A Troubling New Obstacle for Syrians Fleeing War

Lebanon’s Restriction on Entry Sets ‘Significant Precedent,’ Atlantic Council’s Itani Says

This week’s decision by the Lebanese government to impose visa restrictions on Syrians fleeing a bloody civil war is “quite dramatic” and sets a “significant precedent” for Syria’s neighbors, which are struggling to care for masses of refugees, according to Faysal Itani, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Under the new measures, which came into effect on January 5, Syrians will have to obtain a visa before crossing into Lebanon, which has received more than one million Syrian refugees amid the country’s almost 4.5 million population since the start of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad in March of 2011.

The US government is “very concerned new visa requirements for Syrians entering Lebanon will create additional challenges for refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters January 5.

Psaki said the Lebanese government must coordinate with the United Nations to develop “criteria to ensure those feeling violence and persecution are able to cross into Lebanon.”

While Lebanese officials have said refugees will not be deported, Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), expressed concern about a lack of provisions that would allow vulnerable Syrians to enter into Lebanon as refugees.

“There previously have been arrangements for highly vulnerable refugees to enter Lebanon. We’ve seen no specific mention of this [in the latest measures], so we just want to ensure that this will continue,” Redmond told Voice of America. “We want to see something official on this and get clarification on it.”

The war in Syria has created more than 3.2 million registered refugees, according to UNHCR. Lebanon and Turkey have taken in more than 1 million each. Jordan has taken in more than 622,000, Iraq more than 233,000, and Egypt more than 138,000. Unlike other countries in the region that have taken in refugees, Lebanon has not set up camps for the Syrians who have crossed its borders.

Psaki said the burden placed by these refugees on the host countries is “a tremendous challenge for their economies and public services.”

The international community has not done enough to end the war in Syria, nor does it have a stellar track record when it comes to taking in refugees, said Itani, who recently returned from a visit to Beirut. He spoke in an interview with New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts of the interview are below:

Q: Why has Lebanon decided to impose visa restrictions on Syrians?

A: It’s partly due to public impatience and social tensions. There is a realization in Lebanon that the Syrian refugees are actually here for the long term and have become embedded in Lebanon’s social and economic fabric.

It took a while to get to this point because there was genuine sympathy and the perception that as soon as this war [in Syria] ended they would go back to Syria. I noticed a palpable difference in attitudes between my previous time in Lebanon and my most recent visit last month. There were much more explicitly negative sentiments toward the refugees. I lived in Lebanon during the first couple of years of the war in Syria and while I heard vague concerns then nobody ever spoke ill of the refugees. Now there is a significant change in public attitudes.

Q: Is that because of the competition for jobs and resources?

A: I think that’s part of it. There is also something a little more abstract. There is a sectarian issue. The Syrian refugees are almost all Sunnis and Lebanon is delicate when it comes to sectarian issues. Adding 1.5 million mostly Sunnis to a population in which Sunnis are only one-third of the country definitely makes Christians and Shia uneasy. That’s not to say the Shia and Christians are the only ones who are uneasy. The Sunnis I speak to are just as hostile and bitter. There is also a good deal of social and economic prejudice toward Syrians among Lebanese in general.

Q: Will the new rules slow down the flow of refugees into Lebanon?

A: Of course. Requesting visas from a displaced refugee population that in many cases either does not have identification or is scared to have an official status in the host country or cannot interact with the official institutions of the Syrian state, de facto means much less people come in and some people inside have to leave. It is actually quite dramatic. It’s not just a bureaucratic gesture.

Q: Is the international community doing enough to help Syria’s neighbors, which are bearing the burden of Syrian refugees? What more should the international community be doing?

A: No it’s not [doing enough]. It is doing a lot—I don’t want to imply that they’re not doing anything. But there’s a financing problem. There was very nearly a complete cessation of food aid to the refugee population a few weeks ago. That’s one example to show that there hasn’t been enough money forthcoming even though a lot of money has been pledged. And then there is a problem of capacity. In Jordan, the economy is already pretty weak. Lebanon’s government is largely nonfunctional.

There are two issues on which you can fault the international community. One, not doing enough politically to actually address the issue itself: the driver of the refugee flows. Two, the international community has a pretty miserable track record of taking in refugees themselves. The asylum and resettlement program will be ramped up in 2015, but we’re still talking dismally low numbers. The US will take in between 1,000-2,000 people in 2015. That is insignificant.

Q: What impact has the Syrian refugee influx had on Lebanon?

A: Based on overwhelming anecdotal evidence, the refugees have displaced Lebanese in low-wage jobs. Economically if you are a business owner and your labor costs plummet that is not a bad thing, but the majority of people are not well positioned to benefit economically from the flood of cheap labor into Lebanon.

The physical makeup, of Beirut at least, is changing. There is a huge population of beggars in the capital. Lebanon has always had this problem, but I have never seen it like this. There is a good deal of snobbery in Beirut, even toward other Lebanese, and toward Syrians I think it is especially pronounced.

Many local populations who feel the government is not standing up for them have begun to form their own neighborhood vigilante groups, institute curfews, see Syrians as a threat to society, and worry about the potential for infiltration by militant groups.

Q: With these attitudes toward refugees do you expect a change in the Lebanese policy of not creating camps for the refugees?

A: I think so, but I think it will take a bit of time. The Lebanese are concerned about the permanence of the problem and the idea that instituting refugee camps would be a recognition of that. On the other hand, there is also a need for political, security, and economic control of this population. These things will always need to be balanced. At what point will the balance swing the other way? I can’t predict, but I think it will eventually happen whether they like it or not.

Q: Are other countries—Jordan and Turkey specifically—also likely to consider similar restrictions on Syrian refugees?

A: There is a heavy international taboo over treating refugees in this way—refusing asylum. If the Lebanese, who are so dependent on external aid, are able to do this it is a significant precedent. The Jordanians were already moving in this direction because of their own parochial and local interests, but the Turks are not. The Turks seem to have adopted a policy of making life more bearable and integrating these populations. I assume it’s an issue of host country means and capacity. The Turks have a much bigger population, a much bigger economy, and much less fragile domestic politics as compared to Lebanon or Jordan.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and Faysal Itani

Image: Syrian children, from families taking refuge in Lebanon, gather at an aid distribution point in 2012. (IHH Foundation/ Mustafa Ozturk/ CCLicense)