Lebanon’s Dangerous Campaign against Refugees

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Lebanon hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees. It wants to get rid of most of them. Lebanese sovereignty is important, but so are the country’s humanitarian obligations and Lebanon’s role in regional security. A recent government scheme to deport Syrians in Lebanon who were not registered as refugees with the United Nations—nearly half of the 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon—may be a first step, and it is a potentially dangerous one. Lebanon’s Syrian refugee problem soon could become a regional problem, and neither the Middle East nor its Mediterranean neighbors need another one of those.

The United States and the European Union have provided Lebanon with more than $3 billion and $946 million in humanitarian assistance, respectively, since the onset of the refugee crisis in 2012, in addition to billions of dollars in development and security assistance. But providing aid without addressing the drivers of conflict is a losing game. Prevention is cheaper and more effective than a cure. In fact, in the case of Lebanon, donors can lower the risk of conflict by scaling up existing approaches toward refugee resettlement while setting clear limits with government counterparts on violence and forced deportations of refugees to Syria.

Rather than addressing Lebanon’s rising tensions, stakeholders are preoccupied with treating the symptoms. The European Union’s immediate fears of migration dominate its response. As part of an effort to keep migrants out, some EU member states are moving toward declaring parts of Syria safe for returns, and they are dedicating more money to curb irregular migration. A group of eight EU member states recently declared that conditions in Syria had “considerably evolved” and should be reassessed for refugee returns. The Cypriot president suggested this could include forced return in the future. Although the European Union and most member states continue to insist on only voluntary returns, pressure is growing for them to shift their position.

Pushing returns to a conflict zone is contrary to international law, and it threatens to increase tensions in Lebanon, renew outward migration, hurt the already struggling Lebanese economy, and precipitate a spiral into violence. Refugees without protection are often victims of violence, and they either organize or join armed groups to defend themselves. When Syria’s revolution turned bloody and various rebel factions were taking shape, many prominent members of the long-time Palestinian refugee community in Syria sought to remain neutral. Yet, as rebels entered Palestinian neighborhoods and the regime attacked and besieged their communities, they became active combatants, forcibly displaced, or victims of war.

The same dangers exist in Lebanon, where Lebanese citizens have attacked Syrian and Palestinian refugees. Even though they fled the same Syrian government that occupied Lebanon for three decades, the refugees still evoke memories of Damascus’ domination. Refugees also upset Lebanon’s delicate confessional balance, as they are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims. As such, they have faced particular hostility from Christian and Shi’i groups. More than a million Syrian refugees also laid bare the inability of Lebanese politicians to provide basic services or jobs to their own people. Lebanese leaders then scapegoat Syrians for taking Lebanese jobs, even though the World Bank found that the influx of Syrians had “no visible impact” on labor market outcomes for Lebanese before the 2019 crash.

Since the killing of right-wing Christian politician Pascal Sleiman by what the Lebanese army called “a gang of Syrians,” anti-Syrian sentiment has surged. Mobs of angry Lebanese have violently attacked Syrians, forcing many to hide in their homes. Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that “most Syrians” in Lebanon would be deported, promising that his government was “in the process of putting in place a solution.” The interior minister ordered municipalities to check Syrians’ papers, close shops and businesses that employ undocumented Syrians, and seize unregistered motorcycles. The UN refugee agency’s representative in Lebanon protested these measures as “inhumane,” but was forced to retract the statement after Lebanese leaders complained. A former deputy prime minister even told international officials in a private meeting that his party had prevented the massacre of thousands of Syrian refugees at checkpoints, but next time, they would not. With a historical backdrop of communal violence against refugees—including the murder of 2,000 Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila during the civil war—such veiled threats and policies must be taken seriously.

Lebanese politicians’ crackdown on refugees is also exacerbating Lebanon’s economic woes, which could further increase communal tensions. Many parts of Lebanon’s economy cannot function without Syrian refugees, including the agricultural and construction sectors. Commercial activity has ground to a halt in parts of Beirut, as business owners fear that security forces will order their stores to close for employing Syrians. Certain parts of Beirut have literally gone dark without the labor to sustain businesses. Some of the measures have hurt Lebanese directly. Lebanese with unregistered motorbikes have been caught up in the crackdown on Syrian delivery drivers.

Despite these economic realities, the Lebanese government pushed forward a roadmap to deport all Syrians that are not registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and who were not in Lebanon prior to the war. From this group, they offered to make exceptions for Syrians whose lives were at risk, as determined by the UNHCR. The United Nations has described all returnees as “particularly vulnerable” in Syria, noting that they have faced arbitrary detention, forced conscription, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, and abduction.

With a growing Lebanese consensus on refugees’ return to Syria and a rising chorus of voices supporting it in Europe, the European Union and the United States should take steps to support durable solutions for Syrians. Record flows of refugees and migrants fleeing Lebanon motivated the European Union to pledge over $1 billion to Lebanon in May 2024. Most of it consists of development aid that the European Union typically provides every year, with a new tranche of support for Lebanese security services’ efforts to curb irregular migration. But according to Lebanese officials, money alone will no longer suffice.

To address Lebanese leaders’ grievances or stem more widespread violence in Lebanon, donors must step up refugee resettlement efforts to third countries, prioritizing Syrians who are not registered with the UNHCR and who are most vulnerable to persecution in Syria. Allocation in the EU package to a program to train refugees for certain skills needed in the European labor market is a welcome sign of increased willingness to resettle, but it needs to be rapidly scaled up. The United States and others should also welcome a fairer share, playing a constructive role in largest refugee crisis since World War II. In 2023, the United States resettled 1,594 refugees from Lebanon, triple the number of the previous year. However, these numbers are a drop in the ocean of the number Lebanon and even European states host.

The United States should also leverage its support—to the tune of more than $3 billion since 2006—for the Lebanese Armed Forces, insisting on a stop to the forced deportation of vulnerable Syrians and the protection of Syrians within the country. In return, the United States could address frequent Lebanese complaints about smuggling by assisting with border security.

Even if violence flares in Lebanon, refugees are unlikely to seek return to Syria. They are much more likely to join armed groups or flee to Europe. 2023 set a seven-year high of asylum seekers in Europe, and most were Syrians; that suggests that this is already happening. There is also an ominous precedent for Lebanese violence spreading. Lebanon’s civil war lasted 15 years, became a regional war, and devastated governance in the country for decades thereafter. It traumatized all involved—including the United States. To prevent even more outward migration and widespread violence, international actors will need to move beyond payments, share more of the burden, and do more to protect refugees.

Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Will Todman is the deputy director and senior fellow in the Middle East Program at CSIS.

Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program