BEIRUT – Ahead of Lebanon’s upcoming general elections, the country’s politicians are increasing their calls for the repatriation of Syrian refugees. However, the coauthor of a report from the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) has cautioned that the government simply does not have the capacity to develop a formal repatriation plan.
In an interview with Syria Deeply, Dima Mahdi, who coauthored a report titled “Law and Politics of ‘Safe Zones’ and Forced Return to Syria: Refugee Politics in Lebanon,” warned that the absence of a formal government-backed plan could allow non-state actors, such as Hezbollah, to try to undertake refugee returns without state involvement or international oversight, raising concerns for their safety. The legality of such a repatriation process remains largely unclear.
The renewed calls for Syrian refugees to be repatriated come despite a resurgence of brutal violence in the neighboring country that the U.N. has described as some of the most worrying and dangerous since the start of the conflict.
In August, the Lebanese Hezbollah organized the largest formal repatriation of refugees and fighters to Syria since the start of the conflict, without the official involvement of the Lebanese government or U.N. agencies. This was carried out despite a consensus in the international community that the situation in Syria is not yet stable enough to allow for returns.
Some 721,000 Syrians returned to their homes in 2017 (mostly internally displaced people) – an increase from the 560,000 that returned the previous year. However, for every person who returned in 2017 at least three more were newly displaced and an additional 1.5 million people are expected to be forced from their homes in the coming year.
Earlier this month, leading international aid agencies warned that hundreds of thousands of refugees are also at risk of being forced to return in 2018, despite alarming levels of violence on the ground. In light of the warning, Syria Deeply spoke to Mahdi about Lebanon’s current repatriation plans, the different proposals submitted by Lebanese politicians and the risks associated with giving non-state actors room to oversee refugee returns.
Syria Deeply: Considering the ongoing violence in Syria, is this the right time to discuss repatriation?
Dima Mahdi: Calls for repatriation remain a key concern among the international community and in Lebanon. Humanitarian actors are wary of entering into a public confrontation with politicians on this sensitive subject. Before calling for repatriation, the notion itself needs to be widely understood. The absence of socioeconomic, security, judicial, political and human rights guarantees for returnees means there are no safe places for them to repatriate to in Syria. Although the Syrian crisis is approaching the end of its seventh year, the situation on the ground in Syria does not meet the broad criteria for safe and voluntary repatriation, and it seems unlikely that the necessary criteria will be met for refugees to return and reside in Syria safely and securely in the immediate future.
Syria Deeply: What recent developments have led Lebanese politicians to increase calls for the repatriation of Syrian refugees?
Mahdi: Calls for repatriation began as early as 2013. The recent increase in public calls for repatriation is due in large part to the increased demand for resources, services and employment, as well as tensions at the local level. This has resulted from the fact that Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities alike have been affected by spillovers of the conflict. Rather than addressing the drivers of tension and pressure between both communities, politicians are resorting to mobilizing their constituents and playing on the fear of “the other,” while further marginalizing Syrian refugees. Moreover, with parliamentary elections approaching this May, there is a possibility that rhetoric in support of repatriation will be employed by politicians to mobilize their respective constituencies.
Syria Deeply: Are there different views among Lebanese politicians in terms of how and under what conditions repatriation should be carried out?
Mahdi: Yes, there are differences among political parties regarding the mechanism by which the repatriation of Syrian refugees should take place. The Future Movement, Lebanese Forces and Kataeb party believe that repatriation plans should be organized and monitored by the international community, and that safe zones should be established by the U.N.
Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement have called for Syrian refugees’ immediate repatriation to relatively stable areas in Syria. According to the interviews conducted by LCPS with various Lebanese political party members and based on what is already in the public sphere, a detailed repatriation plan has not been put forward.
Syria Deeply: Is it likely that the government will develop a formalized repatriation plan?
Mahdi: According to the findings of our latest report, it is unlikely that the government will take the initiative in the development of a nationwide repatriation plan without external support. The Lebanese government neither has the capacity nor willingness to undertake such a plan independently, as it would require extensive data-gathering on refugees, coordination with the Syrian regime and readiness to violate international law by sanctioning refugee refoulement. Moreover, in light of the government’s dependence on the international community’s response to the refugee crisis, specifically financial and administrative support, it is also improbable that the state would risk losing such support by formalizing a repatriation plan. This sentiment was shared by Prime Minister Saad Hariri in a recent statement affirming that Syrian refugees will not be forced back to Syria.
Syria Deeply: Lebanon’s so-called dissociation policy from the Syrian war precludes official government dealings with Damascus. Does this prevent the government from coordinating repatriation plans with the Syrian government?
Mahdi: The dynamics of the dissociation policy have been unclear throughout the crisis due to the upholding of diplomatic relations between the governments of Syria and Lebanon, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, the visit of Hezbollah and Amal Movement MPs to Damascus, and Prime Minister Hariri publicly rejecting communication with Damascus. Although Hezbollah argues that dialogue and coordination between both governments are prerequisites for refugee repatriation, the extent to which the party may act as an intermediary in the case of planned refugee refoulement remains unclear.
Syria Deeply: Hezbollah has spearheaded repatriation efforts in recent months. What are some of the risks associated with allowing non-state armed actors to spearhead refugee returns?
Mahdi: In such a politicized context, safeguarding voluntary returns and ensuring that negotiations are non-coercive and genuine is critical. In the case of returns administered by non-state actors, there are concerns associated with actors’ geopolitical intentions and actions that could drastically shift the demographics, as well as the absence of oversight from the international community and a recognition of post-return rights. Repatriation agreements should grant returnees freedom of mobility and the right to return to their country of asylum in the event of persecution or undesirable living conditions.
Syria Deeply: How can we determine whether returns are forced or voluntary?
Mahdi: There are several barriers to ensuring that the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon is voluntary. Such barriers include mounting tensions between Lebanese host communities and Syrian refugees and the adoption of harsh residency and socioeconomic policies toward Syrian refugees. Hence, it is difficult to determine whether returns are voluntary or coercive, or a combination of the two, which is affected by living conditions and marginalization in Lebanon. It is also important to note the intended role of annual aid cuts in catalyzing returns. Furthermore, a repatriation process entailing the participation of aid agencies would be more likely to take into account fundamental factors tied to protection concerns and human rights.
The answers have been edited for length and clarity.