Exactly three years have passed since a massive movement of Syrian refugees across the Mediterranean brought the severity of the displacement crisis in the Levantine Middle East into the focus of European public and its policymakers. Driven by concerns about the destabilising rise of populist and anti-establishment sentiments that this influx has caused, and the strain that this has put on the European Union’s institutions, European policymakers responded to the crisis by devising an agenda of “protection in the region”. According to this approach, refugees should be hosted in the countries to which they were initially displaced — Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey — and should not attempt to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe. In turn, the EU and other donors committed to providing funds to assist with the needs of refugees and host communities, providing protection, quality of asylum and a boost to these countries’ economic development.

The agenda found expression in the EU-Turkey Agreement and Jordan and Lebanon Compacts, and it included opening up new funding channels to these countries. It has also created a complex interdependency between the legal protection of refugees and their access to services and labour, and the economic development and structural reform of their host countries that were all already struggling with governance issues, economic decline and political instability.

This report analyses the political and economic implications of the protection in the region agenda in Lebanon. This country hosts by far the largest number of Syrian refugees per capita in the world, and has also been the recipient of one of the largest per capita aid and support packages since 2016. Our main finding is that EU diplomatic efforts and financial commitments have made very limited progress in ensuring protection for Syrian refugees in the country, and have had very little positive impact on refugees’ socio-economic position. On the contrary, the main socio-economic indicators for Syrian refugees have been declining steadily since 2016, and the refugees’ continued presence in the country is increasingly questioned by parts of Lebanon’s political establishment. Recent months have witnessed regular localised returns, whose voluntary nature is unverifiable — and some of which took place under the auspices of the Shi’ite militia Hezbollah. These elements of the Lebanese government are using increasingly hostile public discourse towards the refugees and exerting political pressure on UNHCR. Taken together these facts illustrate a growing insecurity for both the refugees and the main international organisation mandated with their protection.

While the sectarian nature of Lebanon’s political system creates a number of challenges for anyone engaged with it, the refugee response is an especially sensitive political issue. Owing to the predominantly mono-sectarian (Sunni) profile of the Syrian refugees, securing their protection has proven to be exceptionally difficult given that the present political context and security arrangements are strongly influenced by an alliance of Shi’ite and Christian parties and non-state actors with close ties to the Syrian regime. Donor activities have also been complicated by a number of political narratives, ubiquitous in both Lebanon and Europe, which restrict what is possible in terms of refugee protection: the narrative of Lebanese victimhood; narratives about the negative impact of refugees on Lebanon’s economy; and finally narratives about refugees as a danger to European societies. The latter restricts resettlement policies within the EU and undermines the normative and political credibility of the protection in the region agenda.

Even in such a complex and politically sensitive environment, however, more can and should be done to deliver on this agenda. Donors should accept the inherently political nature of discussing refugees in Lebanon, and engage with the consociational nature of the Lebanese political settlement on a political level. Engaging with the politics of the refugee agenda (albeit not necessarily publicly) may be fraught with difficulties, but is more likely to produce tangible results than technical approaches that are uninformed by a political strategy.

The current donor approach of tying economic and governance reform to the protection agenda is complex on both normative and political levels, as it includes a strong element of political and economic bargaining. But it offers an opportunity to engage a larger and more diverse group of stakeholders in Lebanon. A thorough understanding of the interests and motivations of these stakeholders is not just prudent but necessary if funding is to succeed in ensuring genuine refugee protection.

That said, refugee protection is based on a set of international legal and ethical norms, and not all aspects of the refugee response should be subject to political bargaining. For the protection in the region agenda to be credible and sustainable (both in the region and for domestic European constituencies), there should be clear red lines surrounding the non-refoulement principle, basic human rights and quality of asylum. Our research shows that such red lines are currently absent not just from public discourse but – more worryingly - also from private conversations among key stakeholders. In the highly fragmented political space that is Lebanon, failure to establish such lines may weaken the position of European donors, as well the position of those Lebanese stakeholders who are willing to uphold this principle.

Finally, our research shows that anti-refugee rhetoric now ubiquitous in Europe provides the blockers among Lebanese politicians with discursive ammunition that undercuts the value of EU funding in this response. In order for the EU to facilitate refugee protection in the region, European politicians need to adapt both their discourses and their current burden-sharing policies and practices. By increasing resettlement quotas or opening legal pathways for temporary asylum, the EU could give its response a much-needed boost, benefiting the vast majority of Syrians who are determined to wait out the war close to home.