Lebanon’s President Wants Syrian Refugees To Go Home, but Syria Can’t Handle Them
Syrian refugees gather around a small fire to get warm in a camp located in the village of Sumakieh in north Lebanon, just a few hundred meters from the Lebanese-Syrian border, on January 31, 2022. (Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Lebanon’s President Wants Syrian Refugees To Go Home, but Syria Can’t Handle Them

The country’s serious economic crisis makes it difficult to host the 1.5 million refugees, and Lebanese politicians are using this to manipulate public sentiment against them

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun agreed on Monday with the country’s ministers on the initial steps for the implementation of a plan to send Syrian refugees back to their home country.

Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs Hector Hajjar said in a statement: “We have agreed with President Aoun on many points related to the Syrian refugees’ return plan, and we coordinated our positions hoping to hold more meetings next week to agree on the basic steps to be taken to start with the return process.”

Lebanon is a country with about 6.8 million citizens. The small Levantine country, according to its government, hosts about 1.5 million Syrian refugees in addition to some 13,700 refugees from other countries, making Lebanon the country with the largest number of refugees per capita in the world.

Dr. Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University, told The Media Line that Aoun’s decision to start taking steps toward implementing the plan, has to do with the economic crisis in the country.

Lebanon is now undergoing a serious economic crisis, and there is an increasing demand for the Syrian refugees’ return to their home country given the fact that they are exhausting to a large extent Lebanese resources and infrastructures, he explained.

Nivine Afiouni, a geopolitical analyst and CEO of Afiouni Global Consultancy, told The Media Line that “if you hit the road now in Lebanon, from the north to south you will find a growing number of people who want refugees to leave, regardless of where they go.”

“The number of refugees is enormously beyond Lebanon’s very weak, almost null capability of hosting them,” she continued.

She pointed out that Lebanon is the smallest and weakest neighboring country to Syria, yet it is hosting a very large number of refugees in proportion to its population.

Salamey says that many politicians manipulate these sentiments to turn the Lebanese people against the Syrian refugees.

The presence in Lebanon of Syrians who are primarily Sunni Muslims is quite large, he said, and this has made many sectarian groups, particularly Christians, which includes Aoun, fearful of a potential repetition of the Palestinian displacement experience, where mostly Sunni Muslim Palestinian refugees took up arms and supported Lebanese Sunni Muslims against Christians during the 1975 Lebanese Civil War.

The living conditions are no longer viable for their return, so they prefer to remain in the country and live off international aid

“This is a constant reminder for Christians that things may turn against them. If Syrian refugees in the country become politicized or take up arms, which will play against them,” added Salamey.

Their presence also works against the Lebanese Christians from a democratic point of view because their demographic size has been shrinking over the years. “Of course, some of these issues are real, especially the economic. Others are politically manipulated,” he noted.

“Michel Aoun is a master in playing out the Christian fears, and he is playing that card at the moment to mobilize Christian support for his choice for running for president,” alleged Salamey.

“It is mostly about sectarian politics being played against Syria,” he said.

The plan, as presented in early July by the Lebanese government, consists of sending 15,000 refugees back to Syria each month.

It is not clear what steps will be taken to decide which refugees will return or how they will return. It only indicates that they will start “village by village,” said Afiouni.

“I assume there will be another debate in Lebanon; if this was applied, based on the religious sect of the villages they might start from,” she added.

Religious sectarian issues are deeply rooted in wide aspects of the Lebanese people’s lives, even though they are the least religious people in the Middle East.

Afiouni points out that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed its concern about the plan since there is no guarantee that the refugees who are forced to return won’t be facing human rights breaches.

“This is also a valid point,” she said, adding that the international community is not responding to the growing needs of the refugees. “What does the international community expect from an extremely fragile country like Lebanon?” she questioned.

Salamey points out that some, including NGOS, the Syrian government and the refugees themselves, are opposed to the Syrian refugees’ return to their homeland.

The Syrian government is not interested in the refugees’ return, given the fact that they are mostly poor and Sunni, he explained.

He also points out that bureaucratic international entities in Lebanon – who are given grants to operate in the country – are benefiting from the Syrian displacement.

Finally, the Syrians themselves do not have much interest in returning either because they are solely dependent on foreign support, because they don’t have economic opportunities to go back to in Syria, or because they fear the government, added Salamey.

“The living conditions are no longer viable for their return, so they prefer to remain in the country and live off international aid,” he said.

Salamey says that the position of Lebanese citizens on the matter is divided according to religious sects.

All the Lebanese at the moment are not at ease with the presence of Syrian refugees in the country, due to the economic crisis, he said. However, there is sympathy between different groups.

Fellow Sunni Muslims in Lebanon are more tolerant of the Syrian refugees’ presence, compared to Shiite and Christians. Christians fear their demographic size shrinking as a consequence of a permanent stay, and Shiites are politically hostile to the refugees, given the fact that those refugees are probably opposed to the Syrian government, which is an ally to the Shiite.

However, he noted: “Everybody benefits from these refugees and utilizing their cheap labor to work.”


Give the Gift of Truth This Jewish New Year

The Media Line has been leading for more than twenty years in pioneering the American independent news agency in the Middle East, arguably the first in the region. We have always stayed true to our mission: to provide you with contextual sourced and trustworthy news. In an age of fake news masquerading as journalism, The Media Line plays a crucial role in providing fact-based news that deserves your support.

We're proud of the dozens of young students we've trained in our Press and Policy Student Program who will form the vanguard of the next generation of journalists to the benefit of countless millions of news readers.

Non-profit news needs public support. please help us with your generous contributions.
The Media Line
We thank our loyal readers and wish you all the happiest of holidays.

Invest in the
Trusted Mideast
News source.
We are on the
front lines.

Personalize Your News
Upgrade your experience by choosing the categories that matter most to you.
Click on the icon to add the category to your Personalize news
Browse Categories and Topics
Wake up to the Trusted Mideast News source Mideast Daily News Email
By subscribing, you agree to The Media Line terms of use and privacy policy.
Wake up to the Trusted Mideast News source Mideast Daily News Email
By subscribing, you agree to The Media Line terms of use and privacy policy.