Syrian Refugees: Pawns in a game they cannot influence

I’m from there.
I’m from there, but I am not there and
I’m not here.

In three short lines, Syrian poet Salim Bek powerfully summarizes the situation of Syrian refugees who fled their homes for safety in Lebanon, but now find themselves facing an uncertain future – not welcome at home, no longer welcome in their host countries.

Over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon today are caught as pawns in a political game between too many competing interests. Trapped among the conflicting agendas of the Syrian and Lebanese governments, the UNHCR and even the EU, Syrian refugees find themselves in a situation with no clear way forward – and little say in the matter.

Syria has been in the throngs of a bloody civil war for almost 8 years now. Estimates place number of deaths at over 400,000, while over 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011. While Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrians, Lebanon is the center of competing interests, both national and international.

Even before the Syrian civil war, Lebanon was a fragile country.  Corruption, a weak economy, high unemployment and poor infrastructure and services meant that many ordinary Lebanese were barely able to make a living. As well, many Lebanese feel that they were already tricked once by the international community in 1948, when European countries pressured Lebanon into accepting Palestinians refugees from Israel. Palestinians would be hosted “temporarily.”  Sixty years later, the Palestinians’ stay has become permanent.

So, many Lebanese are obviously skeptical when the international community asks them, once again, to ‘temporarily’ host refugees.  Speaking at the Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria in April 2018, Prime Minister Saad Hariri stated, “The bitter truth is that in spite of all our combined efforts, conditions have deteriorated. Lebanon continues to be one big refugee camp.” The overall feeling in Lebanon is that it’s time for the refugees to go.

Lebanese Government officials are clearly fed up. Recently, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil halted the renewal of residency permits for UNHCR staff, claiming in an interview that there was an “international will to keep [Syrian refugees] in Lebanon and we are determined to break [this will].” Bassil has even gone as far as blaming the UNHCR for a working to stop refugees from returning to Syria.

Powerful officials such as President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Bassil are working doggedly towards what they call the “safe and dignified return of refugees to Syria”. Talking about the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel, Bassil told Almanar News on 13 June 2018 that “The people of the south had set up tents near their destroyed homes during the reconstruction phase after the [2006] war, and the Syrian people can do the same.”

UNHCR, however, disagrees. They emphasize that the return of refugees to Syria has to be voluntary, and that conditions inside Syria are far from safe.

While Lebanon pushes for the return of the Syrian refugees, and UNHCR argues that the time is not right to return, the Government of Syria itself does nothing to help the situation. Returnee refugees are labeled traitors, accused of abandoning their country, and new regulations make it harder than ever to avoid forced conscription into the army. New property laws, such as the recent “Law 10” suggest that Syrians who do return may not have a home when they arrive.

Finally, the international community is guilty of a massive hypocrisy.  While they state that they are concerned about Syrian refugees, they themselves are unwilling to take them in. Only 3% of the 1 million Syrians seeking asylum in the West have been accepted.  To avoid more Syrians coming to Europe, the EU has provided billion dollars in humanitarian assistance to keep Syrians out of Europe – money which is essentially pilfered by the corrupt governments of host countries before it even has a chance to reach those in need.

Without a political solution to the Syria conflict, Syrians such as Salim Bek seem doomed to live in a state of perpetual uncertainty – neither there, nor here.

By Hazel Fricksa