Nadine Elali

Shutting the door

How Lebanon will turn away refugees fleeing the violence in Syria.

Syrians at the Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

With the Syrian refugee population set to reach 1.5 million by the end of the year, Lebanon has decided to stop the influx of people fleeing the war raging in its neighbor. The new government policy aims not only to bar refugees, but also to bolster security measures as well as address economic matters. 


The new measures have long been in coming. In May, General Security imposed restrictive border and visa measures to stop Palestinian-Syrians from seeking refuge in Lebanon, a move condemned by international organizations. Meanwhile, top cabinet ministers and politicians have repeatedly sounded numerous warnings regarding the growing Syrian refugee population, arguing that Lebanon was facing economic, social and security repercussions.


Discussions on Syrian refugees picked up steam after Syrian-based Islamists conducted a cross-border raid into Arsal in early August, capturing dozens of security personnel during 5-days of fierce battles in the town that hosts more refugees than Lebanese nationals.


Following the Arsal clashes, the government studied the feasibility of establishing two “test” refugee camps, one near Masnaa along the Lebanese-Syrian border in the Beqaa and another in the north, however the plan was shelved by the end of the month.


Last Thursday, though, Lebanon’s politically paralyzed government approved the new policy to stop hosting new refugees in a rare show of agreement made only days before the start of a Berlin conference to coordinate international efforts on Syrian refugees.


Hala Helou, advisor to Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, told NOW that although the policy intends to stop refugees from entering the country, it does not mean that Lebanon will close its border to Syrians in general.


“Our border will remain open to [non-refugee] Syrian nationals,” she explained, “however, only extreme humanitarian cases will be allowed entry [as refugees].”


While the official policy on barring refugees is new, Lebanese authorities had already taken de-facto measures to limit their numbers. “There’s already been a decision stating that Syrian refugees are not allowed to commute between Syria and Lebanon,” Interior Ministry advisor Khalil Gebara told NOW.


“If [a refugee] feels safe enough to return home, then he is no longer a refugee,” he said, explaining the state’s logic behind its measure.


Beyond just barring further refugees from entering the country, the policy, according to Helou, calls for the Lebanese government to reevaluate the cases of refugees registered by the UNHCR.


The UN organization has played the preeminent role on the refugee issue in Lebanon, registering over 1.3 million Syrians to date. The government, Helou told NOW, will be taking the lead from this point on concerning the refugee file and will work in close collaboration with UNHCR and the different agencies to meet its objectives.


Not only does the plan set out to curtail the influx of refugees, it will also focus on security. For the first time in history Lebanon’s government has declared the issue of refugees one that threatens the country’s sovereignty, Gebara said. 


According to Helou, the policy’s measures will include border management as well efforts to bolster security at the local, municipal, level. 


As the security situation in the country remains on edge, Lebanese security agencies have conducted sweeping operations across the country in a bid to foil Islamist-inspired terror attacks. A number of Syrians have been detained during these round-ups. In the largest security operation to date involving refugees, the Lebanese army on September 25 raided camps outside Arsal, arresting hundreds in a heavy-handed operation that sparked criticism.


These security measures come amid an increasingly hostile attitude toward Syrian refugees. In August, Lebanon’s foreign minister Gebran Bassil called Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon an “incubator for terrorism.” His statement echoed that of other politicians, who have warned refugees pose a security threat. In mid-October, Derbas said that over 100,000 young refugee men in Lebanon had military experience.


Just as Lebanese figures have warned that the refugees pose a security challenge to the country, they have also said the Syrian population negatively affects the country’s economy. Last week when explaining the government’s new policy, Derbas argued that Lebanon could no longer bear the economic burden anymore.


With unemployment in the country set to hit 20% as more Lebanese fall below the poverty line, the government’s newly approved policy also takes aim at the economic situation.


Helou told NOW that the plan will aim to collect further assistance from international donors, fund projects that empower host communities and organize the labor situation to ease pressure on Lebanon’s infrastructure.


Lebanon’s overstrained infrastructure has been hit hard by the growing number of refugees, as the country struggles to provide health services, public education, as well as electricity and water coverage, with the direct cost of the refugee population on the country’s public services coming to an estimated $1.2 billion. 


Donor nations in past conferences have pledged large sums of money to Lebanon to tackle the repercussions of the Syria war, but Beirut has repeatedly said it has not received all the aid promised to it, while UN agencies have urged the international community to step up its support.


One of the aims of the cabinet’s new economic policy, Gebara told NOW, is to stop cases of people abusing international organizations providing refugees with aid to prevent what he referred to as “economic migrants.”


“This policy is not much against Syrian refugees,” he said, “as much as it is against the presence of economic migrants.”


Government plan "ringing alarm bells"


The new government policy, according to Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Middle East and North Africa director, “rings all sorts of alarm bells.”


“There are still many missing details,” said Houry, “For instance, what do they consider ‘extreme humanitarian cases,’” he asked of the government's definition of which Syrians they would allow to cross into Lebanon for refugee purposes.


“How will they define these exceptional circumstances? Who will be the judge of that?”


Countries, explained Houry, have the right to regulate borders, however turning away refugees and asylum seekers to the places where their lives or freedoms are threatened or are at risk of being tortured is a violation to Lebanon’s international obligation of nonrefoulement. 


“Also, how will this policy be implemented?” he added. “There is a need for certain infrastructure at the border where people need to conduct interviews and make decisions on whether to allow these refugees in or not.


"Anyone who has been to the Masnaa border crossing knows very well that this is not what happens there.”


Houry highlighted that the UNHCR, which is currently in charge of refugee registration efforts, abides by clear international guidelines and conventions.

On the other hand, the Lebanese government, has not signed the international refugee convention, has no clear framework to follow concerning registration. To this day, the government classifies Syrians fleeing the war in their country as being displaced and not refugees.


“We all recognize the burden on neighboring countries from the influx of Syrian refugees,” stressed Houry, “but the answer, whether regionally and internationally, cannot be to turn one’s back to the Syrian refugees.”

Syrians at the Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

The answer, whether regionally and internationally, cannot be to turn one’s back to the Syrian refugees.