Lebanon represents a particularly challenging environment for donors, yet its complexity should not be used as a justification to falter on the commitment to protection in the region. Ways should be sought to ensure that the quality of asylum in Lebanon is significantly improved and that a development dividend reaches the vulnerable Lebanese who have faced the negative impacts of the refugee crisis. In order to achieve this, we believe that:

1) Donors should accept the sectarian nature of Lebanese society, engaging with it in a conflict-sensitive way

Engagement on the refugee protection agenda in Lebanon is inherently political: there is no apolitical way for European donors to engage with this topic. Consciously engaging in political issues surrounding the refugee agenda is preferable to engagement that is not informed by a political strategy that includes all Lebanese constituencies and their representatives. This includes Hezbollah, which is an important security actor that strongly influences Lebanon’s capacity to ensure refugee protection.

Engaging with Lebanon’s sectarian system carries political risks. It could be seen as a breach of the principle of neutrality and taking sides in a sectarian power-struggle and interfering with national political processes. That some of these sectarian interests reflect regional sectarian power struggles further complicates such an engagement.

At the same time, engaging only on technical issues, and through institutional channels, while leaving sectarian considerations aside carries its own set of risks. The main risk is that of ineffectiveness and failure of accountability on impact to refugees, Lebanese host communities and donors’ own national constituencies.

2) Donors should include larger and more diverse groups of Lebanese stakeholders in the protection agenda and base their engagement on a thorough stakeholder analysis that explicates both their political and economic interests

As our analysis shows, donors are not operating in a consistently hostile or uniformly sectarian environment. Lebanon’s politics and economy also contain powerful individuals who are interested in cross-sectarian cooperation on many important aspects of the reform agenda. These include businessmen, political brokers and powerful civil servants. Identifying and assisting those stakeholders in delivering a development dividend to the highest number of Lebanese while protecting refugees is essential for the success of both. Such stakeholder analyses should be conducted jointly by key donors and other development actors (banks, multi-lateral donor funds, etc.) and at all levels: national, sectoral and community.

3) Donors should re-establish red lines for refugee protection

The protection in the region agenda may have set a precedent for “bargaining” refugee protection in return for financial compensation and a development dividend. But this does not mean all aspects of a refugee response should be subject to bargaining. For the protection in the region agenda to be credible and sustainable (both in the region and for domestic European constituencies), bargaining must contain clear red lines surrounding the non-refoulement principle, basic human rights and quality of asylum. This means first and foremost:

restating the commitment to the principle of non-refoulement and robustly defending UNHCR’s protection mandate

removing the remaining legal constraints on refugees’ access to residency, civil documentation and secondary and tertiary education

ensuring an end to the systematic harassment and detention of refugees at checkpoints for reasons such as lack of valid residency

Such red lines seem to be absent at present, not just from public discourse but also from private conversations with key stakeholders. While maintaining flexibility is prudent, making everything subject to bargaining may cause irreparable damage to donor reputation and further undermine the existing normative order on refugee protection. In the highly fragmented political space that is Lebanon, not setting red lines may also weaken the position of those Lebanese stakeholders that would be interested in and capable of delivering on refugee protection and quality of asylum.

4) Coupling the economic development agenda and refugee agenda may work, but only if informed by a stakeholder analysis combining inter- and intra-sectarian interests.

The implementation of protection in the region related programming clearly impacts inter-sectarian political and economic competition. Yet it should be kept in mind that the influx of refugees has allowed for the politicisation of pre-existing intra-sectarian inequalities. For this reason, conflict sensitive programming ought to consider implications both in terms of sectarian positions on improving the position of refugees, as well as elite positions towards improving the socio-economic position of specific Lebanese constituencies. Programming that threatens the clientlistic nature of the Lebanese economy is unlikely to succeed, but piecemeal reforms that benefit selected refugee and host constituencies may be able to engage an inclusive and effective enough national coalition.

Engaging with spoilers, not just likely allies, is an important element in ensuring the implementation of the protection in the region agenda. Individual politicians from sects with a platform incompatible with the presence of refugees may still be willing to engage positively (or recuse themselves from the decision-making process) given the right engagement.

5) The EU and its member state politicians should visibly push back on anti-refugee rhetoric at home and allow for the revision of current burden-sharing policies and practices

Current European populist narratives and policies closely mirror the Lebanese political discourse. In order for the protection in the region agenda to succeed, the often unjustified fears of refugee presence need to be allayed on both sides of the Mediterranean. European donors’ funding will be worth less until they start pushing back against fear-mongering and anti-refugee rhetoric in their own public discourse at home and create policy change in Europe’s approach to burden-sharing that goes beyond funding alone. Acts of solidarity such as an increase in resettlement quotas and the opening of other pathways could deliver the EU a much needed reputational boost to better leverage its assistance and provide genuine protection to the vast majority who will wait out the war in Lebanon.