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Europe's Refugee Problem Is In Lebanon

Europe distributes aid to global south countries to pass off the responsibility of refugee caretaking, overburdening states fatigued by permanently displaced groups. In September 2022, 127 refugees hailing from Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon drowned at sea in the eastern Mediterranean’s deadliest capsizing of a migrant vessel. The Syrian-Lebanese border is not the most significant choke point of refugee sea crossings. That title belongs to Libya, but it is a sign of what is to come for the largest population of refugees per capita. The Lebanese government’s current efforts to decrease the number of refugees by returning them to Syria neglect the reality of ethnic strife and decades of human rights abuses. Lebanon is a case study of how overburdened host countries deprive refugees of their right to self-preservation, thus exacerbating the likelihood of permanent displacement.

Lebanon is in the third year of one of the most devastating financial crises of the 21st century. Corrupt patronage networks have led to a failing banking system, rampant inflation, and widespread electricity blackouts. Its government lacks the fundamental capacity to service a population of 5.4 million, with 78 percent of people living in poverty and 36 percent in extreme poverty. The U.N. distributed 1.5 billion in humanitarian aid in 2020, yet more than half has been lost to state currency conversions. Comparatively, Turkey received six billion in relief funding from the EU in 2016-2019. The difference is Turkey can effectively cut off its borders with Europe, redistribute EU funds, and provide sub-minimal protection to refugees with relative ease.

Lebanon, on the other hand, has a reputable history of being an unsustainable host country. In 1948, Lebanon received 110,000 exiled Palestinians. Despite living in Lebanon for seventy-plus years - quadrupling in population - generational families continue to live without basic needs. On top of that, armed militias destroyed multiple refugee camps during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), culminating in the Sabra and Shatila massacre that killed an estimated 2,000 to 3,500 Palestinians. Again in 2007, the Lebanese Armed Forces caused 40,000 refugees to flee their homes in an armed conflict with fundamentalists. Today, there are twelve official refugee camps where Palestinians continually face job discrimination, significant barriers to education, food insecurity, and the threat of violence.

Syrians began flowing into Lebanon in 2011, shortly after the Syrian Civil War began. An estimated 1.5 million Syrians currently live in Lebanon. While they experience the same acts of discrimination Palestinians do, the U.N. does not recognize them as refugees. Instead, it considers them an internally displaced group, subjecting them to different standards of humanitarian aid—a condemnable affront to human rights work that should not be allowed to persist. As a result, the Lebanese government is without incentive to build additional camps despite the massive influx of Syrians. The consequence is extreme overcrowding in already dilapidated living conditions and a rise in fatalities from migrant sea journeys.

The EU-Turkey deal is partly to blame. Restricting access to Europe created a bottleneck effect that severely limited land migrations—giving Syrians little choice but to establish themselves in Lebanon or risk crossing the Mediterranean. These issues, compounded by the continuing financial crisis and past maltreatment of Palestinians, highlight Lebanon’s inability to host refugees safely. At the international level, the crisis is emblematic of the U.N. and EU’s failure to protect vulnerable populations—transferring their responsibilities to crippled governments disinterested in the welfare of their own citizens, let alone refugees.

Lebanon stands to follow in Europe’s footsteps with its recent decision to return 15,000 displaced Syrians a month—amplifying the issue of permanent displacement. Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad has recaptured most of the country but at the cost of unjust civilian casualties from chemical weapons attacks and bombing campaigns. Meanwhile, Northern Syria remains under the control of Kurdish forces accused of war crimes. Though the fighting has subsided, post-civil-war conflicts often occur between groups that left their places of origin and those that stayed. Islamic fundamentalists that carved out spheres of influence during the war could readily exploit the returning population, and the Kurds will not relinquish control to the same groups they displaced. If either group reasserts dominion, al-Assad will likely make no distinction between them and civilian lives in the ensuing conflict, sparking a second refugee crisis.

Current practices that resolve refugee displacement need to be readdressed to hold all states accountable. While voluntary repatriation has precedent as an accepted solution to displacement, denying displaced groups adequate protections and dignitary rights complicates their decision-making. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have challenged Lebanon’s supposed “voluntary” repatriation of Syrians for falling prey to the same argument. States should diversify their approach to resolving displacement to promote better human welfare. The EU-Turkey deal and Syrian repatriation exemplify how relying heavily on a single policy can have catastrophic consequences for human security. In addition to voluntary repatriation, the US Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration points to “local integration; and resettlement to another location or country” as objective and just solutions to displacement. A combination of each can help to alleviate fatigued states like Lebanon from the burden of refugee caretaking.

A second critical issue is both a lack and misdirection of relief funding. Lebanon received only fifty-seven percent of its requested U.N. funding in 2020. The U.N. Refugee Agency partly credits COVID-19 for exacerbating the pre-pandemic funding gap to $4.803 billion—causing a significant reduction in human services worldwide. They also acknowledge the pre-pandemic gap was narrowing close to fifty percent. Financial capital is the most valuable asset in administering refugee protection; humane repatriation, local integration, and resettlement cannot occur without adequate funding. That is not to say that money should be thrown at one refugee crisis after another until each resolves itself - remember that the Lebanese financial crisis consumed more than half a billion dollars in aid in 2020 - but lack of funding remains a systemic problem. One resolution the U.N. should adopt is requiring all member states to fund the Refugee Agency since over ninety percent of its current budget comes from voluntary donations—mainly from the EU. The status quo has enabled countries geographically affected by refugee flows to dictate policy unchecked. A diversified contribution pool of non-stakeholders could help correct the issue of passing off host responsibilities. Additionally, not all governments should be the primary recipients of foreign aid, as evidenced by Lebanon’s mismanagement. Instead, relief efforts should target a mixture of local grassroots organizations, states, and international NGOs to hinder the spread of corruption.

The permanence of displaced Syrians, Palestinians, and other groups has no short-term resolution, as evidenced by Lebanon’s seventy-year-long history of avoiding refugee obligations. Actions taken to expedite repatriation are detrimental to migrants’ well-being and states looking to expel refugees. Long-term resettlement and integration are viable options, but overreliance on one solution has made the EU forget its commitments to the safety and preservation of life. The U.N. can prevent a repeat of the EU-Turkey deal or Syrian repatriation, but only through the collective assistance of host and non-host countries.


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