Kamel, a native of Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor province who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity, says he has been working in Lebanon’s sanitation and agricultural sectors ever since he completed compulsory military service in Syria more than 15 years ago. Like most Syrian seasonal and migrant workers, he spent part of the year in Lebanon and the rest with his wife and children in Deir ez-Zor.
Everything changed for Kamel and many others like him over the past decade as war in Syria brought an estimated 1.5 million refugees to Lebanon, turning one of the smallest countries into the host of the highest number of displaced persons per capita in the world and prompting successive Lebanese governments to pass a series of measures to curb the influx of more refugees and coerce those already here into returning to Syria. Lebanon also refuses to officially recognize them as refugees and asylum-seekers because it says it is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. It considers Syrians “temporarily displaced individuals” who will at some point return home or depart to a third country. Not only has the Lebanese state — plagued for years by corruption and dysfunction and now bankruptcy and economic collapse — failed to achieve its aims, but its actions and policies have actually compounded the suffering of refugees, no matter how it chooses to designate them. Syrians are now in a state of legal limbo and have been pushed further to the margins of society and into the arms of smugglers and profiteers as they, along with most Lebanese, desperately try to survive in a country described by one of its own political leaders as a sinking ship.
Only 20% of Syrian refugees above the age of 15 had legal residency in 2020 and 89% now survive on less than the equivalent of $25 a month per person, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The minimum monthly wage in Lebanon has gone from being worth $450 in 2019 to about $60 in 2021, prices of the most basic food items like lentils and tomatoes have skyrocketed, and more Lebanese are now relying on food ration handouts just like most refugees. With everyone in Lebanon competing for ever scarcer resources and government officials including the president continuing to fan fears over the refugee issue to deflect the rage being directed at them by Lebanese citizens, fresh tensions over the Syrian presence seem inevitable.
Until recently, Kamel had only seen his wife and five children twice in the past five years. Once, during the height of the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in Deir ez-Zor, he was able to be with them in Damascus for a few weeks. The other time he brought his wife and only two of his children to Lebanon on a tourist visa and put them up in a cheap furnished apartment for $600 a month. That was sustainable for one month in 2019 and then became impossible in 2020 as his daily salary of 50,000 Lebanese pounds went from being worth $33 to $4 after the local currency crashed. Then came the period of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and restrictions effectively sealing all official border crossings between Lebanon and Syria. There were some exceptions, subject to conditions and criteria that were hard for the average Syrian to fulfill. By then, Kamel had only seen his four-year-old son for a total of two months since he was born.
Leaving Lebanon and returning to Deir ez-Zor is not an option for Kamel. His village lies in a part of the province controlled by the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The area has seen mounting tensions between locals and SDF members, a slew of assassinations, and recurring threats by ISIS remnants to kill anyone cooperating with the SDF — all amid the specter of fresh hostilities between the SDF and Syrian regime, Iranian, and Russian forces present in other parts of Deir ez-Zor.
So at the end of 2020 Kamel decided to arrange for his family to be smuggled into northern Lebanon from Syria. Only his eight-year-old daughter made it through after soldiers on both sides of the border started firing shots in the air to disrupt their crossing. The girl was lost in the mountainous region for a day before someone found her and brought her to Kamel in Beirut. In early April, Kamel found a smuggler to bring his wife and the rest of the children through another route for the equivalent of about $200. Now they all live in a small shack behind a gas station next to Kamel’s workplace. They will have to survive on his meager salary, which is dwindling in value each day, and the children aged four to 12 can’t attend school because of registration and access obstacles made worse by the pandemic as well as fears of deportation. (Pre-primary and primary enrollment among Syrian refugees stood at 16% in 2020, according to the UNHCR. And before the pandemic only about 40% of the estimated 660,000 school-age Syrian children went to school.)
Still Lebanon with all its problems remains somewhat more bearable for many Syrians like Kamel who have to contend back home with an economy gutted by 10 years of war and contagion from Lebanon’s financial meltdown as well as grave security risks and the dictates and whims of the Syrian regime and the other factions controlling the fractured country.
“My two brothers and 10 others want to get out of Deir ez-Zor at any price, so they are paying a smuggler $250 each to bring them all the way to Lebanon in a big SUV with tinted windows. The smuggler is Shiite from the Bekaa [Valley] and they say he’s connected to Hezbollah,” Kamel told me, referring to the Iran-backed militia and political movement that dominates Lebanon and maintains a presence throughout Syria, including in Deir ez-Zor, after the pivotal role it played in defending the Assad regime.
A senior officer in Lebanon’s General Security Directorate reminded me that smuggling along the nearly 250-mile porous Lebanon-Syria border was nothing new. But he conceded that dire economic conditions in both countries coupled with the involvement and cover of powerful and politically-connected clans in areas like Hermel (in the northern Bekaa Valley) and Akkar (north of Tripoli) and “a few bad elements” as he put it among the forces tasked with monitoring the border were all contributing to smuggling. He said that since the end of the battles against ISIS and other extremists in the hinterland around the Lebanese border town of Arsal in 2017, Lebanese Army engineers with British support have used earth movers to block 117 of more than 300 illegal routes between Lebanon and Syria.
But this seems to have hardly made a dent in the smuggling operations. It is not just about bringing in Syrians to Lebanon, there’s also a thriving business of smuggling Syrians back and forth to Syria for any number of reasons as well as taking fuel and flour subsidized by the Lebanese government to sell in sanctions-stricken Syrian regime areas for hard currency and bringing back cheap fruits and vegetables grown on Syria’s western coast to sell at much higher prices throughout Lebanon.
Residents of Akkar, who like many Lebanese are now grappling with food and fuel shortages, have tried to disrupt the flow of trucks and tankers to and from Syria and have in a few instances seized the cargos for distribution among themselves. But these seem to be minor inconveniences for the smugglers.
“We are talking about a massive network trafficking humans and goods by all means with some members of the security forces and local officials involved in these rackets,” said Ali Rabah, a Lebanese broadcaster who made a documentary last summer about smuggling operations in al-Sawiri, an area in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border known as Lebanon’s “capital of smuggling.”
Thafer Bertawi, a native of Syria’s Qalamoun region who supervises two refugee camps in Arsal, said the “very convoluted” measures governing the entry and exit of Syrians and their stay in Lebanon as well as the costs associated with following the rules, which are often beyond the means of an already struggling refugee population, have left many Syrians with no other option but the smuggling routes.
Since the Lebanese government stopped allowing the UNHCR to register Syrians as refugees in 2015, the only practical way refugees can get legal residency in Lebanon is either by proving they came to the country before that cut-off date or by finding a Lebanese person willing to be their kafeel (sponsor). In the latter case, however, they must forfeit their UNHCR registration and are technically only allowed to work in three sectors: agriculture, construction, and sanitation. In addition to broker fees often associated with finding a kafeel ranging from $200 to $1,000, everyone has to pay $200 to renew their residency permit each year. A decree was recently passed to waive the government fee, but it has not been implemented. A whole set of other rules govern Syrians’ short-term stays in Lebanon or their transit through the country. And in 2019 Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council passed a series of measures that allow deporting any Syrian, refugee or otherwise, found to be working or living illegally in Lebanon. The start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has brought extended periods of border closure and a raft of additional rules. On the Syrian regime side, everyone entering the country must pay for a PCR test and exchange $100 at the official rate of 1,200 Syrian pounds to the dollar, well below the actual market rate of 3,500-4,000.
Bertawi, the refugee camp supervisor in Arsal, recounted the story of a Syrian woman in Lebanon who was recently diagnosed with early pancreatic cancer. It was impossible for her to get any treatment in Lebanon because of the cost. She could not go through the legal crossings because her husband had defected from the Syrian army at the start of the uprising in 2011 and she could be subjected to interrogation and detention by the regime. So she was smuggled into Syria, where she received medical care clandestinely, and then returned to Lebanon the same way after she was cured.
Not everyone is lucky. Some people are abandoned by their smugglers or they get lost. The bodies of four Syrians, two women and two children, were found frozen to death in March on one of the mountainous smuggling routes.
Nadia Hardman, a Beirut-based researcher with Human Rights Watch’s refugee and migrant rights unit, said that the conditions Syrian refugees face in Lebanon today are akin to “death by a thousand cuts.”
“This is crazy considering how much humanitarian money has come into the country,” she added.
Lebanon has received $8.8 billion in international assistance since 2011 to help it cope with the burden of hosting Syrian refugees. Lebanon says it uses part of this money to mitigate the impact of the large Syrian presence on the economy and public services and institutions. This amount is separate from the billions of dollars raised over the years by U.N. agencies in connection with the humanitarian crisis inside Syria and in neighboring states including Lebanon. And still U.N. agencies come out each year to warn that Syrians risk starvation unless more aid is forthcoming.
What’s the solution?
In the latest Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon report by the UNHCR, UNICEF, and the World Food Program, the top recommendation was for Lebanon to “expand the fee waiver for legal residency to all categories of refugees” to “allow the increase of refugees’ freedom of movement and access to documentation as well as to critical services and to justice.” It urged Lebanon to uphold and broadly apply commitments made at past Syria donor conferences in Brussels and London "to preserve dignified stay of refugees, while enforcing the application of national laws in a non-discriminatory manner.”
In response to emailed questions, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who heads the General Security Directorate, denied an increase in the number of Syrians being smuggled in and out of Lebanon because of any coercive policies and rules.
“The policy of the Lebanese state concerning Syrians in Lebanon is not predicated on any malice toward them as some like to claim for certain motives, on the contrary, the Lebanese state has hosted them and cared for them and the General Security Directorate has been quite ‘lenient’ in applying the law,” said Ibrahim.
But what’s certain is that ever since the Hezbollah-allied Michel Aoun became president of Lebanon in October 2016, the government has sought a gradual and de facto normalization of ties with the Assad regime and has done everything, short of mass deportation, to compel refugees to leave the country or return to Syria.
Underpinning the Lebanese position are fears that a country with a native population of about 4.5 million, a fraught and conflict-riddled sectarian balance, and a strained social fabric cannot support the presence of 1.5 million Syrian refugees. This is on top of a Palestinian refugee population now estimated at 200,000. These fears are often verbalized in crude and sometimes racist ways by Lebanese officials, including Aoun and his powerful son-in-law Gebran Bassil (both Maronite Christian): Syrian refugees are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and they tend to have many children, they are allegedly contributing to crime and environmental pollution and straining the country’s decrepit infrastructure, there are “terrorists” among them, and they are “freeloaders” who want to work in Lebanon and pay no taxes and also receive humanitarian aid. The Lebanese government claims the economic cost of hosting displaced Syrians has been around $46.5 billion during the period 2011-18.
Starting in November 2017 the General Security Directorate’s Ibrahim led what he has called a “voluntary and safe” program to help repatriate Syrians, UNHCR-registered refugees and otherwise, who are willing to return home. It has required working with his counterparts in the Syrian regime’s intelligence services (mukhabarat). The program has been temporarily halted due to the pandemic. Ibrahim’s office provided the following figures for those returning to Syria since the start of the program on Nov. 30, 2017 and as of April 12, 2021:
- 400,312 who were not registered as refugees with the UNHCR and had either overstayed their visa, failed to get or renew a residency permit, or had entered the country illegally but then opted to return to Syria after “resolving their situation” by either paying what they owed in fees to the Lebanese state or refusing to pay and thereby forfeiting the right to ever return to Lebanon by legal means.
- 15,626 who had been registered as refugees with the UNHCR but who deregistered and returned with the help of the program led by Ibrahim.
- 13,196 who gave up their UNHCR refugee status in Lebanon and returned to Syria on their own.
- 5,379 who were never registered with the UNHCR as refugees but returned through the General Security Directorate program.
Separately, a total of 92,218 Syrians left Lebanon during the 10-year period ending Feb. 25, 2021 after securing asylum in a third country, according to Lebanon’s General Security Directorate.
At the fifth annual Syria donor conference held virtually at the end of March, Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab warned that “poverty is engulfing around 60% of the Lebanese people, amongst them about 25% living in abject poverty, joining most of the displaced Syrians in extreme poverty, if Lebanon keeps sinking in the abyss.” He reminded the international community that the Syrian presence in Lebanon was “temporary and should not be construed under any circumstances as a local integration” and urged support for a Lebanese government plan adopted in July 2020 to return Syrians home, mainly to regime-controlled territories. The plan, which calls for counting all Syrians in the country, appears to be similar to a Russian proposal floated in 2018. It hinges on cooperating with the regime, decoupling refugee return from political settlement talks, and convincing international donors to provide funds to encourage return and help rebuild destroyed towns and neighborhoods. So far Western governments have predicated such assistance on the regime agreeing to comprehensive political reforms. Plus sanctions against the regime, particularly those connected to the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act passed last year, complicate any Lebanese efforts. But the Lebanese appear to be extremely eager to move things forward regardless.
In early March the minister of social affairs in Diab’s caretaker government, Ramzi Moucharafieh, traveled to Damascus, where he met with several Syrian regime officials, including Faisal al-Mekdad, the foreign minister.
Assem Abi Ali, a spokesperson for Moucharafieh who also serves as general supervisor of the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, a taskforce that includes representatives of the government and local and international humanitarian organizations, said the two sides discussed the mechanics of a “mass voluntary return” of Syrians from Lebanon.
Abi Ali said Moucharafieh discussed with Mekdad some of the obstacles to return like mandatory military service and the mukhabarat’s arrest of some of those who had recently returned from Lebanon.
Mekdad’s answer, according to Abi Ali, was: “Please provide us the names.”
It’s the standard answer given for years by all Syrian regime officials including Bashar al-Assad to all queries about gross human rights violations, atrocities, and war crimes committed by the regime.
The truth is that the regime has been adamant about choosing by name which refugees get to return from Lebanon or anywhere else. The regime has reserved the right to interrogate, detain, and draft to military service any of the returnees. Few of those displaced by the regime’s scorched earth campaigns against areas previously held by the opposition ever get to return to their original homes, either because there’s nothing to return to or the regime intentionally wants to keep them out to effect demographic changes under the guise of reconstruction and urban renewal. There’s also the fact that many of those who fled to Lebanon are from areas in rural Damascus and Homs close to the Lebanese border where Hezbollah maintains a presence and neither the regime nor its allies want lots of people to return for security reasons.
Then there is the fact that the Syrian regime and its backers, most notably Russia, want to use the refugee issue as a bargaining chip and pressure tool to extract payment from the West in the form of sanctions relief, reconstruction funds, and normalization of diplomatic ties. It’s in keeping with the regime’s longstanding strategy of creating and fueling the problem and then offering to make it go away in return for concessions.
Abi Ali said Mekdad assured Moucharafieh that he had been tasked by Assad to “fully cooperate” with Lebanon on repatriating those Syrians who want to return home. But Abi Ali acknowledged it was going to take more than expressions of goodwill by Assad.
“We cannot succeed in any return without the umbrella and protection of the international community,” said Abi Ali.
But at the moment all European and Western policies appear to be aimed at maintaining the status quo and doing everything to keep refugees in countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey and prevent them from ever reaching Europe again in the large numbers seen in 2014-16. Moves by Denmark to return Syrian refugees to Damascus and the reticence so far by the Biden administration to reverse Trump-era policies that would allow refugees including Syrians into the U.S. only bolster the perception that the West would rather pass the buck so to speak to Syria’s neighbors.
The situation is definitely unsustainable given Lebanon’s dire situation and the grim prognosis for the coming months.
“We are now below zero when it comes to the conditions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon,” said Nasser Yassin, a professor at the American University of Beirut who is also director of research at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs and co-chair of the AUB4Refugees initiative.
“The repercussions for Lebanon of having a generation of Syrian kids born and raised in Lebanon but who do not have decent education or skills are catastrophic,” added Yassin. “We are talking about a lost generation, we can see it in front of us.”
Only a fraction of the tens of thousands of Syrian children born in Lebanon during and after 2011 have had their birth registered with Lebanese authorities, making them effectively stateless and exposing them to all forms of exploitation.
Yassin proposes one possible solution to the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon:
- Lebanon needs to work with all the powers involved in the issue on creating three categories for the country’s Syrian refugee population.
- One category is those that want to return to Syria under the current circumstances but require significant assistance and protection to do so.
- The second category, which may be the largest, includes those that can never return to Syria as long as the current regime is in power and who must be given asylum in Europe and the U.S. Lebanon won’t ever grant them asylum.
- The third category are those that do not fit the prior two and that Lebanon will have to accept as legal residents with all the rights and protections — a long shot but worth trying to convince Lebanon of the merits of doing so.
The status quo means further exploitation of the misery of Syrians and more social tensions to add to Lebanon’s many woes. Deteriorating conditions in Lebanon could drive smugglers to establish new routes to move anyone who wants to flee Lebanon to Europe via Cyprus as they have been attempting to do since last year, predicted Yassine. One such attempt was thwarted on April 25.
Sam Dagher is an American-Lebanese journalist and author who has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 16 years. Sam is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Syria Program and contributes to The Atlantic. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images