In Depth

Lebanon has every right to limit refugees from Syria

The world cannot rely on Syria’s neighbours to carry the entire burden of the refugee crisis

Columnist Venetia Rainey

Beirut - It should come as no great surprise to anyone that the government here has decided to clamp down on Syrian refugees seeking to enter the tiny Middle Eastern country of Lebanon. The near-constant influx of people who have left behind everything they own, and who need jobs, food, medical care and shelter, has been been going on for almost four long years.

These refugees are traumatised and largely helpless. Tragically, there are still many more such people in Syria who hope to join them here. And yet there is no doubt in my mind that this is the right thing for Lebanon to do.

The decision taken by the Lebanese Cabinet was made public this week, but goes back to last autumn when Lebanon first made it clear that it was no longer willing to take in everyone who arrives on its border and, furthermore, would like to reduce the number of refugees in the country. 

To achieve this, it began by targeting those who were going back and forth between Lebanon and Syria, arguing that anyone able to return to their home country at will was unlikely to be a true refugee. 

Then, as of Monday, Syrians seeking to enter Lebanon were told that they would have to apply at the border for one of six visa types: tourist, business, student, transit, short stay or medical.

The news has led to a wave of articles in the international press questioning the decision and prompted UNHCR to urge that “extreme humanitarian cases” still be allowed to enter, a policy the Social Affairs Ministry has assured will remain in place.

Yet the need for visas is standard immigration policy - so why the outcry? 

Part of the reason is that the move marks a significant change to bilateral agreements between Lebanon and Syria that go back decades: these agreements have allowed any Syrian national to automatically get a free six-month visa at the Lebanese border, no questions asked.

It is this Schengen-like situation has led to the unchecked presence of so many Syrians in Lebanon, causing immense strain on an already groaning infrastructure and leading to social tensions and unemployment.

The unofficial number of Syrians in Lebanon is around 1.5 million, and that in a country that previously counted around 4 million inhabitants. An equivalent influx into any western nation is inconceivable - these are the kind of numbers that change a country forever.

And it is this "forever" that increasingly concerns the Lebanese, and rightly so.

When I first arrived here two years ago, I strongly believed in the obligation of the country to take in anyone and everyone who was fleeing the Syrian civil war and its chaotic whirlwind of death and destruction. They would go back immediately once the war ended in a few years, I argued with those who disagreed.

But as the war's end became more and more elusive - indeed, as the conflict nears its fifth gruesome year, its resolution seems further away than ever - that calculation has changed. Now, my certainty in their eventual return is shaken. 

Those who repeatedly pointed to the example of the Palestinians, half a million of whom live in crushing poverty in Lebanon after first being installed in temporary camps back in 1948, were initially dismissed as xenophobes and racists. But what if they were right?

A senior municipality figure from south Lebanon recently told me that he sees it as highly likely that around half the Syrian refugees will end up staying in the country forever.

Syria will not emerge from this war as one state, he said, and would you return if your home was under the control of a group or government who you felt would persecute you? Would you go back if you knew you had no physical home to return to?

Many refugees I have spoken to about returning to Syria answer: yes, unconditionally. But what if the results of the war make it impossible? What if they spend a decade here, get jobs, go to school, have babies, get married, build houses, start businesses, make friends - will they still want to return to the bombed-out shell they once called home?

These are no longer alarmist, sensationalist questions to ask. This is the reality Lebanon is confronting.

Whether it is the establishment of camps within UN safe zones or a much bigger resettlement drive by other countries, the international community has a responsibility to come up with a better solution to what has been called the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War Two than simply relying on Syria’s neighbours to keep their borders open.

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