Unsafe Places: Refugee Politics in Lebanese Government Crisis
The eyes of the world are once again on Lebanon, whose Prime Minister Saad Hariri first stepped down in early November, only to temporary suspend his resignation this week in a fashion most unusual even by this country’s unorthodox political standards. His departure appeared to have been driven by Saudi Arabia, in whose capital Riyadh he delivered the resignation speech – and which has been concerned about the increasingly close relationship between the Iran-supported Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad and the Lebanese government, led by Mr Hariri.
Mr Hariri, who “suspended” his resignation upon returning to Lebanon this Wednesday, is a Sunni Muslim with close personal and business ties to Saudi Arabia. His party, the Future Movement, is seen as the key Saudi ally in the country and the strongest representative of the interests of the Sunni community. Estimated to form around 27% of the country’s population, Lebanese Sunnis have seen their influence in the country’s politics decrease in the past decade, ever since the assassination of the Future’s leader and Mr Hariri’s father, Rafik Hariri – an act of political violence that followed his refusal to accept continuous Syrian military presence on Lebanon’s territory. Mr Hariri’s party and its allies have been observing the war in neighbouring Syria, and the re-emergence of Assad as Syria’s ruler with a sense of unease, strengthened by the fact that Lebanese Shi’a militia, Hezbollah, played an important role in ensuring this resurgence.
Mr Hariri became Prime Minister last year, after a comprehensive Saudi/Iran approved political agreement was achieved that ensured the formation of a government of national unity – involving the Sunnis' Future Movement, the Shi’a’s Hezbollah and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). The country’s presidency was placed in the hands of the FPM’s chair Michel Aoun.
It was the Hezbollah/FPM orchestrated rapprochement with Damascus this summer – including a high-profile Hezbollah military operation on the Lebanese border and a contested high-level ministerial delegation trip to Syria - that caused political jitters across the broad Sunni block, reaching the Saudis.
The cornerstone of this rapprochement was supposed to be the negotiations on the forced returns of thousands of Syrian refugees currently residing in Lebanon. Hezbollah and its Christian partners view 1,5 million mainly Sunni refugees on Lebanese territory not just as a huge economic and social challenge but also as an existential threat to the demographic and political balance in the country. This summer therefore, the topic has served as one of the operational entries through which the Shi’a/Christian block was planning to create a dialogue with President Assad, despite the Cabinet’s insistence on maintaining a policy of disassociation with the regional conflicts. This alliance has long claimed there are pockets of safety in Syria to which refugees should return without waiting for the conflict to end – even if these were not the places they initially lived or owned property in. Mr Hariri and his block have insisted that any return should be done under UN auspices only, a message often loudly outshouted by the Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, Mr Aoun’s highest-profile minister and also his son in law.
In the weeks preceding Mr Hariri’s dismissal/resignation, refugees have also become increasingly politicized in the early campaign for the parliamentary elections, scheduled for next May. Mainly Christian pro-Hezbollah parties used refugees as a tool for political mobilization of their constituencies, whipping up fears of their permanent settlement and implicitly, of Sunni domination in the country.
The international diplomatic and aid community in the country was deeply concerned that Syrian refugees – of which almost 80% live below the country’s poverty line, and have almost no legal protection, as they are structurally denied legal stay in the country – will become an easy prey to verbal or physical violence, or indeed, forced to return to Syria. No amount of aid seemed sufficient to guarantee minimum levels of safety for this beleaguered group in the pre-election period.
Mr Hariri’s party was widely seen – by the diplomatic community as well as its own political allies/opponents – as the only one remotely open for pragmatic solutions that would help the country bear the economic weight of hosting refugees, without reverting to premature coerced returns. They were in a way the country's only political group willing or capable of delivering on the EU’s and the Netherlands’ political agenda of shoring up refugee reception in the countries of first asylum – the so-called “opvang in de regio”.
It is too early to say what the dialogue that Mr Hariri is now proposing will mean for the refugees in Lebanon, and what kind of political agreement about their destiny will be forged in result. But the turmoil in which the country has found itself calls for a serious look into the political construct of “opvang in de regio” and the risks associated with this agenda. Lebanon, currently hosting the largest per capita number of refugees in the world, is not a politically neutral actor in the Syrian conflict. At least part of its political establishment, including the regions’ most powerful sectarian militia, have high political stakes in its outcome and have actually been actively involved in it. Similar logic holds for Turkey and to a lesser extent to Jordan.
"This crisis shows that 'opvang in de regio' needs to deliver not just aid, but also protection from being leveraged in regional political conflicts."
The refugees that Lebanon hosts may have escaped the worst of physical violence, but as long as they stay in the country, they remain exposed to the same political currents that fuel the Syrian conflict, and used to stoke up sectarian fears that could be mobilized in domestic or regional politics.
This is not to say that the alternative in the form of mass resettlement to third countries would be desirable – a large number of refugees still genuinely want to stay in the region where they feel less estranged and where they have a chance of returning to their homes. Relocating would preclude their chances of returning and solidify the demographic reshaping of Syria.
But this crisis shows that 'opvang in de regio' needs to deliver not just aid, but also protection from being leveraged in regional political conflicts. It means ensuring that the aid comes with guarantees of legal and physical security, capacity for self-reliance and agency to choose the time and conditions of return, free of coercion. The return of refugees, once it comes, should be a voluntary choice, based on firm guarantees of their safety as well as access to lands and property they once owned. The aid that donors deliver - and which last year was almost USD 2 billion – should come with a more robust political engagement to ensure this.
This could be achieved through:
- Including the issue of refugee politicization in all current high-level political and diplomatic dialogues in the region, with all the key actors, both Lebanese and the proxy powers, aimed at ensuring that refugees will not be instrumentalised in regional conflicts or coerced to return without proper safety guarantees
- Tailoring aid so that it responds to the real needs of both refugees and communities that host them, creating wider community-level acceptance. What is needed in Lebanon are interventions that inject a large amount of funding into the country, create visible labour opportunities and are able to alleviate the worst of poverty in the most affected communities in a short time span. At the same time, they need to be accompanied by legal solutions that prevent the worst of exploitation.
It will be difficult to credibly deliver this agenda, considering how highly politicized the issue of refugees is in the Netherlands and the EU. A lot of normative ground has been lost in the years following the EU-Turkey agreement, and in order to be able to ask the refugee-hosting countries to keep refugees out of the political fray, we need to ask the same of ourselves. But the recent events in Lebanon show that it is imperative to do so – without a firm political commitment to refugee safety, they risk becoming both another source of conflict in the region and its victims, all over again.