For a long time, Lebanon commendably refrained from the kind of border “management” that Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq have each engaged in with regard to admitting and hosting Syrian refugees. Now, with over one million Syrians in the country—accounting for one fourth of Lebanon’s population—the government has announced plans to restrict entry and send some refugees back to Syria.
The newly announced plans include three major restrictions. 1) Syrians coming from “safe” parts of Syria will be prevented from crossing into Lebanon. 2) Syrians who had fled to Lebanon and then returned to Syria will not be allowed back into Lebanon. 3) Syrians coming from parts of Syria far away from the Lebanese border will also be denied entry.
Each of these restrictions threatens to deny international protection to Syrian refugees, and the U.N. Refugee Agency has criticized the new policy.
- “Safe” parts of Syria. Amid a civil war like Syria’s, it is futile to label certain regions “safe” or to declare that they are not “witnessing fighting,” particularly when different groups of people are under threat in different areas and when prolonged war has cut off access to the basic necessities in many areas not directly under fire. In wartime, conditions on the ground can change rapidly, and refugees might be fleeing violence that Lebanese border guards have not yet learned of. Some refugees are at risk because of particular, unique circumstances not directly related to the level of violence in a given region.
- Return. While voluntary return to one’s country of origin is one factor among many that should be weighed in determining refugee status, it should not automatically disqualify someone from being designated a refugee. Returning to one’s country of origin often does not constitute availing oneself of that nation’s protection. In the Syrian context, many bona fide refugees have returned to Syria, taking care to make their trips brief and secret, to undertake tasks they consider vital: to help children or other family to escape to safety; to collect salaries, sell land, to take other steps vital to supporting their families as savings dwindle in Lebanon, where it is illegal for them to work; or, last week, to vote in Syria’s elections for fear that failing to participate could forever bar them from returning home in the future, when things are stable again. A blanket denial of entry to Syrians who have returned to Syria would deny protection to refugees badly in need of it.
- Distance from Lebanon’s border. While Lebanon has every right to wish that Syrians living closer to Iraq or Jordan or Turkey would flee to those countries, the fact is that often refugees have little choice about where to seek protection, and the international community needs to respect their right to exercise what little choice they do have. Christian refugees might feel safer fleeing to Lebanon, which has a large Christian population, than to other surrounding countries. Palestinian Syrians living near Jordan might be aware that Jordan forbids them entry. Single men might have been turned away at the Jordanian border. (When Human Rights First visited Jordan in late October, we met with a young Orthodox Christian man whose brother, traveling alone, was turned away by Jordanian border authorities and went to Lebanon instead.) Refugees might flee to one country because they have family or friends there who can help support them in exile. Any Syrian might analyze the surrounding checkpoints, both regime and opposition, and conclude that the safest route to escape ends in Lebanon rather than in a country that is geographically closer. These are decisions refugees make in order to stay alive, and the international community should not question those decisions.
Equally dangerous, though, is Lebanon’s repeated proposal to establish safe zones on the Syrian side of the border. Syria is a war zone. It is not safe. As ill-equipped as the Government of Lebanon feels it is to host Syrian refugees (“They are living under inhuman conditions and therefore we began thinking that there are safe areas inside Syria,” said Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas), the fact is that Syrian refugees have fled a country where they are not safe and have sought the protection of Lebanon.
Syria is not safe, and, what’s more, safe zones are not safe. Historically, the international community has done a poor job of protecting established safe zones for civilians fleeing armed conflict, most notably in its failure to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in which 8,000 Bosnians in a U.N. protected safe area were slaughtered in July 1995. Speaking at the Srebrenica Summer University to a group of students, scholars, survivors, and family members on the anniversary of the massacre, Assistant Secretary Anne Richard said,
Most of all, I call upon you to make the world understand not just the tragedy of what happened here in Srebrenica, but equally importantly, the tragedy of what did not happen here. As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said during his visit to the Memorial last year, “The international community failed to provide the necessary protection to many people who were killed at the time when they needed our support.” The Srebrenica genocide left many hard, painful lessons.
One of those lessons is surely to exercise caution when it comes to establishing “safe zones” within the national borders of a country engaged in a brutal civil war.
The international community must do more than simply condemn Lebanon’s recent announcement and withhold its support from plans for safe zones. It must shoulder more of the burden that has brought Lebanon to its knees.
In response to these new restrictions, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. will be increasing humanitarian assistance in Syrian and in neighboring countries. While humanitarian aid is important, it is equally important that the U.S. make a commitment to resettle significant numbers of Syrian refugees. Read more.