fled the country since 2011, with the vast majority seeking refuge in neighboring or nearby countries. In many cases, people chose to flee to Lebanon simply because it was the closest safe haven. Now the country, which in 2010 had a population of 4.3 million people, is host to an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees—the largest per capita refugee population in the world. Most come from areas sympathetic to the opposition and were displaced by fighting and heavy bombing by the Syrian regime.

Initially, Lebanon did little to restrict the number of Syrians entering the country. Although the government didn’t make life easy for the refugees, it didn’t try to push them out. But as the crisis dragged on, the mood in the country shifted decisively against the refugees, and the already thin welcome mat began to fray. In January 2015, the Lebanese government introduced visa restrictions that prevented most Syrians fleeing the war from entering the country legally, and in May of that year it ordered the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to stop registering new cases, meaning that the UNHCR can no longer grant new arrivals status as refugees. Most ominous of all, Lebanese politicians have increasingly, and almost unanimously, begun saying that it’s time for Syrian refugees to go home.

Those politicians include some of the most powerful leaders in Lebanon, among them the country’s president, Michel Aoun. Aoun made headlines last September when, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly, he spoke of Syrian refugees as posing an economic and security threat to Lebanon and insisted that conditions are safe enough in Syria for most people to return. “There is no doubt that it would be better for the United Nations to assist [the refugees] in returning to their homeland rather than helping them remain in camps lacking the minimum standard of a decent living,” Aoun said.

The intensifying hostility toward the Syrian refugees has deep and gnarled roots. Lebanese and Syrian politics are intimately entangled—Syrian troops occupied Lebanon from 1976 until 2005—and Lebanon’s political factions are divided between those who support and those who oppose the Assad regime. With the influx of large numbers of mostly Sunni Syrian refugees, many fear that the delicate sectarian balance at the base of the Lebanese political system will be upset. The refugees have also strained the country’s already weak public services, and both the media and the public often blame them for a stagnating economy. On top of all this, Lebanon’s experience with an earlier group of refugees—Palestinians forced from their homes after the creation of Israel in 1948—is fueling fear that the longer the Syrians remain in the country, the more likely it is that their presence will be a catalyst for instability and conflict.

What this means for these refugees is that life in Lebanon, which has never been easy, has gotten notably harder. And it may get harder still if the calls for them to leave—which have already inspired several politicians to draft proposals for their repatriation—grow louder. As it is, videos began circulating on social media last summer of people assaulting Syrians, and the UNHCR has documented an uptick in the number of cases of verbal and physical attacks.

But what are the refugees to do? Few other countries are willing to welcome them. Syria’s other relatively stable neighbors, Jordan and Turkey, are already saturated with refugees and have introduced restrictive border controls (Jordan has even reportedly begun deporting refugees). And both the United States and the nations of Europe are intent on blocking people from seeking asylum within their borders.

For Syrian refugees, this has meant that, as the civil war approaches its seventh anniversary, they remain caught between two bad options: either stay in a place where they are not wanted or return to a country still at war.

“If I could go back, of course I would,” says Zahour, her voice deep and confident, a black head scarf draped loosely over her hair. But the home she left behind in Syria is now destroyed. After her family fled, relatives who stayed in the area told them that thieves came and ransacked the house. “They stole the windows and the doors,” Zahour says. The thieves even dug up the trees in the garden where she had buried her diary. There isn’t much for her family to go back to.

At the same time, it’s been difficult for them to find stability in Lebanon. The Lebanese government has prohibited international organizations from establishing formal refugee camps—a decision forged against the backdrop of the country’s complex history with Palestinian refugees. Instead, Syrians live in apartments, abandoned buildings, repurposed storefronts, and informal camps, mostly dispersed throughout Lebanon’s poorest and most underserved communities.

For Zahour and her family, this has meant a series of ever-shifting living arrangements. They’ve been forced to move seven times, either by landlords who didn’t want them on their property anymore or because their flimsy shelter was no match for the storms that thrash through the Bekaa Valley in the winter. Most recently, a fire destroyed a section of the camp where they were living, forcing the family of 11 to stay in a rented garage for three months while they saved enough money to build a new tent out of a wood frame covered in plastic tarps.

There are other troubles as well. “The people here treat us badly,” Zahour says. “There’s no work. We can’t live a normal life.” Indeed, Syrians are largely barred from employment, aside from manual labor. Most of the time, they work in the informal economy for low pay—and, without contracts, it is easy for employers to get away with exploitation and abuse. Zahour herself used to work in a juice factory, but eventually quit because her 14-hour shifts were exhausting and she had gotten hurt several times when the bottles broke and cut her hands.

Yet despite all this—despite the instability, discrimination, and economic hardship—Zahour and her family would rather remain in Lebanon than face the dangers of returning to Syria. “We thought when the crisis ended we’d go back, but it hasn’t ended,” Zahour says. “The country is destroyed. People think there’s going to be a quick solution—the country will be fixed, everyone is going to return, and life is going to go back to how it was. It will take 20 years, at least, for people to go back.”

Those who want the refugees out of lebanon say that Syria is now safe enough for people to return to. While making this argument at the United Nations, President Aoun, a supporter of the Assad regime, said that the war has come to an end in the parts of Syria where most refugees are from. “As for the claim that these people will not be safe if they return to their country,” he added, “we are all aware that this is a pretext, and it is unacceptable.”

But for Um Moustafa, 35, Aoun’s speech doesn’t make much sense. She’s been in Lebanon since 2012 and lives in an informal refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley with her husband and young son. Their camp is 15 minutes from the Syrian border, and last year she sneaked across to visit her elderly mother, who had fallen sick, in the city of Homs. “I witnessed the destruction that happened in Syria…. How is it possible that they are convincing people it is safe? When did they fix all this?” she asks. “The only way I will decide to go back is if I see everyone…going back, and the hospitals and the schools are all working, and when there is no shelling and there is safety.”

The assertion by Aoun and others that large parts of Syria are safe is based on the turn the war has taken in the past two years. Since Russia intervened militarily on the side of the Assad regime in 2015, the Syrian government, with crucial assistance from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has gained a decisive upper hand in the fighting and consolidated control over Syria’s major population centers. There is now a sense that the war is drawing to some sort of conclusion, and even countries that oppose the regime are acknowledging that Assad will likely stay.

Still, the situation on the ground is immensely complex. In addition to the territory controlled by the regime, there are four de-escalation zones in opposition-held areas where the Assad government negotiated tentative cease-fires with various rebel groups. There are also other territories under the control of still more factions, including Kurdish forces, the Turkish government and its allied rebel militias, and the Islamic State, however diminished.

Conditions in all of these areas are varied and constantly shifting, ranging from relatively stable to being active war zones, according to Aron Lund, a fellow at the Century Foundation. And even in parts of the country controlled by the government where fighting has largely stopped, the situation is not necessarily suitable for people to return. “You have areas that are whole and up-and-running and functioning,” Lund says, “and other areas that just are not.”

Fighting and bombing by the regime have turned some of Syria’s once densely populated urban areas into uninhabitable wastelands, and there isn’t much reconstruction going on. “If you’re a Syrian refugee in Lebanon and you came from one of these places that are just, you know, rubble, then you have nothing to go back to,” Lund says. Moreover, once the civil war does end, the Syrian economy could take at least 30 years to recover, according to a 2014 United Nations Relief and Works Agency report.

The list of refugee concerns is extensive. “What kind of guarantees do they have that they will be able to go back to their properties?” asks Carnegie Middle East Center director Maha Yahya. “That they will have access to education, that their children won’t be kidnapped on the road while they’re walking, that there won’t be retribution, that there won’t be mandatory [military] conscription?”

These concerns are not abstract for Nazem, a 16-year-old from the Damascus countryside who, like several others interviewed for this article, asked that only his first name be used out of fear of retribution by the authorities in Lebanon or Syria, should he eventually return. “It’s not safe,” he says of Syria. “The minute you decide to go, you’ll be taken to the army and you might die the next day.”

Like many others, Nazem’s family is staying in Lebanon so that he and his brothers won’t have to face conscription. He is also afraid that the Syrian government will retaliate against people who supported the opposition, or who are simply suspected of supporting it. “If they decide to take you, you’re dead,” Nazem says, adding: “My cousin has been detained for seven years.”

Bassam Khawaja, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, is unequivocal about the dangers: “The idea that there are safe zones in Syria that people could return to and not fear for their lives or fear persecution is just utterly ridiculous.”

For many Syrian refugees in Lebanon, this seems like common sense.

Last autumn, I spent three days traveling around the Bekaa Valley and Beirut speaking to Syrian refugees. Over the course of more than a dozen conversations, the responses had a startling uniformity: People were not happy where they were; they faced discrimination and economic hardship and often lived in dire conditions, but going back to Syria in the current situation was not an option. For some people, as long as Assad remains in power, it may never be.

Salih Halif, 35, is from the countryside of Aleppo, his face weathered from long hours working in fields under the sun. He lives with his extended family in a small collection of makeshift tents just 10 minutes from the Anti-Lebanon mountains that form the border with Syria. “The people in Lebanon think we have to go back,” he says. “They don’t know the situation. If I go, I’ll be taken for military service.”

Salih would like to go back “in the future,” he adds. “I have a house and my land. My country is there,” he says, pointing in the direction of the border. But now is not the time.

In Beirut, I met Amina, 55, who comes from a village outside Homs. She lives in Shatila, the teeming refugee camp where, in 1982, a Christian Lebanese militia allied with Israel massacred scores of Palestinians. The camp is now home to both Palestinians and Syrians who have moved in because rent is cheaper there than elsewhere in the city.

“Of course every Syrian wishes to go back to our country,” Amina says. But she worries that her one able-bodied son will be forced into military service and that the family won’t be able to survive financially in Syria’s broken economy. “Someone has to work to make a living,” she tells me. Here, at least, her son is able to earn enough working as a day laborer for the family to get by, if just barely.

In another apartment in Shatila, Najwa, a 40-year-old Syrian-Palestinian woman, sits with her elderly mother. The older woman, a double refugee who first fled her home in Palestine in 1948, pulls a bullet casing from her purse that she found on the ground earlier in the day, after two men got into a fight outside their home. Armed clashes between militias and individuals are common in the camp, which exists as a kind of lawless zone that Lebanese security forces generally abstain from entering. But despite these dangerous circumstances, Najwa says, as long as Assad remains in power in Syria, she and her mother are not planning to return: “There’s no such thing as a guarantee with this regime.”

Yet the idea that Syrian refugees will remain in Lebanon for an extended period of time is exactly what’s fueling fears among Lebanese and leading to increased pressure on people to return. For many in Lebanon, the country’s history with Palestinian refugees is a cautionary tale that they are trying, often haphazardly, not to repeat.

In 1948, following the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the newly declared state of Israel, around 100,000 refugees poured across Lebanon’s southern border. Once it became clear that Israel would not allow them to return to their homes, the new arrivals posed a serious challenge to the young country where they found themselves displaced.

Lebanon had only declared independence from France five years earlier, and its political system was based on a delicate balance of power between the country’s three main religious groups: Maronite Christians and Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The various factions were already deeply divided over the identity of the fledgling state, the nature of power sharing, and Lebanon’s position in the Middle East. The presence of the Palestinians, the majority of whom were Sunni, exacerbated these existing tensions. Some Lebanese parties supported the Palestinian cause, while others called on them to leave. The government opted for a policy of nonintegration for the vast majority of Palestinian refugees to preserve the sectarian balance—a policy that continues to this day.

The situation was further complicated in 1970 when the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Yasir Arafat, set up its headquarters in Beirut and began using parts of southern Lebanon to launch attacks against Israel. As the PLO grew in power, with support from leftists and pan-Arabist and Sunni political groups, the predominantly Christian parties in Lebanon accused the Palestinians of creating a state within a state and accelerated the arming of their own militias. It didn’t take long for skirmishes to break out, and in 1975, after a Christian militia massacred a bus full of Palestinians in Beirut following an assassination attempt on a prominent Christian leader, the Lebanese Civil War began.

“I can’t say [the Palestinian issue] was the only factor, of course, but it was one of the factors that contributed to the civil war,” says Nasser Yassin, director of research at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.

The fighting lasted 15 years, laid much of the country to waste—including its capital, Beirut—and resulted in an estimated 120,000 deaths before finally coming to an end in 1990. Palestinian militias were deeply involved, especially before Israeli forces occupied Beirut in 1982 and forced the PLO from Lebanon. Almost three decades have passed since the war’s end, but Palestinians in Lebanon continue to endure nearly complete political and economic marginalization, says Gaby Jamal, a Palestinian political analyst and former fighter in the civil war. “They are really trying to push Palestinians to leave.”

When Syrians started to stream across the border in 2011, their arrival was inevitably seen by Lebanese through the lens of this tortured past. To avoid a possible repeat of history, the Lebanese government prohibited international organizations from establishing formal refugee camps for Syrians, because such camps had formed the backbone of Palestinian political and military organization. The government also refers to Syrians as “displaced persons” instead of as “refugees”—an attempt to draw a distinction with the Palestinians and also possibly to circumvent the obligations concerning refugees in international law. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to the Lebanese government’s restrictions on visas, today 80 percent of Syrian refugees live without legal residency, which restricts their movement and causes many to live in fear of authorities. Meanwhile, human-rights groups have documented cases of the suspected torture of Syrians detained by the army; this past July, four Syrian men died in custody under suspicious circumstances. Even local governments have begun cracking down: At least 45 municipalities have established curfews for Syrians that are enforced by local police or vigilante groups.

To be sure, there is another side to this story. Despite much ugliness and hostility, many communities in Lebanon have been supportive hosts to Syrian refugees. And while overall growth is down, the bottom hasn’t fallen out of the Lebanese economy. Moreover, some of the country’s poorest communities are benefiting from the international aid and development money flowing in to address the crisis.

“Lebanon has been both gracious and ungracious,” says Yahya, of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Both the government and the Lebanese have done quite a lot for the refugees—a lot of positive things.” But, she adds, “that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a lot of negative things happening.”

At the end of june, five suicide bombers blew themselves up during an army raid on refugee camps in Arsal, a region along the Syrian border that was a haven for hard-line groups fighting in Syria—including the Islamic State—until Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army drove them from the area in separate military campaigns last summer. The attack on the army ignited the simmering fears about the presence of Syrians in the country. At the United Nations, President Aoun said: “Terrorists have taken shelter in refugee gathering areas and camps, transforming them into a fertile terrain aiming to carry out terrorist activities.”

Makram Rabah, a Lebanese political analyst and historian, takes exception to this language. “Trying to pass on that every refugee is a suicide bomber is ridiculous,” he says. “These cells, at least the ones that are serious, are being caught…they’re being apprehended.”

Even so, Aoun isn’t the only person expressing these concerns, and there’s no denying the underlying anxieties fueling the calls for return. “There are existential fears…in this country about the prospective change to demographics,” Yahya says.

Even advocates for the refugees aren’t calling for their long-term integration into Lebanese society. “No one actually…has this in mind,” says Yassin, of the American University of Beirut. “I think this would really be a trigger for civil war…. We’re just saying, ‘Support them until they go back.’”

Since the start of last November, the Lebanese media and public have been consumed by the shock resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri after he was summoned to Saudi Arabia. The political drama, including Hariri’s return to Lebanon and subsequent retraction of his resignation, has provided a momentary distraction from the issue of Syrian refugees. But if elections proceed as planned in the spring, chances are that politicians will begin pressing the issue again, “using rhetoric, strategies, tactics to mobilize” their base, Yassin says.

In the meantime, this prolonged state of limbo has taken a devastating toll. Seventy-six percent of the Syrians in Lebanon live in poverty, a 5 percent increase since last year, and around 90 percent are in debt. Thirty percent of primary-school-age children aren’t receiving an education, and that number jumps to more than 80 percent for high-school-age children. The alarming statistics continue for virtually every measure of well-being, from health to housing to employment.

This prolonged state of destitution may ultimately prove as dangerous for Lebanon—to say nothing of the refugees—as any of the threats the government fears. One concern is that having hundreds of thousands of people without citizenship, jobs, or social inclusion will lead to militancy and political ferment. Another is that, faced with hardship and discrimination in Lebanon, refugees may begin choosing to return to Syria while it is still unsafe. “I think you’ll see more and more people making difficult decisions to go back to Syria, rather than live in Lebanon in these types of circumstances,” says Human Rights Watch’s Khawaja.

So far, the number of people who have gone back to Syria from Lebanon is small—just 8,000 in the first five months of 2017, according to data collected by the UNHCR. But “time is against us,” Yassin says. “The longer Syrians stay, the more you will get people questioning their stay,” and the more the tensions will build.

For now, however, there really is no other option for refugees like Zahour al-Wais, whose diary may still be waiting in the garden behind her family’s house in Adra. Zahour spends her days cleaning and cooking in the family’s tent and visiting with her friends in the camp. To pass the time, they smoke tobacco out of a water pipe and talk about where they might be able to find work. The larger forces of war and politics and history bearing down on their lives seem entirely out of their control, as do their futures.

“I just want one day to finish and then the next day to come and finish, too,” Zahour says. “To be honest, I don’t think about my future.”

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