Few people outside Lebanon noticed when the government gave itself the power to strip Syrians of their refugee status. While the world's eyes were trained on the election in Syria, the outcome of which is thought to be a foregone conclusion, the far more uncertain consequences of this quietly radical move began taking shape.
Twenty-four hours notice was all the Interior Ministry thought necessary to give some of the most vulnerable people in its borders when it announced that "All Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR [the UN's refugee agency] are asked to refrain from entering Syria starting June 1, or else they might be stripped of their refugee status." The decision came just two days before June 3, when many refugees would have intended to go to Syria to vote, and two days after the scenes outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut provided a stark demonstration of how many of them felt (whether forced or free) strongly enough to make that trip.
The government justified its move with appeals to security, saying it acted to quell tensions in host communities (not an unfounded fear, as one recent study showed) and to curb what looks like an increasingly unsustainable population influx.
While previously Lebanon has appealed to its state sovereignty in acting against refugee populations on its soil – for example in the military operation against the "state within a state" established in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared – it has now turned to international law, citing a section of the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention that says refugee status can be reneged when the individual concerned "voluntarily re-avail[s] himself of the protection of the country of his nationality". The government says it suspects many Syrians to be economic migrants masquerading under the protections of refugee status, and its policy is ostensibly intended to isolate the former and better protect the latter. That such a clean distinction can or even should be made is questionable in itself.
But rights groups have decried the sweeping scope of the new powers, which do not differentiate between someone with the financial means to make regular trips across the border and someone who simply wants to make a rare visit to the relatives they have left behind.
The appeal to the Refugee Convention is all the more troubling for the fact that Lebanon is not actually a signatory to the document. The government is thus picking and choosing between the international norms that legitimise its actions and those that would cast it in a negative light.
It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Lebanon is committing precisely the same "offence" that it is accusing Syrians of – hiding selfish economic motives beneath selfless humanitarian rhetoric. Before war broke out Lebanon's population was around 4 million; estimates now put the number of Syrians who have swelled that figure at well over one million, and still rising. Though there is a long history of seasonal Syrian workers crossing the porous border to work in Lebanon, the new arrivals have become the go-to scapegoat for high unemployment and low wages, as popular opinion increasingly turns against them.
Enforcement of the new policy will require greater collaboration between the Lebanese government and the UNHCR, as the latter has the only list of registered refugees. This prospect comes as the government also pushes hard for access to highly sensitive biometric data held by the agency, which now takes iris scans of all newly registered refugees, with the Lebanese authorities making the wild claim that a state has a right of ownership to any data collected on its territory. A poster advertising the new technology assures prospective refugees that the data will not be shared without their consent, and UNHCR staff have said that "this is not something we would do, but the agency has nonetheless confirmed that it is in talks with the government on the matter.
The UNHCR's lack of a public policy on data protection, coupled with the Lebanese authorities' penchant for formidable bureaucracy, do not provide cause for hope in such a partnership. Nor does it appear to have encouraged some of the prospective refugees, who have told local media that they would rather turn back that allow such sensitive data to be taken from them. Many fear it could end up in the hands of the regime they were trying to flee. Whether intended or not, the result is a deterrence that hedges what should be unqualified access to universal rights.
No one can deny that Lebanon is bearing a hugely disproportionate proportion of the humanitarian burden of the Syrian crisis, but the government's logic is highly flawed, and its motives deeply suspect. The way the UN, as an international organisation, chooses to adapt its methods to accommodate the actions of this small country that currently lacks even a head of state will be a revealing mark of the power balance in what shows no sign of losing its status as the world's worst refugee crisis in recent history.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.