The paradoxes of Lebanon’s position on refugees
The 72nd regular session of the United Nations General Assembly was convened on Sept. 12, 2017, amid the most drastic violence and destruction in human history. The General Debate was opened Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, under the theme, “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet.” The situation in the Middle East is the topic of discussion among all states’ leaders. Terrorism and migration all over the world are the hottest emerging topics on the table of discussion. The suffering of refugees fleeing from their countries has exceeded all limits and expectations. U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the first time Tuesday. He tackled the refugee issue in his speech and thanked Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon for their role in hosting refugees from the Syrian conflict.
He stated: “We seek an approach to refugee resettlement that is designed to help these horribly treated people and which enables their eventual return to their home countries to be part of the rebuilding process. For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region.”
As for Lebanon, it has been a resort for refugees since its inception. It has hosted Palestinian refugees since 1948, and since 2011 it has been hosting Syrians all over the country.
However, Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Thus, the displaced people who have fled to Lebanon due to its geographical location are not assigned as refugees under international law. Lebanon is bound by its humanitarian mission as a model of interaction among nations and religions. Despite its small area and limited resources, Lebanon embraces on its land a cultural heritage and vibrant society that has been leading regionally and internationally. Lebanon, was among the founding member states of U.N. and participated in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Lebanon has faced a series of Israeli invasions and wars, and an internal Civil War that had an impact on its evolution and hindered the development of strong and effective governmental institutions. Lebanon is still searching for the constituents of “a state.” Nowadays, Lebanon is facing a new phase of disturbances and threats that are detrimental – besides the burden of refugees – at all social, economic, security and cultural levels.
The Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2017-2020 was set as a joint, multiyear plan by the Lebanese government, U.N. and other international and national partners in response to the challenges in a holistic approach. Based on this response plan, which has obtained national and international consensus, “the Government of Lebanon refers to individuals who fled from Syria into its territory after March 2011 as temporarily displaced individuals, and reserves its sovereign right to determine their status according to Lebanese laws and regulations.” This is in line with the fact that Lebanon didn’t sign the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The response plan states: “1.5 million displaced Syrians, half of whom are women and children, along with 31,502 Palestine Refugees from Syria, have joined a pre-existing population of 277,985 Palestine Refugees in Lebanon as well as 1.5 million vulnerable Lebanese. An estimated 35,000 Lebanese have also returned from Syria since 2010.”
Lebanon’s estimated population is 6,006,668, making the ratio of displaced persons to Lebanese citizens very high in comparison to other countries in the region and world. This proves the deep impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon.
Based on the deteriorated political situation and high polarization in Lebanon, the refugee issue constitutes a complex matter that each stakeholder in the state reads differently. However, there is a national consensus that Lebanon, in light of its constitution and laws, can’t grant refugee status to individuals fleeing to its land. President Michel Aoun, in his speech Thursday to the U.N. General Assembly, stressed explicitly the objection to resettling refugees, stating: “There is no doubt that it would be better for the U.N. to assist them to return to their homelands rather than help them to remain in camps, lacking the basic standards of a decent living.”
Lebanon is bound by human rights conventions and customary international law principles to grant displaced people basic human rights. This is not the case in Lebanon as Palestinians and now Syrians have been marginalized and isolated in areas that are being transformed to poverty pockets with high rates of poverty, disease and social problems.
Refugee camps are becoming enabling environments for violent extremism and crime due to their lack of basic services. Therefore, there should be a clear distinction between the Syrian and Palestinians cases as each of them has its own political and demographic specifications when the refugee issue is discussed. Moreover, Lebanon maintains respect for its sovereignty by abstaining from granting displaced people refugee status, but is nonetheless bound to ensure decent lives to every human being on its land, regardless of nationality, religion or race. The refugee issue in Lebanon is not linked to settlement but to human rights, which shall be respected and applied in line with Lebanon’s humanitarian mission.
Hiba Huneini is manager of the Youth and Civic Engagement Program at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development. Email her at email@example.com.