Authors: Dr. Rouba Mhaissen & Elena Hodges
Shifting Discourse on Return
From a Russian initiative to coordinate the return of nearly 2 million Syrian refugees from Europe and neighboring host countries to surging right-wing populism and anti-refugee sentiment in Europe, the topic of return has turned into a lightning rod for debate and contention between politicians, policy analysts, and rights advocates. Mounting pressure for large-scale refugee returns to Syria threatens the international consensus that return must be safe, dignified, and voluntary. At the same time, ebbing donor funding for the Syria crisis response in neighboring host countries — Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey — is making long-standing gaps in resources even worse.
Conditions in Lebanon as a Push Factor
Conditions of displacement for Syrian refugees in Lebanon are rapidly deteriorating. Lack of access to valid residency, shrinking livelihoods opportunities, and an overall reduction in humanitarian aid are serving as return push factors. Prominent political figures are calling for mass, imminent refugee returns, at the same time that depictions of Syrian refugees in the mainstream Lebanese media galvanize public hostility toward refugees.
Recent security crackdowns have further heightened tensions. Nearly all refugees we spoke with reported fears of being forced to return, and many discussed how conditions in Lebanon are becoming intolerable to the point where return becomes the only alternative.
Return-related Protection Risks
Refugees in Lebanon have substantial and well-founded fears about return, spanning physical, legal, and material protection concerns. This report outlines and contextualizes these fears, before presenting several detailed case studies of individuals and families who returned and were re-displaced back to Lebanon. In doing so, it points to urgent protection concerns during and after return.
Proponents of return seek a swift, clean way to bring the Syrian displacement to an end. However, this study highlights the fact that return to Syria, when coercive, uninformed, or unsafe, results in breaches of human rights, new trauma, violence, and re-displacement. Premature returns increase legal, economic, and health-related vulnerabilities, disproportionately affecting women, youth, and children. Re-displaced returnees often resort to illegal and unsafe measures to flee Syria once again, putting them further at risk of exploitation, trafficking, and detention, as well as heightened economic vulnerability.
This study examines the individual and community-level costs of irresponsible return for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. It concludes that all stakeholders must do more to push back against premature return, at discourse, policy and programmatic levels. First, improving living conditions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is imperative, both for their basic protection needs and as a prerequisite for voluntary return. Second, ensuring that protection thresholds are met inside Syria must precede return coordination efforts and reconstruction funding. Finally, any sustainable return must be gender-sensitive, and center, rather than elide, the voices, concerns, and priorities of displaced Syrians themselves.