Originally published in Carnegie's Sada Magazine
Driven by national security, political appeasement, and a dire need for greater foreign aid, Lebanon’s government is looking to rein in and ultimately control the Syrian refugee population through a new series of stringent visa regulations.1 On December 31, 2014, Lebanon’s General Security Directorate announced the latest rule change. Previously, a Syrian national could receive a six-month renewable visa free of charge upon entry into Lebanon. The new six visa classes—tourist, business, student, transit, short stay, or medical—represent Lebanon’s attempt to exert control over the world’s second-largest refugee population and account for unregistered Syrians.
Lebanon has to date accumulated over 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees since the civil war started four years ago. In October, in a move widely condemned by aid groups, the government announced that only “exceptional humanitarian cases” would be considered for refuge and registered refugees would no longer be able to travel back to Syria without forfeiting their status (and therefore aid eligibility). Although the new restrictions build on the October ones, they are more far-reaching. The 300,000 unregistered Syrians who regularly traverse the borders can no longer do so with ease. Many are temporary laborers who drift from job to job in order to support their families. Since the Syrian war’s onset, a large number of these laborers have moved their families to Lebanon to escape war. While they may be able to obtain visas, getting their families sponsored will be difficult.
To date, the latest measure has been met with relatively little resistance from aid groups, partly because Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas has ensured that card-carrying refugees registered with UN agencies will not be affected. Although the Lebanese government has already pursued measures meant to reduce the number of Syrians in Lebanon—who now make up between one-quarter to one-third of the population—they realize mass eviction is not feasible and would draw widespread condemnation from international agencies, local aid workers, and human rights organizations.
Nonetheless, the government claims that security concerns make the increasingly tight restrictions a necessity. Recalling the presence of Palestinian militias in pre-civil-war Lebanon, Derbas and other senior level officials have repeatedly warned of disastrous consequences should Syrians in Lebanon take up arms against the state. Although some Syrians have been involved in terrorist attacks and some opposition fighters are present among the refugee population, there is little evidence to suggest a wide-scale rebellion against the state. Even though the Syrian war has triggered a number of battles around the country—including routine clashes in Tripoli, the June 2013 battle of Sidon, and the summer 2014 clashes in Arsal—most refugees are preoccupied with basic subsistence needs. Parts of Tripoli are riddled with extreme poverty, and Arsal’s location on the periphery of the Lebanese state has meant it has long been overlooked in terms of infrastructure and other basic needs. In Abra, which is near Sidon, political tension between the marginalized Sunni community and Hezbollah had been growing for some time. The Syrian civil war acted as the tipping point, but socio-economic factors cannot be ignored.
Complicating the state’s response is the heavy traffic of Syrians crossing the border each day. Lebanese authorities have long struggled to differentiate between those that pose a security risk and those that do not. On January 10, for instance, and despite a series of security plans since last April, Jabhat al-Nusra carried out a double suicide attack on Tripoli’s Alawite enclave of Jabal Mohsen that left at least seven dead. The two suicide bombers were Lebanese but trained by Jabhat al-Nusra in the Qalamoun mountain range—an indication of just how porous the borders have been and of the limited success of the Lebanese state in containing fallout from the Syrian war.
Yet while no public information is available to suggest that Syrians who cross the border legally are putting the state at risk, increased coordination between security apparatuses and foreign intelligence agencies have unveiled several cases of radical Islamists operating within state lines. In October, a Lebanese national and high level operative for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Ahmad Mikati, was arrested in the northern town of Dinniyeh. Mikati was part of an alleged terror cell comprised of both Lebanese and Syrian nationals. (According to an intelligence source, about 3,000-4,000 jihadis are operating in the region.2)
These security threats have led some politicians to oppose the Syrian presence in Lebanon more forcefully. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has been the most vocal, campaigning to set a cap on the number of refugees, a move supported by large sections of Lebanon’s Christian community. Bassil has regularly clashed with other members of the cabinet, who emphasize Lebanon’s responsibility to accept the refugee community with open arms. However, recently a consensus appears to be emerging among politicians in favor of harsher restrictions on refugees, especially following the Arsal clashes in August after ISIS briefly seized the border town and as over 20 soldiers and security personnel remain in captivity since the Lebanese army retook the town.
The clashes in Arsal, along with other security incidents, have also unraveled much of the initial support for welcoming refugees with open arms. The Sunni community in particular had long been largely sympathetic to their Syrian coreligionists, who make up the bulk of the opposition there. Areas like the predominately Sunni city of Tripoli proudly received wave after wave of refugees, but hosting more than 285,000 Syrian refugees in north Lebanon has brought forth crippling economic hardship and social unrest. Locals’ tolerance is now waning, and refugees prefer to keep a low profile to avoid verbal or physical abuse. Politicians have aptly taken note of these economic, infrastructural, and social frustrations in the country, and the latest regulations are in part their attempt to allay local concerns.
Moreover, as the Syrian war looks set to drag on indefinitely and as Lebanon struggles on nearly all fronts—socially, economically, and in security—the government is hoping that the latest adopted measures will send a message to foreign governments that Lebanon cannot assume the burden alone. Some government officials, including Minister of Education Elias Bou Saab, are asking the international community to provide funds or emergency supplies for the tented refugee communities scattered across Lebanon. But the government also wants the international community to accept more refugees. Many regional states—particularly in the Gulf—have declined to resettle Syrian refugees, and Western countries have let in relatively few. Figures released by Amnesty International show that only 1.7 percent of Syrian refugees have been offered sanctuary outside of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, or Egypt. Lebanon in particular is reeling from the burden, as services such as water and electricity are already insufficient to serve the local population.
Considering the severity of the refugee crisis, the Lebanese government’s latest stopgap measures will do little to offset the social and economic burdens of the over 1.1 million registered Syrians. Nor will they make living conditions for unregistered Syrians any better—in fact they almost certainly will do the opposite. These measures risk further exacerbating discontent or anger among an under-aided Syrian refugee community whose sheer numbers already make them well beyond the state’s control. As the refugees continue to suffer and the state attempts to take back some of the control it lost over the last four years, the latest regulation may well be too little, too late.
1. The Lebanese Foreign Ministry released a statement on January 15 in an attempt to clarify that the new regulations should not be labeled a visa. The ministry is likely taking into account past agreements that make visas unnecessary for Lebanese and Syrians traveling between the two countries. Nonetheless, the ministry maintains that a Syrian attempting to enter Lebanon through a border crossing and without the required paperwork will be turned away. ↩
2. Interview with the author. ↩