By Lara Kajs
Hostilities in Lebanon have reached a point where Syrian refugees must decide whether to stay and try to survive or to return to Syria and risk death.
Life in Lebanon has not been easy for the refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria. Nearly 74 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are undocumented, which means they are restricted from working, going to school and receiving access to health care. The situation has resulted in an increasing number of unregistered newborns. Government regulations make it impossible for refugees to obtain or renew residence permits. An increase in security checkpoints prevents men from moving freely, restricting them to their neighborhoods and without proper documentation, it is nearly impossible to find work to support their families.
As a result, many children have been forced to drop out of school to become the primary financial supporters for their families, mostly due to the fact that children are not as likely to be detained.
Approximately the size of New Jersey, Lebanon has the largest refugee to resident ratio in the world. More than a million Syrians and nearly 500,000 Palestinians are registered as refugees in Lebanon. Since Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, it does not recognize Syrians as refugees, but rather as foreigners residing in the country.
In 2015 new regulations were implemented in Lebanon that requires Syrians to register conditionally through the United Nations for residency. The condition stipulates that they do not work. Alternatively, Syrians could seek Lebanese sponsorship, but that proved very difficult to attain.
Once residency is established; the renewal process applies to Syrians over the age of 15 and cost $200 each. Many of the displaced in Lebanon have very little resources and without permission to work, the ability to pay the fee is impossible. As a result, the undocumented population in Lebanon continues to grow.
By the end of 2016, nearly 56 percent of Syrians in Lebanon have no valid residency permit. While Lebanon’s General Security claims the measures have made it easier for Syrians to gain permits, the numbers do not support it.
Still, life in Lebanon even for registered Syrians has not been comfortable. Food insecurity is managed with United Nations food rations. Registered male refugees earn an insufficient wage through construction and other eligible work. The cost of health care in Lebanon is unaffordable. Most refugee children are not in school, and those who are struggle, many have fallen several grades behind. The trauma of war and conflict has taken a psychological toll on everyone but especially on the children. Without psychological support, the trauma carries over into behavioral issues.
Since many countries, including the United States, have closed their borders to Syrians, Lebanese officials have grown increasingly resentful to the burden placed on their shoulders.
Lebanese authorities were against long-term settlement for the Syrian refugees: therefore they have not permitted the establishment of camps. In June 2018, government officials began discussing the return of the displaced back to Syria, although the international community is not completely agreeable with the idea.
At this time, international humanitarian organizations are not willing to engage in direct contact with, nor provide aid to the Bashar al-Assad regime. Certain guidelines must be met before the UNHCR or any other organization can ensure a respectful and sustainable return for refugees. Consequently the UNHCR cannot be involved in the return of Syrian refugees.
Up to this point, and to its credit, Lebanon has been committed to non-refoulement which is the foundation of international refugee protection which stipulates that no state should expel or return any refugee (or person seeking asylum) to the border if his/her life or freedom is threatened.
Nearly 3000 Syrian refugees have submitted their names to be repatriated back to Syria. They are waiting to be screened by the government to be accepted for return. If they are accepted, they will have a six month grace period after which the young men will be required to join the Syrian army or pay an $8000 penalty. However, Assad’s military is facing a persistent shortage of soldiers, making the guarantee of any government promises unlikely.
Also to consider are the reports that Assad has imprisoned or disappeared hundreds of thousands of civilians, mostly men.
Lebanese officials claim that they are not forcing anyone to return to Syria, but they do not want any outside agencies to discourage any Syrians from returning if they choose to do so.
The first convoy to leave Lebanon departed on June 26 carrying approximately 294 people back to Syria. After seven years of constant bombing, hundreds of thousands of deaths and at least 11 million people who are still internally displaced, it is uncertain what the returning refugees will be returning to.
Featured Image: Syrian refugees in the border town of Arsal, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Photo: Reuters