A repatriation clause requested by Lebanese President Michel Aoun in the new government’s policy statement is very clear: “They must return.” Aoun is using economic and political crises as a convenient justification to ex post facto legitimise actions taken by successive governments to remove refugees from Lebanon and validate new and ongoing return campaigns.
The 2 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon are being told that those who “entered the country to escape the dreadful security conditions” must return “since those conditions no longer exist.” Lebanon has been ramping up campaigns to force refugees to leave the country since July 2018, focusing on breaking morale by evicting displaced people, destroying tented settlements and tightening labour laws to make refugees view returning home as the better option.
In late June 2019, refugees living in Arsal, a town near the Syrian border, were forced to destroy houses and structures higher than one metre. The order, which had a deadline of 1 July, saw refugees using pickaxes, hammers and drills to demolish homes, fearing that the Lebanese government would use bulldozers if they failed to comply. Last April, the Litani River Authority destroyed “gatherings” which were home to at least 200 refugees on the banks of the river due to concerns about pollution and claims that tents were placed on the site of an irrigation project.
All such policies are intended to break morale by forcing refugees to become nomadic and unsettled, and making a return to Syria a more attractive option.
Successive governments in Lebanon have tightened labour laws frequently to prevent refugees from becoming economically established and stable. In July last year, the Labour Ministry announced a one-month deadline for “illegal workers” and “violators”, including businesses owned by refugees, to obtain the correct permits. The ministry has since closed several businesses, including 34 places where Palestinians were working, and has fined several cafes and bars in Beirut which failed to dismiss Syrian workers. Such restrictions, which notably do not apply to western “expatriates”, have squeezed and marginalised already displaced people.
Lebanese politicians have incited racism and xenophobia through hate speech in efforts to curry support for return campaigns by scapegoating Syrians and Palestinians for national problems. Gebran Bassil, the head of the Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement and son-in-law of President Aoun, has frequently used hate speech to denounce the presence of refugees in Lebanon. He has used nationalistic slogans, such as “Lebanon above all”, and in 2018 accused the UNHCR of spearheading an international conspiracy to integrate Syrian and Palestinian refugees into Lebanese society, causing the former foreign minister to suspend the residency application process for displaced peoples.
Racist hate speech has become more subtle since the outbreak of nationwide anti-government protests in October, with leading elites citing facts and figures to scapegoat refugees for the current crises. Riad Salameh, Governor of the Central Bank, blamed the country’s economic problems on “the Syrian refugees and the wars going on in the Middle East.” Meanwhile, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Nassaf Hitti tweeted recently an unverified extract from a UNDP report on the effect of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, claiming that refugees cost the country $46.5 billion between 2011 and 2018.
It is no secret that refugees have put a strain on society, but unnecessary public anger, incited through racist speech from some of Lebanon’s leading figures, has created friction between residents and refugees. A fight broke out in a camp near Deir Al-Ahmar in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in June last year, after three tents were destroyed in a fire, and refugees claimed local firefighters were deliberately slow to respond. The local municipal authorities later ordered refugees to leave the area “for their own protection.” Of the 120 displaced families, 90 resettled in fields close to a nearby town, without shelter, energy or access to food or water. Worsening relations between locals and refugees as a result of racism has frequently displaced people, and has acted as an effective way to encourage Syrians to go home.
The Lebanese government introduced programmes of voluntary and enforced deportations in July 2018. Since then, it has steadily increased them, which creates an atmosphere of fear, and which in turn encourages refugees to return voluntarily. Coordinated by the Lebanese and Syrian security forces, refugees are offered the waiving of the normal exit fees payable by those who have been living in the country illegally as an incentive to leave.
As of March 2019, Lebanese officials claimed that 170,000 refugees had returned to Syria since December 2017, although the UNHCR documented only 39,000 “spontaneous returns” since 2016. UNHCR reports allege that refugees were forced to sign voluntary return forms, and at least three returnees were detained upon arrival in Syria.
Despite the discrepancy, Lebanese numbers are likely to include Palestinians from established refugee camps in Syria, whom the government in Beirut view as foreigners, rather than refugees or asylum seekers. This precludes Palestinians from Syria from extended stays in Lebanon and puts them at a high risk of deportation. The Lebanese authorities rejected appeals for Palestinians from Syria to have their visas renewed if they entered Lebanon after 16 September 2016, blacklisted them and called for their deportation within 15 days.
Moreover, the authorities have rolled out similar policies for Syrians. In a statement on 13 May, the General Security Officer said that Syrians who entered Lebanon irregularly after 24 April 2019 would face deportation. This includes all refugees without legal documentation who cannot prove that they entered the country prior to that date. Current estimates suggest that approximately 75 per cent of Syrian and Palestinian refugees are in the country illegally, leaving every one of them at risk of deportation.
Eight Lebanese NGOs have demanded that deportations be stopped immediately due to concerns about their legality and the likely contravention of non-refoulement policy, after 301 refugees were deported within one month. Amnesty International has also questioned the legality of voluntary returns and forced deportations, arguing that refugees are not able to access accurate information about the ongoing crisis in Syria.
However, the ongoing economic and political crises in Lebanon have removed the harsh treatment of refugees from the national discourse, and politicians have increasingly sought to sweep forcible returns under the carpet. The government’s official message, which has been legitimised by the new government’s repatriation clause, is simple: “Syria is safe to return to and Lebanon cannot cope any more.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.