Lebanon Pulse

Will Lebanon’s support of UN compacts benefit Syrian refugees?

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Article Summary
Lebanon has voted in favor of two UN resolutions that improve the treatment of refugees and migrants, but the displaced Syrians in the country may not benefit, as they are not classified as refugees or even migrants.

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Lebanese policymakers have echoed a common refrain also self-evident among the public: coping with the presence of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees is a struggle. Lebanon implemented a few measures to stanch the flow and decrease the number of refugees, such as closing the border in October 2014 and encouraging Syrians to return home, yet it also recently voted in favor of two landmark UN resolutions supporting the rights of migrants and refugees.

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) and the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), adopted Dec. 10 and 17, respectively, were the result of 18 months of international negotiations following the UN General Assembly's adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in September 2016. Inspired largely by the Syrian refugee crisis, the compacts serve to standardize best practices among the world’s nations in dealing with migration flows. The provisions, however, are nonbinding.

Hadi Hachem, chief of cabinet for the Lebanese foreign minister, whose office has been working to define Lebanon’s position toward the compacts, told Al-Monitor that Lebanon’s approval was rooted in its support of the Lebanese diaspora.

“The GCM is a universal declaration, and Lebanon is a country that has 14 million Lebanese abroad, so we are interested in migration because we are a country where we export migration,” said Hachem. “We want to give a legal frame for migration movements.”

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A number of Lebanese civil society organizations were involved in advising on the creation of the GCM. The Insan Association, which advocates for the rights of migrants, organized the Middle East’s regional civil society consultation, held Aug. 24-25, 2017. The purpose was to identify humanitarian priorities and then pass them along to the UN Secretariat overseeing the drafting of the resolution.

Roula Hamati, head of research and advocacy at Insan, explained that Lebanon’s need to grease the inflow of remittances also pushed the country to support the GCM. “Lebanon’s position in the negotiation was basically that [politicians] would want to see more on the question of remittances, on [support] of the diaspora and some of the things that they have taken on as good practices,” Hamati told Al-Monitor, explaining that the government hopes to see reduced fees for transferring funds to Lebanese bank accounts.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, despite its endorsement of the GCM, had reservations about some aspects of the compact, leading the ministry to submit a letter to the UN Secretariat outlining the government’s concerns. According to Hachem, these included objectives 16 and 22, which call for member states to “empower migrants and societies to realize full inclusion and social cohesion” and to “establish mechanisms for the portability of social security entitlements.”

Hachem stated, “We have reservations about these two objectives. … We have a reservation about everything that touches the sovereignty of the country because the declaration is non-binding and abides by local laws.”

According to Nasser Yassin, director of research at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University in Beirut, these grievances are rooted in the government’s fear of any demographic changes that could upend Lebanon’s sectarian balance of power as well as a desire to reduce so-called pull factors thought to encourage migration.

Lebanon also deliberated before voting in favor of the GCR, the world’s most significant document concerning refugees since the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, which defined refugee status and countries’ obligations to refugees. Lebanon is not a signatory to either document.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, head of the Global Communications Desk for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in New York, said of the resolution, “[It focuses on] how to build a holistic response for both refugees and the host community, really focusing on education and livelihood and these types of longer-term solutions and interventions that will help entire generations.”

The Lebanese government ultimately decided to back the GCR because of its principles of international cooperation in dealing with refugee crises. Hachem asserted, “The refugee system is a big issue now, and we need to have the burden shared among and between all countries who face this [issue].” 

In drafting the GCR, the United Nations also recommended interventions in 14 countries, including in Jordan. In an email to Al-Monitor, Anne Rummery, senior regional communications officer for UNHCR in Geneva, wrote that Lebanon did not express any interest in participating in the program. It did, however, agree to share its experience and has taken part in UNHCR’s Regional Refugee Response Plan for the Syrian refugee crisis, which informed the objectives of the GCR.

The GCR includes provisions for increasing job opportunities and furthering the local integration of refugees. Yassin believes that Lebanon must do more in this regard if it is to fully comply with the two new compacts. In 2019, the United Nations will hold a conference during which member states are expected to announce “concrete pledges and contributions towards the objectives of the global compact.”

Experts are skeptical that the compacts will do much to improve the daily quality of life for Syrians in Lebanon due in part to the way Lebanon classifies them.

“The Syrians in the country are neither migrants nor refugees, the Syrians are displaced,” Hachem said. “We [the government] gave them the status of a displaced person, and this is because it’s a temporary situation. It has to be solved when the situation in their own country is better. The situation in Syria is better now security-wise, so we ask the displaced people to head back to their own country.”

Without a binding resolution, Lebanon may pick and choose which objectives to implement based on its national interests.

“I think it might again provide some avenues for collaboration and perhaps some South-South collaboration on certain issues,” said Yassin. “It might provide some new way for UNHCR to bring in new actors to collaborate and offer more shared responsibility here and there. But I don’t see it as a game changer in Lebanon because the positions in particular on the refugee question in Lebanon are written on the wall.”

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Found in: Refugees

Scott Preston is a journalist based in Beirut, writing about social and political issues in the Middle East. On Twitter: @scottapreston

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