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Lebanon News

Government’s refugee policy an ‘incoherent quick fix’

Syrian refugees leave the town of Arsal. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Despite the government’s confidence that a rash of new measures would help curb the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon, analysts dismissed them as stopgaps that do not represent a cogent national strategy for dealing with the humanitarian crisis.Even as the Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk announced new plans to construct “special lines” at border crossings and to waive outstanding “residency-related” fines for Syrians seeking to return home, pundits criticized the government’s lack of vision and reactive approach to the presence of at least 1.1 million and counting refugees in the country.

Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science at LAU, dismissed the government’s actions to curb the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon as “minor decisions ... fixes that may work here and there.”

Until this spring, the response to the refugee crisis had been managed almost exclusively by international aid organizations, with the Lebanese state maintaining an effective open-door policy.

But in recent months the government has adopted a spate of resolutions that aim to reduce the number of Syrian refugees in the country, including a decision to accept only refugees fleeing villages near the Lebanese border and to withhold refugee status for Syrians who repeatedly travel between their home country and Lebanon, the justification being that such people are not in desperate need of aid. These measures, introduced as recommendation by a ministerial subcommittee, however, remain vague, with uncertainty surrounding their viability in terms of implementation.

Such measures “do not amount to a coherent, comprehensive policy,” according to Karim al-Mufti, an expert in human rights law. He added that Lebanon was still in desperate need of “an emergency response action plan to deal with the ongoing humanitarian crisis of the Syrian refugees living on its soil.”

While to date all the measures related to the Syrian refugee crisis have mostly originated from the Cabinet, Parliament should play a more active role, Mufti said. “The Parliament needs to revise present legislation so that new regulations [can] be adopted and help the relevant authorities and security services better organize,” he said.

Salamey, however, was doubtful that the Lebanese authorities would be able to craft a meaningful strategy to cope with the refugee crisis.

“The modern Lebanese government is weak and fragile and will not be able to establish a coherent policy toward the refugees,” he said. “I think the scale of the problem is much bigger than the Lebanese government’s capacity to control via policy.”

The country’s inability to manage its borders, he said, has complicated the issue, as both refugees and militants are able to cross between Syria and Lebanon illegally.

And the insufficient official response to the refugee crisis may lead to further security concerns in the future, Mufti said.

“The rapid degradation of the socioeconomic condition of the refugee families [due to lack of policy and response coordination on the humanitarian level] might lead to higher crime rates,” he said by email.

Carnegie Middle East Center Director Lina Khatib expressed similar concerns in a paper published earlier this summer.

“The Lebanese government’s lack of a refugee policy and sharp domestic political divisions over intervention in Syria are contributing to security concerns and sectarian tensions in Lebanon,” she wrote.

Such criticism comes in sharp contrast to statements by members of government, including Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, who has sought to reassure the Lebanese public that the refugee crisis is being effectively managed.

“The Syrian refugees issue is now under strict control,” Derbas recently stated. “The government has a strong hand in the issue.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 25, 2014, on page 3.

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