By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
On the occasion of World Refugee Day on Monday, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati made a pedantic speech about Syrian refugees. Lebanon hosts about 1.7 million refugees — 200,000 Palestinians, who have been lingering in camps since 1948, and 1. 5 million Syrians, who have been in the country for 11 years. Mikati used the same tone as his predecessor, Saad Hariri, blaming the country’s economic calamities on the refugees, using them as a scapegoat and a chip to negotiate with and blackmail the international community. Lebanon used World Refugee Day to ask the international community for $3.2 billion to help meet the cost of hosting its Syrians.
Mikati said that, if the world does not arrange for the refugees to return to Syria, the Lebanese government would take measures that would not please the West. He said he would use “legal methods” to send them back.
Similarly, as the buildup to next year’s presidential election in Turkey heats up, the different candidates are competing over who will be more adamant and effective in sending the 3.6 million Syrian refugees the country hosts back home, even if it is into the claws of Bashar Assad.
Many people do not like refugees. Firstly, there is the cultural aspect, as people feel invaded by strangers who have different habits and speak different languages. The second reason is economic, even though refugees actually contribute to the economy as they receive international aid that goes back to the country hosting them. However, they compete with the local workforce when it comes to menial jobs. As they tend to work in the black market, they are usually ready to accept lower wages than the locals.
People also often blame refugees for crime and decadence. Lebanon’s corrupt government — and former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in particular — has regularly blamed refugees for the country’s calamities. However, the return of refugees to Syria is not possible if there is no change of security apparatus there. Their repatriation cannot be conducted if Assad is still in power.
Today, however, the situation is even more complicated, as the Russians are losing influence in Syria to the benefit of the Iranians. Moscow wanted to arrange the return of refugees because it would stabilize Syria and unlock international aid. Russia intervened in Syria because it was a good opportunity to reinstate its influence in the Middle East and to ensure a foothold on the Mediterranean. But it needs stability to stop it bleeding cash and to recoup some of its investment. However, stability is not really the aim of Assad, whose main target is to remain in power.
Attempts by the Russians to put pressure on Assad to facilitate the return of refugees have failed. To start with, in 2018, Russia pressured Assad to offer an amnesty to those who deserted compulsory conscription. The Syrian president had insisted on a fine and prison sentence for those who reached the age of 18 and did not report for conscription. This meant that families who fled the country and whose children turned 18 while they were away were reluctant to return.
Even though he felt compelled to humor his patron, Assad wanted to circumvent the decree and prevent refugees from returning. His forces started stopping returnees for other reasons, such as terrorism or other crimes. This deterred people who wanted to take advantage of the amnesty. And for those who wanted to go back and register with the UN Refugee Agency, the regime only gave clearance for a small fraction of them.
Another issue is that of the settlers. According to Syrians, Hezbollah supporters are settling in the homes of those who fled their atrocities. Hence, even for those who are ready to go back and comply with Assad’s brutal rule, there might not be a home for them to go back to.
Assad has said that Syria is not for those who hold the passport, but for people who defend the country — meaning him and his regime. He insisted that the war has made Syrian society more “homogenous,” alluding to those who fled the country as if they were an aberration. This means that all the calls to return refugees are futile and only intended as populist slogans or to blackmail the international community. Their return cannot be conducted if there is no political transition.
Mikati’s speech was consistent with the Lebanese policy of blackmailing the international community to finance its corruption and incompetence. In the case of Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who accepted the refugees with open arms and told his base that the Prophet was a refugee, meaning it is a duty to host brothers who are fleeing oppression — is now changing his tone.
Erdogan’s supporters no longer want the refugees. He is losing popularity as he is seen as the main culprit behind the country receiving millions of refugees. His opponents are hyping up this issue and it might even cost him the presidency, as the polls show he is slipping behind his competitors.
However, all the solutions that are today being offered by neighboring countries present no real solution. Lebanon is suggesting sending the refugees to Qalamoun, Aleppo and Al-Qusayr — basically back to Assad’s claws. The Turkish project, which is to resettle refugees in Syria’s northeast to create a buffer between its border and the Kurdish YPG, is not feasible and, if executed by force, will result in a disaster for both the refugees and the Kurds. The idea of sending refugees to “safe zones” will only complicate the conflict and create further tension and violence.
Shortcuts do not work. And, as much as the various players look at stop-gap solutions to free themselves from the burden of the refugees, the only sustainable solution is for the war to end and for the refugees to go back to their own homes — not other people’s.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II.