Lebanon’s deliberate non-policy on Syrian refugees

Lebanon’s deliberate non-policy on Syrian refugees

The issue of refugees is not handled in a systematic and professional manner (File/AFP)
The issue of refugees is not handled in a systematic and professional manner (File/AFP)
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A Syrian man last week attacked the US Embassy in Lebanon. It is said he had Daesh written on his clothing. The man was registered as a refugee in Lebanon. Of course, this led to a rise in hate speech. Escalating hate speech in a country that is witnessing tensions can lead to an explosion. This should be a wake-up call to the Lebanese government that it is time to devise a policy. So far, the Lebanese government’s policy has been a policy of non-policy.

Successive governments have deliberately chosen not to craft a policy regarding refugees. Instead, the issue has been used on a tactical level depending on the need. The refugee issue has been a card used domestically, as well as with the international community. Internally, whenever there is public anger toward the political class’s corruption and incompetence, this issue is the best distraction. Politicians have also used the refugees to extort funds from the international community and pressure the world to turn a blind eye to the political class’s corruption.

The problem is that the issue of refugees is not handled in a systematic and professional manner. The attack on the US Embassy was not the first act of violence perpetrated by a Syrian living in Lebanon. In April, Pascal Suleiman, a member of the Lebanese Forces, was kidnapped and killed. Though the official story was that a gang of car thieves committed the crime, all the evidence points to the involvement of Bashar Assad-affiliated gangs, particularly the 4th Armored Division led by Maher Assad.

Directing anger at Syrians generally, as is the case today, will only lead to more tensions and possibly unrest. The Syrian refugees in Lebanon are looked at as one bulk. There is no differentiation. However, to start solving the issue of refugees, there should be proper compartmentalization.

Directing anger at Syrians generally, as is the case today, will only lead to more tensions and possibly unrest

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

Firstly, there are the refugees who fled the Assad regime’s brutality. There are also refugees from areas bordering Lebanon that are now occupied by Hezbollah. On the other hand, there are Syrians who move freely between Lebanon and Syria. Hence, they are not refugees. A refugee is someone fleeing danger in their home country.

It is known that, as a result of the economic crisis in Syria, Bashar Assad started dumping Syrians across the Lebanese border. These are by no means refugees. However, the regime uses them. Financially, it benefits from the disbursement provided to the refugees. The regime also uses them to create security disturbances in the country — hence the murder of Suleiman.

There are also the workers that the Lebanese economy relies on to a large extent. No solution can be devised unless there is a classification of the different categories. A different solution should be devised for each of the different categories. However, the issue of refugees is politicized to the maximum.

The current Lebanese government, which is dominated by the pro-Assad, pro Hezbollah camp, is using the refugees to pressure the international community into accepting Assad and alleviating sanctions. The refugees, along with narcotics, are Assad’s main point of blackmail of the international community. He will not allow them back unless the international community accepts him and pours money into Syria, which under the current circumstances will be used to fund his corrupt and brutal regime. This would only perpetuate the current conflict in Syria.

The refugees, along with narcotics, are Assad’s main point of blackmail of the international community

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

The Lebanese government has expressed its disappointment with last month’s EU conference on Syria in Brussels that declared that the conditions were not yet right for the safe and voluntary return of refugees. On the other hand, it was offered €1 billion ($1.08 billion) of aid for the country’s economy and security forces. Many Lebanese have described this aid as a “bribe.” Now, the government has announced that it has a plan for the refugees’ voluntary return. However, this so-called plan remains vague. It has not been published anywhere, meaning that the people, especially Syrian refugees, do not know what kind of policy they are facing.

Following last month’s visit by Syria’s head of intelligence, Hossam Louka, to Beirut to meet Hassan Nasrallah, there was talk circulating in the Lebanese capital that Hezbollah might pressure the Damascus regime into accepting refugees and not making them subject to arbitrary arrest. However, a speech made by Nasrallah after the visit did not change the tone. He emphasized that the way to handle the refugees is to accept Assad and for the US to lift its Caesar Act sanctions. Nasrallah called on Syrians to take to the sea and head to Europe. Hence, the speculation was probably wrong. This proves that Hezbollah and the current government are still using refugees as a scapegoat internally and as a negotiating card with the international community, while having no intention whatsoever to devise a policy to handle the issue.

If they had a genuine intention to solve the problem, they would start by at least counting the refugees. They would start distinguishing between those who move freely back and forth to Syria and hence face no danger and those who have remained in Lebanon. The General Security Directorate has all the data on movement across the border.

Again, this ambiguity should not be accepted by the international community. The international community should pressure the Lebanese government into making a clear tally of the Syrians in Lebanon in order to be able to judge who are real refugees and who are not. The so-called policy of returning refugees should be directed toward those who will not be subject to arbitrary arrest by the regime.

Also, the Lebanese government should realize that adopting a clear and transparent policy is the only way to secure Lebanon. It should also be aware that the prevailing hate speech will not work. Though it can create a momentary distraction, it will have grave security implications. It could lead to a conflict that the country does not need, especially with the fighting going on with Israel in the south.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.
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