On September 21, a boat carrying almost 40 Syrian refugees sank off the coast of Lebanon. They’d paid a smuggler to help them reach the European Union through Cyprus. Luckily, they were all saved – that is, almost everyone. A 5-year-old child, Khaled Nijmeh, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.
The sad story of Khaled is indicative of the increasingly desperate situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In September, I conducted field research across Lebanon, which resulted in a report addressing the mounting pressure on Syrian refugees to return to their country. I spoke with more than 50 Syrians and upward of 40 experts, and witnessed how Syrians often live in inhumane conditions in informal settlements.
Russian Return ‘Plan’
This desperation should not come as a surprise. At a time when the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is rapidly deteriorating and humanitarian aid budgets are in free fall, the international and domestic pressure on refugees to return to Syria has increased significantly.
In July, Russia announced it would start working on a large-scale program to return some 1.7 million Syrian refugees to Syria, the bulk of them from Lebanon, in the near future. It would also include some 200,000 now residing in Europe. Russian officials are seeking European endorsement of these proposals, explicitly linking them to the demand that the E.U. provides financial support – with no strings attached – for Syria’s reconstruction. Russia also wants the E.U. to lift all sanctions against Syria and to restore diplomatic relations between Damascus and European capitals.
But as Refugees Deeply has reported, returns at this point can be premature – and often dangerous. Syrians have returned to find empty homes, destroyed infrastructure, little power, scarce water and few job opportunities. In government-controlled areas, men under 43 years old still face mandatory conscription into battle. Many Syrians who have fled since the war began have been labeled defectors by the government and could face torture or arrest if they reenter the country. It’s not always possible to confirm who is on the regime’s wanted list.
The E.U., which has committed itself politically to the “safe, voluntary and dignified return” of Syrian refugees, is thus faced with a key strategic question: Should it support the Russian return plan? Or should it delay involvement until conditions are met to ensure Syrians’ safety?
Refugees as Bargaining Chips
There are few indications that Russia’s proposals would help protect and improve the human rights of Syrian refugees. On the contrary, it seems that Syrians are being used as bargaining chips. Russia is playing the “return card” by appealing to anti-migration sentiment in parts of Europe where public opinion may favor Syrians’ repatriation. Russia’s goal is to achieve its own political objectives in Syria.
Given the strong preference of many European politicians to deter irregular migration at any cost, the strain faced by host countries in caring for Syrian refugees, and Russian political interests, there is a real risk that Syrians will be sent back home prematurely. Not only would that risk undermining Syrian refugees’ physical, legal and material safety, it could also lead to future displacement waves and the further destabilization of Syria. After all, the conflict’s root causes – inequality, corruption, poverty and human-rights violations – still exist.
The Way Forward
How to proceed in such a difficult context? The E.U., which will host another Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region in March, must take urgent action to promote the three internationally recognized durable solutions in relation to Lebanon: safe, dignified and voluntary returns; a dignified stay in host countries; and resettlement or complementary legal pathways. And it must strike a deal with Lebanon to ensure those durable solutions are in place for Syrian refugees. (Similar deals might also be struck with Jordan and Turkey if they move to return Syrians, too.)
First, the E.U. should use its position of strength to positively influence the conditions for return inside Syria. It could communicate to Russia that it is ready to engage on a return agenda if – and only if – Russia uses its leverage over the Syrian government to ensure specific human rights and protection thresholds are met. This should happen before the start of any coordinated return process. The E.U. could do so by insisting the United Nations refugee agency’s “thresholds and parameters for return” are the basis of any return process. Those parameters must include significant reduction of hostilities and guarantees that returnees will not face harassment or punishment and that each individual’s decision to return is genuinely voluntary.
The E.U. should also insist these parameters are made operational through the development of specific progress-monitoring benchmarks, such as the revocation of the infamous Law 10 – under which the government designates areas as redevelopment zones, which amounts to seizure of property for displaced Syrians unable to show proof of ownership in person – and full access for international monitors throughout the country.
Simultaneously, the E.U. should expand the geographical scope of the E.U. Trust Fund for Syria (known as the Madad Fund) to projects inside Syria. Currently it funds resilience projects for Syria’s neighbors only. The funds should come with the development of “conflict-sensitivity” guidelines to ensure that E.U. assistance actually reaches local communities and citizens. This might include a human rights-based due diligence policy, transparent procurement procedures, a mechanism to report diversion of aid and the capacity for civil society to monitor projects.
Second, if the E.U. is serious about promoting safe, voluntary and dignified returns, it must increase its efforts to tackle the “push factors” that prevent Syrians’ returns from being truly voluntary. For example, the quality and quantity of European assistance to Lebanon should be reviewed, with a particular focus on improving Syrians’ legal residency status in Lebanon – the lack of which is a major factor for returns. Our report outlines several specific ideas, including the adoption of an action plan and monitoring mechanism to hold all parties accountable, making E.U. funding mechanisms more flexible and longer-term, investing in social stability projects between refugees and host communities and including refugees themselves in decision-making processes.
Third, the E.U.’s limited resettlement quota for Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon has seriously hampered and undermined E.U. credibility and political leverage to promote its “protection in the region” agenda. In the first 10 months of 2018, E.U. member states accepted only 5,300 Syrians living in Lebanon for resettlement.
By increasing this number, the E.U. can send an important signal to the Lebanese government and public that Lebanon is not alone. This will in turn create goodwill and momentum to increase protection for Syrians in Lebanon.
A durable solutions deal between the E.U. and Lebanon is long overdue. Now is the time for action, as the premature return of Syrian refugees would have a devastating impact on refugees, Syria itself and the region. Moreover, the pressure to return Syrians to a country where conditions are not yet in place for a safe return could force more to attempt the dangerous sea journey to Europe.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.