By Jesse Marks
The Syrian refugee crisis has created enormous burdens for Syria’s neighbors — and none more so than Lebanon, which accounts for the highest refugee per capita in the world at 1.5 million Syrian refugees. The pressure of hosting so many refugees has had wide-ranging effects, even aiding the growth of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) — al-Qaeda’s latest iteration in the region — and ISIS inside Lebanon. The Lebanese government, desperate to alleviate the strain, is pushing for mass return of refugees to Syria. However, this policy is nearsighted and would result in a humanitarian catastrophe.
The simple assertion that refugees “have to go back” to Syria is becoming the mantra of the Lebanese government. Last February, President Michael Aoun called for Syrian refugees in Lebanon to be returned to safe zones. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, and a number of members of parliament have all voiced similar opinions to the media in the recent months. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil took it further, advocating for the “unconditional return” of Syrian refugees to “safe and stable” zones inside Syria. Bassil is most likely referring to the “safe zones” that Russia proposed in early May 2017.
Yet these zones are neither safe nor stable. For this reason, the U.N. has repeatedly refused to promote the return of Syrian refugees, saying that Syria lacks the necessary conditions for safe return. Their refusal created an impasse between opposing political parties and resulted in some calling for Lebanon to instead coordinate returns with the Syrian government.
Side-stepping this diplomatic gridlock, Hezbollah has already coordinated with the Syrian government to return Syrians from Lebanon. On July 11, prior to Hezbollah’s offensive to retake Arsal from HTS, they brokered a deal to secure the return of some 300 refugees. Following the offensive, Hezbollah and HTS reached a second agreement resulting in the return more than 7000 refugees and HTS fighters to Idlib.
If Lebanon continues down this path, it could embolden Syria’s neighbors to push more aggressively for the return of refugees, compounding the humanitarian problem. Jordan is currently hosting as many as 1.3 million Syrians spread among several camps and urban centers. Turkey currently has the largest refugee population with over 3 million Syrians. While the Jordanian government has yet to take a public stance on the issue, some scholars in Jordan’s public policy and national security circles have advocated for refugee returns to recently-established safe zones. Meanwhile, Turkey, who has already taken steps to facilitate voluntary returns to Syria, could move toward more coercive tactics to return refugees if it becomes more politically viable.
A Short-Sighted Policy
Plans to return refugees may be enticing to Syria’s neighboring states, but they are almost certain to backfire. When security conditions break down and returnees are displaced again, it is the same host states that will be forced to bear the consequences. These plans do not account for the on-the-ground realities in Syria and fail to address three simple questions: Where will returnees go? How will they survive? What will happen to them in the long-run?
Many Syrian refugees do not have a place to return in Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 1.2 million housing units have been damaged in the conflict and as many as 400,000 have been completely destroyed. Other areas are uninhabitable, either because they have fallen under the control of extremists or because they have been reduced to rubble during fighting. Demographic engineering and sieges have resulted in forced displacement of many communities in the Assad-controlled corridor from Damascus to Aleppo, and those homes are now occupied regime loyalists. Some refugees fear retaliatory attacks or threats of violence if they return to communities controlled by extremists or the Assad regime. Even those returnees who are able to find shelter will likely struggle to access food, water, and basic services that are increasingly scarce in parts of Syria.
Nor can neighboring countries point to Russia’s safe zones plan as a way to justify mass returns. Without a trained, independent security force to enforce the safe zones, returnees would be at risk from extremist actors or sectarian militias that currently occupy these zones. Safe zones also lack proper shelter, services, and infrastructure to support even existing internally displaced Syrians, let alone a substantial inflow of returnees.
Preventing Return, Promoting Stability
If Lebanon and its neighbors push for widespread refugee returns in this precarious environment, they risk precipitating the worst humanitarian crisis in the nearly seven years of war. The United Nations, Russia, and the United States, must act decisively to prevent widespread returns.
First, the United Nations should pressure Lebanon and neighboring countries to comply with existing international norms on refugee return using financial leverage of international donor funding to Lebanon promised at the 2016 London Conference and the 2017 Brussels Conference. In exchange for the promised funds, Lebanon and other neighboring states must commit to upholding refugees’ rights to a safe and voluntary return without coercion or pressure from the state.
Second, the United Nations should ensure that donor countries provide pledged funding to host countries that abide by the terms of agreements reached at London and Brussels. Failure to do so limits the capacity of those countries to uphold their commitments and forces them to consider extreme options such as forced returns.
Third, Russia and the United States should bring the ceasefire under the authority of the U.N. Security Council. Under the auspices of the U.N., host states in collaboration with the international community and the Syrian government can develop a regional framework for managing refugee returns in a safe and voluntary manner.
Lebanon’s forays toward mass returns of Syrian refugees could create a humanitarian disaster. The international community must curtail these actions and take bold steps to accommodate the security of Syrian refugees, the needs of host communities, and the interests of regional stakeholders to prevent this crisis.
Jesse Marks is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the nonpartisan Stimson Center.