Magazine article Forced Migration Review

When Is Return Voluntary? Conditions of Asylum in Lebanon

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

When Is Return Voluntary? Conditions of Asylum in Lebanon

Article excerpt

An estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees are currently living in Lebanon, of whom just under one million are registered with UNHCR; many others are not currently registered. According to research conducted by Oxfam in 2017, only 21% of Syrian refugee respondents felt they had found complete safety in Lebanon, with both men and women describing daily fears and continuous worry.1

Respondents reported that at the beginning of the crisis they had felt safer and had received better treatment in Lebanon. In 2017, their sense of safety had been eroded by regulations that have made it much more difficult to obtain valid residency documents, by exploitation, by tensions with the host community and local authorities, by recurrent arrests, by violent raids on refugee settlements, and by threats of deportation and forced return. Despite this, and despite the fact that the vast majority of the respondents have no intention of remaining in Lebanon after the conflict in Syria ends, they do not feel that conditions in Syria currently allow for their safe return.

The principle of 'voluntariness' is at the core of refugee return, and is derived from the principle of non-refoulement as enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and international customary law. According to the handbook on voluntary repatriation published by UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), "the principle of 'voluntariness' must be viewed in relation to both: conditions in the country of origin (calling for an informed decision) and the situation in the country of asylum (permitting a free choice)."2 For return to be truly voluntary, return decisions should be made without the influence of 'push factors' in the form of physical, psychological or material pressure.

For many Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a host of push factors affect their safety and ability to meet their basic needs, which may result in premature and unsustainable returns that are not based on a truly free choice. The conflict in Syria continues and is escalating in some areas, and any premature returns could expose refugees to conflict, detention, torture, abduction and other forms of violence - and repeated displacement.

Legal status and meeting basic needs

One key factor for assessing the voluntariness of return decisions is refugees' legal status in the country of asylum. At present, an estimated 80% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack legal status in the form of valid residency documents issued by the Government of Lebanon. Not having valid residency documents is a criminal offence in Lebanon and refugees who lack these documents are at particular risk of arrest and detention. As checkpoints are present throughout the country, many refugees have adopted self-imposed restrictions on movement to reduce their risk of arrest. Limited movement results in a reduced ability to find work. For those who can find work, their lack of legal status makes them vulnerable to financial exploitation, because they can be reported to the authorities. Reduced income makes it extremely difficult to meet basic needs - including shelter - and increases the need for families to take on debt in order to survive. Simultaneously, restrictions on movement and fear of arrest also make it more difficult to access basic services and assistance, including health care and education.

In addition to food, clothing, hygiene supplies and other essential household items, nearly all refugees in Lebanon (even those who live in tents) pay rent, at an average cost of US$189 per month. …

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