Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a bi-monthly blog for CMS titled, “Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection.” This series covers the Syrian Civil War, the experiences of Syria’s immense and far-flung refugee population, the global crisis in refugee protection, religious persecution, and US refugee and immigration policies. Mr. al-Muqdad’s work has been featured by the BBC, CNN, and in many other media outlets. CMS will be featuring this work in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.
It is almost impossible to debate refugee issues without becoming immersed in geopolitics. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are a case in point. The massive influx of Syrians has tested Lebanon in many ways. Many Lebanese officials and politicians have expressed their opposition to the presence of the refugees for economic and political reasons. Syrian refugees in Lebanon, in turn, have faced some of the hardest conditions in the Syrian diaspora.
Lebanon, a country of just six million, struggles with overstretched resources and many political challenges. In addition to its economic turbulence, Lebanon is run by multiple state parties and has experienced a long civil war and many political and military conflicts, due especially to domination by the Syrian regime. This history has made Lebanon more resistant to the presence of refugees from neighboring countries, whether Palestinians in the past or Syrians in the present.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that by the end of November 2017, the number of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon had dropped to below one million. The world’s response to the refugees in Lebanon is still far from meeting the needs of those who are living in terrible circumstances. More than half of registered Syrians in Lebanon live in extreme poverty, sheltered in informal tented settlements, or unfinished buildings. Making a living is a daily struggle for Syrian refugees who are denied work permits.
Um Hussein, a 62-year-old refugee from Homs, left her home after her neighborhood was bombarded by the Syrian regime in 2012. She was accompanied by her ailing husband and one of her four sons. Her other sons are scattered in different areas inside of Syria. “It was a real madness all over the city,” she told me. “After we were attacked by the regime, we left with only the clothes we had on and ran for our life to the nearest border with Lebanon.”
She and her family first settled in Tripoli, the nearest city to her hometown. They stayed in a local charity shelter before being forced by the local government to move to a refugee camp. “The conditions in this out-of-city-limits camp were beyond miserable,” she said. ”We lived in a tent that was built directly on dirt, no ground floor, no bathrooms or kitchen supplies.” Um Hussein and her son had to look immediately for work in order to afford necessities and medication for her 70-year-old husband. She cleaned homes for a while and her son worked at an auto mechanic shop. Nevertheless, they hardly made it.
At the camp, the family suffered from extreme weather conditions. Their tent could not withstand the rain storms in winter, and in the summer the conditions were even worse. “One morning on a sizzling summer day in 2013, I was changing my clothes when I felt a strong sting on my arm. I felt an extreme pain that was radiating from my arm to my whole body.” Um Hussein said. As she took off her shirt, a scorpion dropped to the ground. She was rescued by her neighbors in the camp and taken to a small medical clinic nearby. “It was a near death experience that I never thought in my wildest dreams to experience,” she said. Afterwards, she and her family decided to move out of the camp. They headed south to try to find work in strawberry fields.
In recent months, there have been increased calls from Lebanese officials for refugees to return home, despite the fact that large parts of their country are in ruins. This pressure has led many to leave Lebanon and resettle in third countries, as part of the United Nations’ resettlement program to third countries. Some have reportedly returned to their homes in Syria. Others have died in Lebanon, or embarked on perilous sea journeys to Europe.
Um Hussein and her family eventually realized that it was impossible to survive in Lebanon. Moving to another country, however, represented a bigger challenge. “All doors were closed in our faces. No permanent job, no stability, no decent place to live in, we just decided to go back to Homs,” she explained, “We left our home in ruins, and will go back to it still in ruins.”
Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. However, the government voluntarily executes some of the Convention articles, including granting refugee status to certain individuals within its boundaries. The Lebanese government has long argued that Lebanon is neither an asylum or resettlement country. It deems individuals who have fled from Syria to the Lebanese borders since March 2011 as “displaced.”
After extremist armed groups crossed into Lebanon from Syria and clashed with Lebanese armed forces in 2014, more refugee communities were displaced. In July of 2017, the Lebanese government uprooted around 11,000 people across at least 92 refugee settlements, justifying the actions based on security concerns. The Lebanese army carried out raids on Syrian refugee camps in various areas. The last was in June 2017 when the army entered Syrian camps near the village of Arsal on the Syrian-Lebanese border. At least 20 people were killed and hundreds were arrested and tortured. Reports of abuses by military were met with a resounding silence by the Lebanese government and even by human rights organizations and the international community.
With all these challenges, the refugees in Lebanon are left with few feasible choices. Returning to Syria is not possible for many, and resettling in other countries has become an unrealistic option. The numbers of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is still incredibly high, as many countries that were relied upon as welcoming hosts throughout their history have become increasingly hostile to refugees.