• Social Issues
    Apr 17, 2024

    Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Crisis of Return

    • Carlos Naffah
    Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Crisis of Return
    Source: Khaled Akacha via Pexels

    This article is based on Carlos Naffah's newly published book “Between Integration and Return,” released at the 41st Lebanese Book Festival, organized by the Antelias Cultural Movement.


    In addition to the numerous economic, political, and security calamities facing Lebanon, the country is also experiencing the largest refugee crisis in modern history. Thirteen years after the onset of the war in Syria, Lebanon is still the country with the highest proportion of refugees in the world according to reports by international organizations (UNHCR, 2024).


    At the end of 2023, there were 784,884 Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon, down by 515,116 or 39.6% compared to the end of 2015, when the number of registered refugees was 1.3 million (UNHCR, 2022). The additional economic and social burdens caused by the Syrian war, coupled with the tragic earthquake that devastated parts of Syria, led to the influx of more Syrians into Lebanon through illegal land crossings.


    The Lebanese government’s 2015 decision requesting that the UNHCR suspend registration of refugees posed an additional obstacle, limiting the ability to track the number of refugees fleeing Syria for security or political reasons that remain largely unresolved. This also made it more difficult to distinguish between Syrians who sought asylum for political or security reasons and those who are considered economic migrants. The latter enjoy freedom of movement between the two countries and carry out business in Lebanon in both the formal and informal markets.


    Therefore, the reported figures, most recently in the UNHCR’s 2023-2024 Participatory Assessment (UNHCR, 2024), based on the 2022 government estimate of 1.5 million Syrian refugees, are questionable. The Participatory Assessment did not adopt the estimates provided by the Acting Director-General of General Security Brigadier General Elias Al-Baysari in October 2023, when he announced that the estimated number of displaced Syrians in Lebanon is 2.1 million, representing 43% of residents (Elnashra, 2023).


    Recently, Caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi announced that 300,000 Syrians out of two million “refugees” have residency permits, and only 800,000 of them are registered with UNHCR (lebanonfiles, 2024). Based on all the above, there is a lack of accurate and agreed-upon figures of Syrian refugees that can be used as a basis for policies and executive decisions.


    The Challenges of Return

    Syrian refugees considering their return face multiple challenges. These are not limited to the complex security situation and the multiple security authorities and military forces operating in Syria, but also involve the political, social, and economic situation there. The long years of war have impacted all Syrian governorates, destroying water, electricity, and housing infrastructure, resulting in a severe shortage of basic medical and educational services. Nearly 7,000 schools have been destroyed, denying around two million children access to education (UNICEF, 2024). Nearly three million housing units have been fully or partially destroyed (MEMO, 2018).


    The very fabric of Syrian society has been torn apart, sparking sectarian divisions and causing immense suffering in villages and cities. It is therefore impossible for refugees to return without a just national, social, and humanitarian reconciliation program. In fact, this is one of the most important pillars to address the crises resulting from this human tragedy, including the return of refugees.


    In addition to the economic and social difficulties preventing refugees from returning to Syria, Lebanon is facing a series of crises, including the repercussions of the Beirut port explosion (which is one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded) and the economic and financial crisis, ranked in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century (ELZIR, 2021). An estimated 80% of Lebanese citizens live in poverty, with 36% living below the extreme poverty line.


    Moreover, 90% of Syrian refugees are unable to secure their basic needs (Negotiations, 2023), and there is a lack of serious international support for the resettlement of refugees registered in Lebanon with UNHCR, with agency having only resettled 7,490 Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon in 2022 (Amnesty International, 2023).


    Amid this reality, Lebanese politicians have turned to populism and incitement, blaming refugees for the collapse of the country’s economy and infrastructure. There have been media campaigns warning of the threat that Syrian refugees pose to Lebanon's very existence. Syrian refugees have become a topic of populist debate with an increasing level of incitement by politicians. Several pretexts are used to justify this, most notably the argument that Syrians are competing with Lebanese citizens for job opportunities, the additional pressure on infrastructure, cross-border smuggling, or concerns regarding the sectarian balance in Lebanon. This puts Syrians under mounting pressure from Lebanese people calling for their return to Syria.


    These trends are supported by the dissemination of figures and estimates that are exploited by politicians but can be easily contested since there is no official refugee census to rely on. Even the Ministry of Labor does not have accurate data on the work permits granted to Syrians. For example, on 24 June 2022, Information International published a study with shocking numbers on the reality of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, stating that: “Approximately one and a half million Syrian refugees consume on a daily basis”:


    • More than 400 bread packs
    • 350 megawatts of electricity
    • More than 130 million liters of water
    • More than 100,000 jobs in various production sectors in Lebanon
    • Hospitalization in Lebanese health facilities, 90% of which is covered by the UN
    •  Transfers of money abroad amounting to approximately USD 65 million per month (Nidaa Al-Watan, 2023).


    All political parties in Lebanon agree that Syrian refugees should return to their country as a matter of urgency. They did not oppose the meeting held by Lebanese caretaker Minister of the Displaced, Issam Sharafeddine, with the Syrian Minister of Interior, Major General Muhammad al-Rahmoun, to discuss a plan for the return of Syrian refugees to their country. Rather, the dispute was limited to whether the file should be handled by Minister Sharafeddine or the Minister of Social Affairs Hector Hajjar (NNA, 2022).


    In addition, there have been sustained media campaigns and political statements calling for the collective return of Syrian refugees to their country or for facilitating their migration by sea to Europe. However, this has not been met with a change in policy or effective proposals that would pave the way for such a return. It appears as though the goal is not to secure the return of refugees, but rather to pressure donors into providing significant financial aid that would save Lebanon from the collapse it is facing (WhoLebanon, 2024).


    This seems especially true given that the cost of hosting Syrian refugees in Lebanon is around USD 1.5 billion yearly, as per a statement by Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Vice President for Middle East and North Africa. “Donors must pay a large share of this cost as Lebanon cannot absorb it alone,” Belhaj said during his meeting with caretaker Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati to discuss upcoming World Bank projects in Lebanon (Huaxi, 2024).


    Today, Lebanon is facing a constitutional vacuum due to the failure to elect a president. Additionally, the Lebanese government, acting as a caretaker government since its resignation, has yet to deliver on the reforms it promised to implement in the initial staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in April 2022.


    Instead, the government is trying to run its education and health services—even its security agencies—through the aid provided to Lebanon to support the integration of Syrian refugees and to stem the flow of Syrian refugees across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe via Cyprus, Greece, and Italy. This was evident in the recent visit of the Italian Prime Minister and the Cypriot President to Lebanon. However, the failure to implement any of the key reforms that could prompt the recovery of the Lebanese economy will lead to donor fatigue and will further strain Lebanon.


    Lebanon has not signed the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which stipulates the principle of refugee integration into host countries. According to the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the Lebanese General Security and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2003, Lebanon is not a country of asylum, but merely a country of transit (UNHCR, 2003).


    However, Lebanon has ratified the international humanitarian law and the international human rights law, where the principle of non-refoulement is enshrined in explicit terms (IRC, 2018). This is why, despite the refugees’ lack of legal residency documents, detainees are usually released after a few days either with a written warning to rectify their status or a final warning requiring them to return to Syria, with rare cases of forced deportation (Amnesty International, 2023).


    According to a statement by Lisa Bou Khaled, spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Lebanon, the Lebanese government committed not to use any data shared by the commission for purposes contrary to international law and reaffirmed its commitment to the principle of non-refoulement and its obligations under international law (Elnashra, 2023).


    Despite an atmosphere of hostility towards Syrian refugees in Lebanon, their imminent return still seems unlikely. In interviews we conducted with a sample of young Syrian refugees in Beirut aged between 20 and 25 who have been living in Lebanon since 2014, none expressed a desire to return to Syria. The main reasons they stated were their unwillingness to join military service, the lack of job opportunities with sufficient pay, and the feeling of stability in Lebanon. Notably, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, stated after his meeting with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati on the sidelines of their participation in the Global Refugee Forum that “the ideal solution is to support displaced people in Syria, but this will require time”(Aawsat, 2023).


    Gateway to Return

    The leaders of G7 countries, which include the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, and Japan, believe that the only gateway to a viable solution in Syria is UNSCR No. 2254 (G7, 2017), which called for the establishment of a credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance, and the adoption of a process for drafting a new constitution for Syria within 6 months. It also called for free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under supervision of the United Nations. They also linked normalization of relations with the Syrian government and reconstruction to achieving real progress in the political process.


    Despite some progress, constitutional negotiations between the government and the opposition facilitated by the United Nations in Geneva in 2019 failed to achieve positive results. At the time, the UN special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, considered the launch of the process to be “a historic moment, because for the first time, 50 nominees of the government and 50 nominees of the opposition are sitting face-to-face – but also two co-chairs side-by-side – to work as committee members on a key project: a new constitutional arrangement for Syria, a chance for something new for Syria” (UN, 2019).


    The failure of international diplomatic efforts towards achieving a political solution to the Syrian conflict negates the conditions for a safe and voluntary return. Additionally, the unprecedented economic collapse in Lebanon, coupled with high unemployment rates, the devaluation of the national currency, the significant rise in inflation, the lifting of subsidies on medicines and fuel, the disintegration of public institutions, and the increased hardships that many Lebanese are facing to meet their basic needs mean that any new influx of refugees could lead to a breaking point at any given moment, destabilizing the country and generating more devastating social crises that would affect everyone.


    The economic integration of Syrian refugees is therefore impossible, as 80% of the Lebanese people are living in poverty, not to mention the uncontrolled Lebanese-Syrian land borders, leading to repercussions that undermine all efforts to respond to the humanitarian crises resulting from the war in Syria.


    In the face of this chaos in managing one of the most serious humanitarian, social, economic, and political crises in Lebanon’s contemporary history, the country must adopt a national strategic vision that helps restore stability at all levels, while ensuring compliance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Lebanese Constitution, and the standards and principles for managing this type of crisis.





    Aawsat. (December 2023). Retrieved from https://aawsat.com/

    Amnesty International. (2023). Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/ar/latest/news/2023/04/lebanon-authorities-must-halt-unlawful-deportations-of-syrian-refugees/

    Amnesty International. (2023). Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/ar/documents/pol10/5670/2023/ar/

    Elnashra. (October 5, 2023). Retrieved from https://www.elnashra.com/news/show/

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    G7. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000246365.pdf

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    UNHCR. (2024). Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/lb/

    UNHCR. (2024). Retrieved from https://help.unhcr.org/lebanon/2023/11/08/results-of-2022-2023-participatory-assessment/

    UNICEF. (2024). Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/syria/education

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    Nidaa Al-Watan. (2023). Retrieved from https://www.nidaalwatan.com/article/


    Carlos Naffah is a university professor and a consultant specialized in refugee crisis management and public policy. He is a Ford Global Fellow (2020) and recipient of the German Foreign Ministry Award “German Unity through Arab Eyes” (2015). He headed the regional committee in charge of publishing Adyan Foundation's Glossary of Key Terms in Monitoring and Evaluation. He also headed the Arab Standard Classification of Occupations Committee as part of the GIZ Policy Reform program, as well as the Lebanese-German Academic Exchange Program with the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). In addition to his PhD in Education Policy from the Lebanese University, he holds a master’s degree in International Education Management from Ludwigsburg University, Germany, and a master’s degree in Political and Administration Sciences from the Lebanese University.
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