The Crisis of Syrian Refugees as a Challenge to Human Rights: A Lebanese Perspective by President Amine Gemayel

What is the immediate and long-term significance posed by Syrian refugees in Lebanon?

The aforementioned “challenge” to human rights is twofold. First and foremost, this crisis is a challenge to the human rights of the Syrian people—including Syrian refugees—who are the primary victims of this war waged on them by their own government and its external state and non-state allies.

Second, exists a challenge to the human rights of the Lebanese people, including their rights to security and self-determination.

To analyse the parallel experiences of Syrian refugees and the Lebanese people providing them with sanctuary, human rights are conceptualised in a “broad” rather than “narrow” sense. A broad approach extends beyond protection from direct physical threats, incorporating aspects such as free speech and freedom of worship as well as the right to education, employment, and healthcare.

In Lebanon, we are attuned to the material and spiritual needs of the Syrians who have taken refuge in our country. Lebanon extended protection to these refugees and mobilised every available resource to assist them. Despite flaws and shortcomings, we have been remarkably successful in this endeavour.

The current crisis has not caused, only exacerbated, the buckling of Lebanese structures of state and society. Unless addressed, these challenges will provoke a national crisis.

The Forever Crisis: Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon

The spillover effects of war, occupation, dictatorship, and terrorism in other Arab lands have directly affected Lebanon for decades. What can be called the “ongoing crisis” of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has been layered on top of what I call the “forever crisis” of Palestinian refugees. A Lebanese perspective on the crisis of Syrian refugees as a challenge to human rights must take into account the heavy price paid for the Palestinian presence in Lebanon. Alongside issues of violence and unrest, Lebanon’s fragile political, social, economic, and security structures have been permanently overburdened. This history contributed to the decision by Lebanese authorities not to settle Syrian refugees in officially sanctioned camps, for fear that these supposedly temporary installations would similarly become autonomous and permanent entities challenging Lebanon’s sovereignty and very existence.

The Ongoing Crisis: Syrian Refugees in Lebanon as a Challenge to Human Rights

The scale and complex geography of this crisis bring further challenges. UNHCR figures from March 2019 estimate a total of 6 million Syrian refugees with just under 1 million in Lebanon. Lebanese authorities place this figure at closer to 1.5 million. Because of the chaotic dispersal throughout Lebanese territory, it is much harder to meet their humanitarian needs.

At an estimated 25% of Lebanon’s population, the ratio of Syrian refugees to total population is higher than any country in the world. Combined with Palestinian refugees, these displaced people constitute no less than 33% and perhaps as much as 40 to 50% of Lebanon’s total population. This ratio of refugees to citizens is unprecedented.

Lebanon’s domestic challenges from this crisis include strains on the economy, education system, health and social services, infrastructure and demographic balance. There are also internal and national security dangers to Lebanon arising from this crisis, with terrorist cells embedded amongst genuine refugees, the presence of hundreds of thousands of military-trained Syrian men with recent combat experience and Hezbollah flouting the official policy of disassociation from the wars in Syria. There is thus a clear link between local conditions created by this crisis and potential regional and global repercussions.

Towards a Lebanese Strategy for the Safe Return of Syrian Refugees

The long-term protection of human rights in Syria is a vital issue for the international community. The Syrians are human beings, deserving protection both from a rampaging Islamic State and other local threats. The safe return of Syrian refugees is a just and necessary objective. Yet, decisive action to this end is hampered due to areas of broad division regarding when to engage Damascus: before or after a Syrian peace settlement is concluded.

Yet, stabilization of Lebanon and the preservation of her democracy—both of which depend on the return of refugees—cannot be postponed until the emergence of a democratic Syria. The existential threat Lebanon faces now calls for immediate action in the form of a comprehensive national strategy and coherent domestic and foreign policies. Only such strategy can pay due consideration to the rights and requirements of both the Lebanese and the Syrians in Lebanon.

Points of broad national consensus in this regard include the following:

• It is right that Syrian refugees have been accorded humanitarian protection by Lebanon;

• A majority of Syrians in Lebanon wish to return home (this is also the publicly expressed view of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees);

• Naturalization of and even permanent residence for Syrian refugees is unacceptable;

  • The legal status of Palestinians and Syrians are not comparable, since the former are stateless while the latter have a state.

Given this, outlines of a Lebanese national strategy could be:

• Adopt a “whole-of-government approach” and assign the refugee return portfolio to an empowered lead agency;

• Assert control of Lebanon’s frontier with Syria by deploying more troops on the border; 

• Collect detailed statistics and data on Syrian refugees in Lebanon;

• Enable the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to implement a robust, focused diplomacy that allows Lebanon to speak with one voice on refugee affairs;

  • Concert diplomatic efforts with Turkey and Jordan, with whom Lebanon shares both a neighborhood and host country status.

The crisis of Syrian refugees is a grave challenge to human rights. This is not just a Lebanese issue but an issue for the international community as a whole. A coordinated peace effort needs to be undertaken by the international community alongside the national approach I have advocated. Key steps should be taken under the direction of the UN Security Council including:

• Convene an international conference on peace in Syria to build on diplomatic negotiations in recent years;

• International donors need to shift from programs that meet immediate needs to medium and long-term reconstruction and development projects in Syria; and • Encourage Syrian refugees in Lebanon and other host countries to return to Syria under a two-stage process: initially, to those areas within Syria that are now safe, and, subsequently, to other parts of Syria after secure conditions reemerge in more regions of the country.

This was an abridged version of President Gemayel’s presentation at Western Sydney University on 1 April 2019 in Parramatta

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