Experts concerned that some 1.5 million refugees may be persecuted if returned to home country
Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil called on Damascus to improve conditions currently keeping Syrian refugees in Lebanon from returning home. According to most estimates, Lebanon has taken in more than 1.5 million refugees since the eruption of Syria’s civil war in 2011. Only about one million of these are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), meaning that thousands of families continue to live without support.
The continuation of political tension in Lebanon over the past year, which only recently partially subsided with the formation of a new government, has contributed to the inability to improve dilapidated infrastructure being pushed to the breaking point by the influx of refugees.
Haid Haid, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, told The Media Line that “most [Lebanese] officials see the refugees as a financial burden and some see them as a clear security threat. Their main concern is to get rid of those refugees despite what the consequences of such actions might be for them back in Syria.
“The Lebanese,” he continued, “have always claimed that if people do not want to go back voluntarily, they would not be forced to do so. In other words, they have conditioned the return of the refugees on their safety in Syria. And this is the main issue.”
Refugees continue to express concerns over their personal security as well as fear of being conscripted into the Syrian military upon their return.
Foreign Minister Bassil addressed the issue during a press conference in Beirut, where he suggested “the Syrian government can make a big contribution, on top of the reconciliations that are already happening, by giving security guarantees… on individual property rights and military service.”
Lisa Abou Khaled, a UNHCR communications officer, told The Media Line that “close to 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon have expressed a wish to ultimately return to their home country. To enable the vast majority of refugees to feel confident, it is important to work on addressing the obstacles people see to their return and this is what UNHCR is doing by engaging all concerned authorities in Syria, regionally and globally.
“In the Syrian crisis context,” Abou Khaled added, “UNHCR is continuing its engagement with the government of Syria and all other stakeholders to help build a consensus around international standards and approaches to the refugees’ return.”
But progress remains elusive, according to Haid of the Chatham House, as the parties continue “to focus on logistical issues like how to allow refugees to go back without highlighting the security measures that must be taken to ensure that they are not killed or persecuted.”
“If you look at all the reports,” he concluded, “they all say that it’s still not safe for refugees to return for a variety of reasons, the biggest one being that the regime is still targeting those who fled.”
(Victor Cabrera is a student intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)