Jess De Santi is a first year law student at McGill University and an associate editor with the journal. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Science from McGill University, with a minor in World Religions.
To date, the Syrian civil war has created more than two million refugees. The largest share live in Lebanon where more than 800,000 refugees equal nearly one quarter of the small country’s domestic population. Most of the refugees live in informal camps concentrated in the north and around Beirut. The sudden influx of people into Lebanon places an immense stress on local social services (see also here), even with the efforts of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other non-governmental organisations operating in Lebanon. The plight of refugees in Lebanon highlights the difficulties of imposing international norms in regions with scarce resources to meet the demands.
Lebanon is amongst a minority of states that are not parties to the United Nations 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, nor the 1967 Protocol expanding the scope of protection given by the Convention. Lebanon also does not have any domestic legal framework regarding refugees or asylum seekers. Thus, refugees within Lebanon live in a perpetually precarious state of being, lacking entirely in legal protection.
Unwilling to commit to long-term protection, Lebanon prohibits the construction of permanent housing for refugees, only permitting smaller temporary structures. The interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati has also recently suggested that the government will be reviewing the situations of all Syrian refugees currently in the country and re-examining their status as refugees.
Despite not joining international covenants protecting refugee rights, Lebanon has thus far kept its border open and allowed refugees to remain in the country without seeking their removal. The country also allows the UNHCR to operate within the country registering and providing aid to the refugee populations. Further, the Lebanese government has increased its spending in response to the increased use of the services it provides, dramatically deepening this year’s deficit. However, Lebanese appeals for additional international aid come at the same time as the arrest of the chief government official in charge of administering aid.
Meanwhile, Lebanon is in the midst of a governance crisis, the entire Cabinet having resigned in March. Lebanon’s democracy is premised on confessionalism, which guarantees a degree of representation for various religious groups, notably Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and various Christian sects. Increases in the numbers of one sect may provoke tensions in its relations with others. And indeed, the tension between these groups is rising as a result of the influx of so many Syrians, most of whom are Sunni. In particular, social discomfort has intensified as a result of local economies becoming distorted by the influx of cheap labour and the increasing demand on rental housing.
The evolving refugee crisis in Lebanon demonstrates the dual challenges of conformity to international norms and tackling domestic resource constraints. Though not a party to the Refugee Convention, Lebanon continues to provide a minimum of services and aid to refugees within its borders. Still, the fragile domestic social balance and the resource constraints Lebanon faces limit its ability to do more for the refugee population. Increased targeted donor assistance for Lebanon would be instrumental in alleviating the mounting pressures it faces.
However, the legislative vacuum in which refugees in Lebanon find themselves complicates proper planning for the future. Indeed, legislation articulating a coherent regime for refugees in the country would present two important benefits. First, it would provide a basic legal framework for asylum seekers and government officials alike to manage their relationship. Turkey, also dealing with a sudden influx of Syrian refugees, recently passed legislation fortifying its international protection laws and integration of refugees into Turkish society. Similarly forward-looking legislation, even if it does not go as far as Turkey’s, would help direct the Lebanese government’s focus to expend its limited resources most effectively.
Second, legislation responding to the influx of refugees would signal to the international community the seriousness and willingness of the Lebanese government to respond actively to the crisis. Ideally, this signal would lend credibility to Lebanon’s calls for more international assistance in coping with the refugee crisis it faces, ultimately resulting in improved international assistance. Providing direction for the state to respond to refugees’ needs could better position Lebanon to receive aid by making explicit how the donor government’s money is going to be spent. Greater donor assistance will help substantially in carrying out the goals of such legislation.
This type of legislative response may strike an appropriate balance between the international norms espoused by the Refugee Convention and other international laws on one hand, and the realities of resource constraints in Lebanon on the other. Although Lebanon may not be willing to offer long-term protection, the likelihood of an early end to the Syrian civil war is rapidly decreasing, and it does not seem feasible simply to remove 800,000 persons. A legal framework guiding and directing Lebanese actions towards the refugee population can be critical to the management of the refugee crisis the country currently faces.