• Social Issues
    Jun 16, 2022

    Reconsidering Resilience: The EU and Premature Refugee Returns in Lebanon

    • Tamirace Fakhoury, Nora Stel
    Reconsidering Resilience: The EU and Premature Refugee Returns in Lebanon


    In the Brussels Conference for Supporting Syria and the Region (May 2022), Lebanon repeated its call for refugees to return to Syria. Earlier that month, it also formally announced to the UNHCR that the country can no longer host Syrian refugees, largely due to unfulfilled financial pledges and Lebanon’s ongoing and deep economic crisis.


    How do key external actors like the European Union (EU), which funds refugee aid and provides resilience-building programs in Lebanon, deal with such calls for refugee return? And how does the EU’s vision for building resilience in a distressed state mesh with Lebanon’s policy on the return of refugees?


    Lebanon: Disputed Refugee Return


    Voluntary refugee return is widely seen as the most desirable “durable solution” to forced displacement by the majority of refugees, host states, and the international community. In its “New Pact on Asylum and Migration,” the EU has made refugee return a priority. This mostly entails returning refugees from the EU to so-called “regional host countries,” often to the Middle East and North African region, commonly framed as the EU’s “Southern Neighborhood.”


    But, partly as a result of the EU’s migration deterrence measures, most refugees have never left these regional host countries in the first place. This begs the question of how the EU engages with refugee return within its Southern Neighborhood, an issue that has so far received remarkably little attention in policy and scholarly literature.


    In the context of displacement from Syria, the EU has been one of the top donors channeling funding to refugee-hosting countries such as Lebanon and Turkey. The objective of such financial support is two-fold: help host countries deal with displacement and build refugee self-reliance in the host country. Hosting governments such as Lebanon and Turkey are however increasingly pressuring displaced Syrians to return to their country, though the conflict has not abated yet.


    In a recent article for Geopolitics titled “EU Engagement with Contested Refugee Returns in Lebanon: The Aftermath of Resilience,” we address some of the questions that these developments raise, exploring what the EU does to uphold conditions for voluntary, safe, and dignified returns in the refugee-hosting states where it endeavors to build resilience. We draw on the case of Lebanon, which hosts the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide, after receiving more than one million displaced Syrians in the wake of Syria’s 2011 war.


    Although the UN concluded that conditions for a safe return to Syria are not in place, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are now facing increasing pressure to return to their country. As soon as the Syrian regime recaptured key rebel-held areas in 2016, key politicians in Lebanon started lobbying the international community, including the EU, for rash returns. Recently, some Lebanese authorities have called on the EU to divert its financial aid to Syria to incentivize refugees to return and to support Lebanon’s National Return Plan adopted in 2020.


    The General Security Directorate, which oversees foreigners residing in Lebanon, has organized various so-called “voluntary return initiatives” since 2017. While the UNHCR reported that about 68,856 registered Syrian refugees have so far returned, the Lebanese government maintained in 2019 that the number is closer to 390,000. Humanitarian organizations, including Human Rights Watch, saw such operations as lacking transparency and accountability regarding the safe and dignified nature of the return. In 2019, General Security began applying tougher measures, leading to the deportation of Syrians who crossed into Lebanon “illegally.” These forced returns, which were officially halted during the COVID-19 pandemic, took place under highly questionable circumstances and are reported to have targeted people who entered Lebanon even before that date.


    Lebanon’s insistence on hasty returns is in line with its long-established politics of (non)asylum, and its self-identification as a transit country that considers return, rather than local integration, as the only durable solution.


    Aftermath of the EU’s Resilience-Building Policy


    The EU has made tremendous investments in Lebanon to help build resilience in the face of displacement, seeking to both enhance refugee self-reliance and strengthen Lebanon’s capacity to host them. This resilience paradigm was the backbone of the “2016 EU-Lebanon Compact,” through which the EU has emerged as a top donor in the country, helping Lebanon to offset the costs of hosting Syrian refugees.


    Since 2011, the EU has allocated 2.4 billion Euros to the country: 670.3 million in bilateral assistance, 716 million in humanitarian assistance, and 1.1 billion in “resilience assistance.” These investments in resilience make the EU’s engagement with premature returns a pivotal policy concern, as current returns are at odds with the EU’s perpetual call for building refugee resilience in host states.


    Based on document analysis, participant observation, and expert interviews, our article shows that there is a tension between the EU’s policy rhetoric on returns in Lebanon and its practical policy programming—a tension that undercuts the EU’s ability to contribute to rights-based returns. In rhetoric, the EU aligns itself with international principles on return in dignity and safety. However, it never explicates its own role in realizing such principles. More specifically, the EU continues to advocate for refugee resilience in Lebanon regardless of the Lebanese government’s push for refugee returns. This politics of resilience-building, which advocates for temporary but continued refugee stay, ignores the factors leading displaced Syrians to return. It also glosses over political realities in Lebanon.


    Lebanese politicians, who favor speedy returns, point to the “resilience-building” designation to say that the EU policy is little more than a cover for the imposed integration of refugees. The term “resilience” has always been regarded with suspicion by Lebanese officials, preferring the term “stabilization,” in order to avoid any long-term connotations. Invoking the deeply divisive presence of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, seen as one of the contributing factors to the country’s long civil war, officials view imposed integration as a threat to Lebanon’s stability and sovereignty. This discourse of a “destabilized Lebanon” has come to function as a justification for premature returns.


    Against this backdrop, the so-called politics of resilience-building thus risks contributing to refugee precarity rather than dealing systematically with the root causes inducing returns. Take for instance the “Lebanon Compact” (2016-2020) and the EU’s vision of resilience in this package instrument, which channels aid to Lebanon in exchange for the government facilitating refugee stay. The compact has an uneasy relationship with dignified refugee stay, and consequently with the prospects for safe and voluntary returns. It acknowledges the prevalence of Lebanon’s “non-asylum” principles over the creation of a sustainable refugee protection environment. A commitment is further made to working towards return in accordance with international law and host-country interests, without acknowledging that these two perspectives often do not go hand in hand. This means that the EU finds itself in an awkward position, oscillating between two policy stances that are hard to reconcile: consolidating refugee resilience in Lebanon, while accommodating Lebanon’s desire for faster returns.


    Simply put, the EU’s vision for “refugee resilience” was not achieved. Due to Lebanon’s economic meltdown beginning in 2019, and the devastating explosion at the Port of Beirut the following year, more than 70 percent of Syrian refugees have fallen below the poverty line, with only 20 percent designated as legal residents, despite government pledges to ease access to legal documentation. In this context, reiterating the significance of resilience turns into an illusory policy outcome. It also undermines the EU’s very call for safe and dignified returns.


    Beyond Containment, Beyond Resilience


    As Lebanese realities run counter to the EU’s policy diplomacy, our article concludes that the EU’s current policy instruments focusing on “temporary shelter” have failed to engage with persistently negative host-related push factors for refugee return. As we argue, the EU warns against premature returns and cautions against negative push factors enticing rash journeys back to Syria. But, in practice, it has negotiated policy tools with the Lebanese government that elide the creation of a rights-based asylum system, which would allow refugees to leave in a dignified way and to return home only when conditions become favorable. This plays into the hands of those pressuring for rash returns. Perilous boat departures in the Mediterranean, uninformed and precipitated returns followed by re-returns, and refugees in desperate search for alternative options, all attest to refugees’ precarious trajectories in Lebanon.


    If the EU is to convincingly claim that its external migration policy is more than a form of containment that routinely sacrifices refugee rights, it is high time to review its partnership with Lebanon. This requires a critical reflection on resilience as the pinnacle of migration partnerships. The policy paradigm of resilience is politically functional in that it acknowledges temporality while advocating for self-reliance. But, it thereby blurs responsibility over what resilient outcomes are to be expected and how these outcomes interact with host-related push factors enticing refugee return. Assumptions of refugee empowerment and self-reliance embedded in imaginaries of resilience might now operate to repackage “soft deportation” as voluntary return.


    Ultimately, our analysis calls for the EU to rethink how its external migration policy might not just engage with the creation of more lasting solutions in host states, but also with the afterlife of such “solutions,” namely how they inhibit or facilitate pathways for voluntary return in safety and dignity.


    Tamirace Fakhoury is Associate Professor of International Politics and Conflict at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She is also an LCPS Senior Fellow and a visiting professor at Sciences Po, where she was the visiting Kuwait Chair (2020-2022). Previously, Tamirace was an Associate Professor at Aalborg University in its Copenhagen Campus in Denmark. Prior to this, she was based at the Lebanese American University (LAU), where she was the Director of the Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution (ISJCR). Her core research areas are the global governance of conflicts and conflict spillovers, power-sharing and social movements in post-conflict societies, migration and refugee governance, and the European Union’s external policy in the Mediterranean. This piece is inspired by her writing project on time and politics in post-war Lebanon in the context of the Carlsberg Monograph Fellowship.
    Nora Stel is Assistant Professor in Conflict Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, where she is the co-chair of the Radboud Young Academy. Nora works on refugee governance in conflict-affected settings, with specific expertise on the Middle East. She is the author of Hybrid Political Order and the Politics of Uncertainty - Refugee Governance in Lebanon. For more information visit: www.norastel.com
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