The most important features of Lebanese policy towards the issue of Syrian refugees: From hiding its head in the sand to “soft power”

Over half of all Syrian refugees are children
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Over half of all Syrian refugees are children

The refugee policy paper that the Lebanese government authorized on October 23, 2014, was the first of its kind to be produced since Syrian refugees first began pouring into Lebanon in 2011 [1]. The paper had been drawn up in order to be officially presented at an international conference in Berlin on the state of Syrian refugees, after criticism from the international community that Lebanon had no strategy to deal with the crisis. The paper itself essentially amounted to an implicit admission on Lebanon’s part that it only exerted itself out of necessity. Generally speaking, Lebanon takes a relaxed approach to problems, either denying they exist or playing them down, only to draw up policies once reality hits home and the problem has reached crisis point. For instance, in its preamble the paper stated first that Lebanon, “had been a peerless international paragon in the extent of its regard for humanitarian principles and implementing them with regards to its neighbours and brothers, the people of Syria,” then indicated that the country, “is on the verge of an explosion—social, economic and security—that threatens its very existence should it fail to pursue a responsible policy designed to reduce the number of Syrian refugees on its soil, ensure security for Lebanese and Syrian citizens and reduce the burden on its people and economy.” This was how the government officially declared that the age of reckless generosity (i.e. abandoning their policy of indifference, or overcoming impotence to actually take some decisions) was over and the age of responsible reckoning begun. This transition, prompted by necessity, had begun to take gradual effect in early 2014, when the current government first started its work. Below, we shall attempt to outline the broad features of this process:


Lebanese refugee policy in the initial period (2011-early 2014): a policy of hiding its head in the sand coupled with the strengthening of fragmented branches of authority.

One of the most important features of Lebanese policy during this period was a policy of ostrich-like denial. It may be the case that this policy suggested itself as a consequence of the government’s inability to take decisions, with the government concealing its impotence by playing down the crisis and refusing to acknowledge the effect this situation was producing. This was exacerbated by the fact that the formation of the last government had taken many months and that in the last year of its existence (2013-2014) it had been a caretaker government—not to mention the fact that, following the marginalizing of a significant component of the country’s political constituency (the March 14 Alliance), the government lacked political legitimacy. At the same time, Lebanon witnessed the steady growth in strength and independence of various agencies and authorities from municipalities to security organizations.

Head in the sand

This approach did not just amount to a lack of clear public policy for addressing the crisis, but also, and most flagrantly, it was present in the terminology used.

a) Avoiding words associated with “asylum”: The government had an obsession with swapping out this terminology for different words in all official documents and communications. The most obvious example of this is the replacement of the word laji’ (refugee) with nazih, despite the clear difference in meaning. The nazih is a person who leaves one region for another within the borders of a single state (i.e. a “displaced person” or what is conventionally known as a muhajer in Lebanon), while a true laji’ is someone who crosses state borders and decamps from one country to another, which is the case with Syria’s refugees. Why make this change? Why this insistence on using a term in a context that robs it of its meaning? There are a number of theories, but all agree that it stems from government attempts to play down the crisis and its consequences. The first theory is that these terminological substitutions are designed to calm fears that Syrian refugees may end up like Palestinian refugees, with the variation in vocabulary reducing the temptation to compare the two. The second theory is that Lebanon is reemphasizing its total rejection of all forms of asylum seeking, reasserting the mantra that it is “not a refugee country”, and casting the presence of Syrian refugees on its soil as a state of affairs quite separate from any legal admission of responsibility for their circumstances, needs and protection, thus reserving its right to re-examine the legality of this refugee presence at any time. The official Lebanese position on this point is in complete accord with previous Lebanese policy as laid out in an international agreement (a memorandum of understanding) with the UN High Commissioner for refugees in 2003, and a cabinet decision issued on September 7, 2010 [2]. It is also in accord with Lebanon’s complete refusal to recognize the 1951 Geneva convention concerned with refugees; Lebanon went so far as describe the invitation to Berlin as a trap to make it ratify the Geneva convention [3]. This fear stems from a failure to appreciate that it is possible to guarantee the basic rights of refugees under the convention, without that automatically entailing granting them citizenship in Lebanon (as is the case with refugee policy in Egypt, for instance). On this point it is worth noting that in its English language communications—especially those related to international donations—the word “refugees” is used to refer to Syrians of that status [4] (and the word “laji’” is even found in some Arabic-language communications related to donation procedures [5]). The literal translation for nazih, “displaced”, is nowhere to be found. This may indicate that the use of nazih/displaced is intended for a Lebanese and Syrian audience and that the objective here is more psychological than legal. Four years on, the government seems to have picked up on this discrepancy, recently requesting that the UN replace the term “refugees” with “displaced persons” when referring to Syrians in Lebanon.

b) Welcoming all-comers with no special reference to refugees: This is the natural consequence of previous positions. Given its refusal to recognize the existence of the refugee category the state was left with two possible solutions. Either it could refuse to admit all immigrants, which is, of course, impossible, or it could accept all of them, which is what happened. Those coming from war zones or those who could prove that they had been subjected to persecution were granted no special status or treated differently from those who were able to lead a safe and secure existence within Syria. Everyone was treated completely equally when it came to the requirements for entry, residence and accommodation. This became clear when a residence levy was imposed on all Syrian citizens after their first year in Lebanon. In its latest paper, the government seems to be reviewing this approach out of sheer necessity, which is something we will return to below.

c) Suspending all laws that stipulate punishments for illegal entry and breaking the terms of residency visas: Contrary to the treatment meted out to Iraqi refugees, very few cases of illegal entry and residence in Lebanon have been pursued. Reports from heads of various police stations suggest that the General Directorate for Internal Security Forces has directed them to ignore Syrian refugees who have entered the country illegally or failed to renew their residency visas. As a consequence police pursuits were limited to those suspected of other crimes, such as drug dealing, theft and arms smuggling. The General Directorate of General Security has taken a similar approach. Leaving aside its treatment of all foreigners (especially refugees)—whom it, by and large, keeps detained even after a court has ordered them to be released or their sentence has ended, while they wait for their affairs to set in order before being deported or resettled in a third country—the average period that Syrians are detained by General Security is just a few days. It is a matter of public record that one judge halted the pursuit of a Syrian refugee who entered Lebanon illegally on the grounds that the right to seek asylum is an inviolable and “natural” right [6].

It is most probable that this tolerant approach is not conscious policy but rather that it stems from necessity. Aside from Iraqi and Sudanese refugees whose numbers are relatively limited, imposing a punitive law on the illegal entry and residency-related infractions of the far greater number of Syrian citizens would fill every jail cell in the country and overload both the judicial and police systems. The policy of turning a blind eye is thus the more appropriate, first and foremost on practical grounds, but it does contain an implicit recognition of the principle that a refugee may not be pursued for infringing the entry and residency procedures in the asylum-providing country.

d) The absence of any initiative to organize the Syrian presence in Lebanon: Official policy contains no measures to regulate the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The government has taken no initiative of this nature with regards to immigrants in the fields of employment, accommodation or education, leaving such efforts to international organizations. It is yet to say a single word on its intentions to erect organized camps for refugees and its paper on refugee policy fails to mention the matter. Instead, the government is content to impede UN efforts to improve accommodation in unofficial camps and make calls to establish camps outside Lebanese territory.

Not enacting a physical displacement of refugees: With the exception of a few rare cases during the early influx of refugees there has been no physical deportation of Syrian refugees (i.e. handing them over to the Syrian authorities), thus conforming openly to the customary norm that it is impermissible to deport any person who might be at risk, or subjected to torture, in their country of origin. General Security has pursued a policy of facilitating the procedure for renewing visas by allowing a first renewal without payment of a levy and allowing a second renewal on payment of a levy without having to leave Lebanon. Though General Security had issued deportation orders against a number of individuals in accordance with its internal directives for dealing with foreigners, it has chosen not to implement any of them. This is what we refer to as “legal deportation”, which has the effect of placing refugees in a delicate position with regards to the law. They are unable to renew their visas and thus find themselves not only outside the law, but outside the protection of the law [7].

Fragmentation of authority

As the government failed to regulate the residency of Syrian refugees within Lebanon, it was only to be expected that certain branches of that government should feel increasingly concerned about their growing numbers. This phenomenon was most evident in the emergence of a political and security role adopted by local municipalities, particularly the night curfews that some imposed on foreigners or refugees (or certain categories of refugee, such as labourers). These curfews constituted an overreach of their legal powers and a violation of the basic right of free movement enshrined in international treaties [8], not to mention a breach of the principle of non discrimination between persons resident on Lebanese soil. It was also evident in the channeling of international funding to the municipalities. Initially this was funding from the Multilateral Trust Fund administered by the World Bank in cooperation with the Ministry of Finance, which aimed to secure direct funding for Lebanese state institutions to better deal with the refugee crisis [9]. This fragmentation of centralized powers meant that different policies ended up being pursued with regards to Syrian refugees, and occasionally with regards to specific categories of refugee, depending on the region in which they found themselves. The entrenching of a political and security decentralization in this field stood in contrast to a complete lack of developmental and administrative decentralization elsewhere.

This fragmentation also manifested itself in the behaviour of the security forces. In a number of regions, these agencies passed repressive measures, especially with regards to informal camps, a number of which were cleared by security directives. Here, as elsewhere, the centralized authorities acted as though they saw and heard nothing at all.


The current government’s approach to the refugee issue: soft power and the recognition of the rights of refugees.

Since the formation of the current government, official policy has undergone a gradual change, towards practical steps to regulate the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon, measures that reached their apogee with the public policy paper released on October 23 this year. The most significant aspect of this paper might be the government’s announcement that it will now take active steps to reduce the number of Syrian citizens emigrating from Syria and resident in Lebanon. Notably, this policy is not based on repressive measures such as expelling refugees or closing the borders, but rather on a discourse that contains a recognition—however compromised—of the refugees’ rights. The paper talks of Lebanon abiding by humanitarian principles in dealing with the suffering of Syrian refugees, the government’s readiness to welcome those suffering from extreme hardship, and makes a distinction between legitimate “displaced persons” and those who do not qualify. According to the paper, a reduction in refugee numbers will be achieved by reducing the numbers of those registered as refugees with the UNHCR and by encouraging them to leave for other countries.

Reducing the number of Syrians registered with UNHCR: Lebanon, which has always refused to recognize the right to seek asylum for fear of uncontrollable influx from neighbouring countries, today seems to believe that the best way to forestall this influx is to give a compromised and incomplete recognition of this very right. It is only by doing so that internationally agreed standards can be applied to distinguish between valid and invalid applicants for the status, and between those who need protection and those who do not. It is this that General Security took into consideration when in August 2014 it started requiring nazih or non-nazih to all administrative transactions dealing with Syrian citizens [10]. The announcement that nazih status would be lost by anyone who returned to Syria was not an exception to this rule. Rather, it was based on the presumption that such behaviour indicated the lack of any danger that might necessitate asylum. It should be noted here that the refugee policy paper adopts a standard in line with international standards (i.e. returning to the country of origin) and not that called for by the March 14 Alliance, which demanded that nazih status be removed from all those who participated in the Syrian elections [11] (since this does not indicate the absence of risk should the individual actually return to Syria). However, the paper also referred to removing nazih status from “anyone who breaks Lebanese law and the conditions for entry to Lebanon,” and this is a vague standard which carries with it considerable risk, given that many Syrians have lost their identity and residency documents. It seems, therefore, that Lebanon is deploying a “soft power” strategy in its bid to reduce the number of refugees, based on the recognition of refugee rights and standards for determining refugee status. This is why the paper requires the reasons for their entry to be recorded so that their files can be examined when they make new applications and on a regular basis going forward, and that the consent of the Ministry of Social Affairs be obtained before any new refugee is registered with the UNHCR.

Encouraging refugees to leave Lebanon: We see the same approach taken towards proactive measures to reduce the number of “displaced persons” resident in Lebanon. The government has softened its discourse in this regard, talking about the need to “encourage Syrian displaced persons to return to their country or to other countries, by all possible means.” The word “encourage” is highly suggestive in this context and can only be understood as an indicator of the government’s desire to use non-repressive measures in implementing its policy. More precisely, this means that the government is first and foremost depending on these refugees leaving Lebanon voluntarily, and that it prefers this approach over physical or forcible deportation. “Encourage” is followed by two more phrases, “the stringent application of Lebanese law” and “revoking the status of nazih” (under certain conditions) thus emphasizing the importance of the gamble. Naturally, a close examination of the government’s options tells us what is really meant by “encourage”. What are the “means” that the government has at its disposal to “encourage” immigrants to leave the country? More pertinently, what “means” will it use to encourage them to return home? Will the government help them obtain passports from the Syrian authorities (which mostly refuse to issue them), or entry and residency permits for other destination countries? Can it guarantee them a safe exit from Lebanon? In the context of these issues, Lebanon will take part next week in the Geneva conference, to find a way to resettle Syrian refugees by putting pressure on other countries to accept them. International aid is not limited to financial support (with Lebanon receiving just 44 per cent of its requirement to date) but also encompasses facilitating refugees entering and gaining residency in other countries, based on the principle of international solidarity and shared responsibility. This, despite the fact that other nations (Germany in particular) have pledged to receive approximately 43,500 Syrian refugees to date, a very low figure compared with the total number of refugees which stands at more than three million.

Then again, what is the purpose of juxtaposing “encouraging” people to leave the country and the “stringent application of Lebanese law”? Doesn’t this suggest that the government’s true intention is to use “all possible means” and “soft power” to pressurize refugees into leaving the country? One of the most important of these “means” is failing to renew residency visas, an approach followed by the General Security by using the “legal deportation” mechanism as we mentioned previously, and also by requiring Syrians to obtain work permits in the full knowledge that the Labour Ministry has granted no permits to Syrians since the formation of this government. If this policy of encouragement appears to be the only practically possible one in light of the growing number of Syrian immigrants, there is nevertheless a concern that this policy will itself result in the forcible deportation, most likely of those who fear for their lives and freedom in Syria, thus constituting a violation of refugees’ rights and putting Lebanon at odds with its obligations under international law.


This article was first published by Legal Agenda issue no.24, December 2014 in Arabic

Article translated from Arabic by Robin Moger



1. Minutes of the Cabinet meeting convened on October 23, 2014 (approving the Syrian refugee policy paper)

2. Cabinet decree No.34, September 7, 2014

3. Dawoud Ramal: “Dodging the ‘Berlin Trap’ does not excuse governmental inactivity” Al Safir, October 29, 2014

4. See: Decree 11721, June 21, 2014: Memorandum of understanding over communications between the Embassy of Japan in Lebanon and the Government of the Lebanese Republic concerning a financial donation to implement a project entitled, “emergency measures to confront the influx of Syrian refugees.”

5. See the document referred to above and Decree 773, October 9, 2014: Accepting donations from the Italian government to the Lebanese government for the funding of a number of projects.

6. See: ruling issued on May 28, 2012, by Nizak Al Khatib, a criminal judge in Tripoli, and referred to in the following article by Ghida Frangieh:

7. Ibid.

8. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

9. Announcement by General Security on August 12, 2014, that all records of dealings with Syrian subjects shall record whether they are nazih or non-nazih:

10. March 14 Alliance: “Displaced person” does not apply to Syrians living in Al Yarza, May 28, 2014: