Despite the government’s substantial commitments to improve the refugee situation in Lebanon, shortfalls such as continued gaps in funding and the lack of concrete commitments on resettlement, livelihood, and the accountability of funds still persist. These gaps were reflected in the outcomes of the Brussels II Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” held in April 2018. More specifically, the Lebanon Partnership Paper, issued after the conference, was disappointing in its lack of detailed focus on the aforementioned areas.
Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide, significantly straining its already weak, costly, and fragmented public sector. However, the international community has shown its preference for sharing the financial, rather than demographic, burden of the Syrian refugee crisis. According to the UNHCR, a total of $559.3 million is currently available to implement activities under the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, despite an appeal for $2.68 billion. It is therefore apparent that financial assistance alone is insufficient to fix a crisis exacerbated by inadequate or otherwise non-existent national refugee policies, and further aggravated by an overstrained demographic reality.
Part of the responsibility for alleviating the demographic burden falls on the international community, but with limited and constantly decreasing resettlement options, other legal pathways for resettlement are necessary. If designed properly, these pathways may, for example, facilitate labor mobility and help ease labor shortages in the EU.
Even if Lebanon is provided with sufficient financial assistance, and more refugees are resettled elsewhere, the situation will continue to deteriorate unless the Lebanese government initiates adequate policies. However, politicians and policy makers in Lebanon have demonstrated a strict unwillingness to address the crisis, unless the response focuses specifically on the repatriation of Syrian refugees. Historically, refugee return has proven to be the most sustainable solution to refugee crises, but only if refugees are returned voluntarily, in safety, and in dignity. In reality, the humanitarian and security situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, especially in former key economic areas of the country such as Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. By promoting returns at this stage, and making it ever more difficult for Syrians to seek protection outside of their country, Lebanon is effectively pushing refugees back to Syria, where they may face a renewed risk of persecution, and potentially future displacement.
Instead of proposing plans for refugee return to Syria, diverting the discussion away from Lebanon’s responsibilities toward refugees, the government should focus on strengthening local policies—by for example, creating livelihood opportunities that may bring vulnerable populations, including refugees, out of poverty in the long term. However, the Lebanon Partnership Paper fails to put forward concrete commitments on whether and how access to livelihoods for Syrian refugees will be addressed. Instead, it focuses on achievements made at CEDRE, the international donor conference to support Lebanon’s economic development. What is more worrying is the absence of a protection-centric approach. For example, the paper fails to address access to decent working conditions, and proper safeguards against risks such as exploitation. For resettlement, return, and access to livelihoods to be possible, Syrians must also be able to obtain legal residency documents to access their rights, not only as refugees, but as individuals. The promises made in Brussels will not be beneficial unless Lebanon recognizes the weight of its commitments. This means engaging all perinent officials across all levels of government in a protection-centered approach designed to achieve real and recognizable change. Seeing the multiplicity of donor conferences and commitments without any attendant visible progress will increase frustration among the general population, especially among individuals living in poor conditions, and this may lessen faith in humanitarianism as well. There need to be stricter regulations monitoring commitments, as these are responsibilities that both Lebanon and the international community have taken on as duty-bearers toward host and refugee communities. Already halfway through the year, and with most of the country’s attention focused on changes in Parliament and the government, it is difficult to predict, at least for the foreseeable future, when and how commitments made at Brussels will translate into clear, forward-looking policies.