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Lebanon’s Protracted Syrian Refugees Crisis And Domestic Stability

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Lebanon’s Protracted Syrian Refugees Crisis And Domestic Stability

Lebanon continues to face an overwhelming humanitarian crisis from the influx of Syrian refugees. Overwhelmed by un unprecedented economic and social crisis, the government is unable to cope with the problem while the international community urges adherence to refugee protection principles. With no clear solution in sight in Syria, prioritizing effective measures that safeguard both refugees and Lebanese citizens is imperative.

Co-author: Molly Gallagher

Molly Gallagher is a Program Development Associate for the MENA Region at Search for Common Ground, based in Amman Jordan. Previously, Molly was a MENA Program Specialist at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) based in Tunis, Tunisia. She graduated from the American University’s School of International Service in Washington DC, with a degree in International Relations and a minor in Arabic Language.


More than a decade after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the humanitarian toll of the war paints a bleak picture – for refugees and for the communities hosting them. Regardless of the metric used to determine the number of refugees in Lebanon[1], the country consistently ranks among the top five countries globally in terms of the greatest per capita refugee population[2].

Given the protracted nature of displacement and the lack of viable solutions, it is critical for Lebanon and its international partners to adopt effective durable solutions that uphold international law principles while also preserving domestic stability in Lebanon and the rights of Lebanese citizens.

Other than the estimated 135,000 migrant workers[3], the government estimates that nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees[4] currently reside in Lebanon, alongside another 200,000 Palestinian refugees[5] and about 12,000 refugees of other origins. With a total population of around 5 million[6], Lebanon grapples with multi-faceted, compounding domestic crises. These stem from a demographic imbalance, total economic collapse (since October 2019), social unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the aftermath of the Beirut port blast (August 2020). In this context, vulnerable Lebanese families struggling to make ends meet are most impacted by the government’s diversion of resources from basic services such as electricity, healthcare, and education.

The presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has significantly intensified intercommunal tensions, with an uptick in restrictive measures and anti-refugee rhetoric. Competition over access to services and goods has exacerbated tensions both between Lebanese and Syrians as well as among Lebanon’s constituencies. Nationwide, there is a heightened perception of insecurity and lack of safety reaching unprecedented levels. The ongoing violence in the South since October 2023 and the arrival of internally displaced families from this region have further strained resources, exacerbating the competition over housing, jobs, and aid. With pressure mounting on the Lebanese government from its overburdened citizens, and from the international community urging the country to adhere to international principles for refugee protection and to curb illegal migration, a new approach to the Syrian refugee crisis is needed.

The 1951 Refugee Convention[7] defines a refugee as “any person who, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his or her nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it[8].

Although Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is bound to several other international instruments including the two International Covenants[9] as well as the Convention Against Torture, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their protocols, and several others, just to name a few. In this light, Lebanon is required to protect the human dignity and security of refugees by upholding the principle of non-refoulment, which, under international law, guarantees no one should be returned to a country where they may face torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment, and other irreparable harm.

The international definition of a refugee pertains to individuals who have a legitimate fear of returning to their country and should not be applied broadly to an entire population. A generic assessment deeming an entire country unsafe does not justify a prolonged “prima facie” approach towards every Syrian in Lebanon. Refugee status cannot be given purely based on individuals’ claims or fears; it must be decided by authorities in destination countries following the established international legal system and procedures. These guidelines should be implemented for the caseload of Syrian refugees in Lebanon as well.

The core problem is that every Syrian in Lebanon is regarded as a “refugee” by action (UN agencies) and by omission (Lebanese authorities).

Lebanon’s successive governments have not effectively and objectively dealt with the issue of Syrian refugees, causing serious challenges beyond the sheer numbers of refugees and strain on host communities. The challenges include a significant number of unregistered children born to Syrian parents, exploitation of Syrians by their employers, rising rates of illegal migration, and cases of fraudulent use of aid provided by international organizations.

Typically, refugee crises are resolved through the adoption of one of three durable solutions: repatriation to the country of origin once conditions have improved, resettlement in a third country, or integration into the host community. Due to a lack of international support, both repatriation and resettlement are nearly impossible. The integration of a refugee caseload that accounts for around thirty percent of the population in Lebanon constitutes an existential challenge for the country.

As the military confrontation in Syria winded down, more countries consider that the situation in Syria should be re-evaluated to allow for the voluntary return of Syrian refugees back to their homeland.[10] In July 2023, the European Parliament resolution on the situation in Lebanon (2023/2742) clearly stipulated that “conditions are not met for the voluntary, dignified return of refugees in conflict-prone areas in Syria”, thus laying the ground for a distinction between “conflict-prone” areas and other parts of Syria.

Countries like Denmark have updated their classification[11], allowing return for Syrians from now-designated “safe zones.”. Over the past decade, Lebanese authorities have consistently ignored calls to re-determine the status of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, failing to identify who is entitled to remain and who qualifies for return.

To distinguish between Syrian refugees and non-refugees, Lebanese authorities should form a joint committee comprised of officials from the Army Command and the General Directorate of Public Security. This committee will monitor conditions in Syria, keeping track of regions that have improved. Based on these public reports, the status of each Syrian refugee in Lebanon will be reviewed.

Refugees originally from areas now deemed safe must apply for temporary residency in accordance with Lebanon’s legislative procedures for migrants or return to Syria. Because Lebanon is committed to the concept of non-refoulement, Syrians who have legitimate safety concerns will have access to a quasi-judicial appeal committee, where cases will be examined individually, taking into account particular circumstances rather than a blanket assessment of Syria. If the applicant’s fear of harm is justified and confirmed, he or she will be granted complete legal protection in accordance with international norms.

While the possibility of returning Syrian refugees from areas of Syria that are not currently experiencing conflict ought to be given serious consideration, there are a number of obstacles that need to be overcome. Following Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with the Assad regime, the foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt convened in Amman, Jordan, on May 1, 2023. The final communique, endorsed by all ministers, including Syria’s, emphasizes the need for the Syrian government to prioritize the voluntary and safe return of refugees and to take necessary steps to start implementing their return immediately. It also stipulates that the Syrian government and host countries will enhance their cooperation to organize voluntary and safe returns, clarifying measures to facilitate this process, including the inclusion of refugees in general amnesty decrees. The communique, as it is, uncovered the fact that the Assad regime continues to be a significant barrier to the repatriation of refugees. In the absence of an easing of sanctions and an influx of funds for reconstruction, Assad is unwilling to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees. His whimsical desire for diplomatic rehabilitation and financial support underlines his negative stance on the refugee issue.

Returning Syrian refugees who have lost personal or real estate paperwork as a result of looting or damage may find it difficult to prove their identity or property ownership, which will have a number of negative implications. They may be unable to return their homes or land, causing housing, land, and property (HLP) disputes. The lack of identification will also limit access to essential services, legal protection, and work prospects, aggravating their vulnerability and making reintegration into their communities extremely difficult. This situation highlights the need for comprehensive support mechanisms to assist refugees in reestablishing their legal identities and property rights upon return, which necessitates full cooperation from the Syrian bureaucracy—an effort that currently lacks political support in Damascus.

The decade-long Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon has strained the country’s resources and exacerbated social and economic hardships. Although Lebanon is bound by international law to protect refugees and uphold non-refoulement, the limited options to address the presence of the large Syrian population in Lebanon and the associated intercommunal tensions emphasizes the necessity for a novel approach.

By addressing the legal status of Syrians in Lebanon and distinguishing between refugees and migrants (non-refugees), Lebanon can ensure more efficient resource allocation, strengthen social cohesion, and provide the necessary legal protection that genuine refugees are entitled to.

  1. Dyvik, Einar H, “Refugees – Major Hosting Countries Worldwide as of 2023” Statista. December 11, 2023, https://www.statista.com/statistics/263423/major-refugee-hosting-countries-worldwide/

  2. Diab, Jasmine Lilian, “Selective and Strategic Indifference: Lebanon’s Migration and Refugee Landscapes” Mixed Migration Centre. 25 January 2024 https://mixedmigration.org/lebanon-migration-and-refugee-landscapes/#:~:text=Lebanon%20hosts%20the%20highest%20per,12%2C000%20people%20from%20other%20countries.

  3. “Migrant Workers are Abused and Ignored Under the Kafala System” ReliefWeb, May 3, 2023, https://reliefweb.int/report/lebanon/migrant-workers-are-abused-and-ignored-under-kafala-system-enar

  4. “UNHCR Lebanon At a Glance” https://www.unhcr.org/lb/at-a-glance

  5. As of March 2023, the total number of registered Palestine Refugees with UNRWA in Lebanon is 489,292 persons. However, the 2017 census by the Lebanese government estimated the total number of Palestinians still residing in Lebanon at slightly less than 200,000 persons https://www.pcbs.gov.ps/Downloads/book2473.pdf

  6. “Lebanon Country Summary” CIA World Factbook 15 May 2024 https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/lebanon/summaries

  7. “The 1951 Refugee Convention” UNHCR Global Website https://www.unhcr.org/about-unhcr/who-we-are/1951-refugee-conventio

  8. International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). https://www.ohchr.org/en/what-are-human-rights/international-bill-human-rights#:~:text=In%20December%201966%2C%20the%20UN,and%20Political%20Rights%20(ICCPR).

  9. Hadjicostis, M 8 EU Members Say Conditions in Syria Should Be Reassessed To Allow Voluntary Refugee Returns. The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2024/05/17/migrants-refugees-syria-eu-lebanon-safe-zones-returns/1a527914-1429-11ef-9d37-865890cc2670_story.html

  10. “Board: Two More Regions of Syria are Safe to Return To”Berlingske https://www.berlingske.dk/politik/styrelse-yderligere-to-regioner-i-syrien-er-sikre-at-vende-tilbage-til




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