The past twelve years have seen growing resentment in Lebanon and Türkiye as politicians and voters turn against their Syrian refugee populations. While the European Union has funneled billions of dollars to the two countries to ensure refugees receive the support they need, these efforts appear to be at risk as normalization efforts open the door for refugee returns. During the upcoming Brussels VII Conference on June 14th, European states urgently need to make concrete policy decisions to ensure Syrians continue to receive asylum until their safety in Syria can be assured.
Although Lebanon and Türkiye blame a lack of resources for their inability to host refugees, they continue to receive large amounts of EU funding which stipulates that Syrians will not be compelled to return to Syria nor be allowed to seek asylum in the EU. Unfortunately, both countries have been stoking xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, a practice seen in Türkiye’s recent election where candidates, including Erdogan, used the promise of expelling Syrian refugees to align themselves with Turkish public opinion. Meanwhile both states, particularly Lebanon, annually incite anti-refugee fervor in a cycle that seemingly corresponds with each Brussels conference. Although normalization efforts give the veneer that Syria has regained a certain level of stability where return is possible, Syrians in the country continue to face significant dangers both from the government and the multiple militant groups that rule with little regard for human rights.
A recent shift in Türkiye’s policies has seen efforts to impose harsh restrictions on Syrians in order to drive “voluntary” returns to Syria. As of 2019, Türkiye began to expel all Syrians not formally registered under the country’s temporary protection system. Recently, the government began restricting Syrians from gaining residency in neighborhoods with a foreign population greater than 25%. This legislation came after “harmonization efforts” restricted Syrians from applying for temporary protection in some of Türkiye’s largest provinces. Syrians have also experienced increasing rates of arrest, violence, deportation, and denial of services which coincided with the Turkish government announcing it would voluntarily return over one million Syrians.
Syrians with legitimate reasons to flee Syria face additional coercive efforts to stop them at the Turkish border. Turkish border guards have been known to not only torture and kill Syrian asylum-seekers but also Syrians living or passing near the border. A successful case against the Turkish government by a Syrian teenager in the European Court of Human Rights brought to light many of these abuses. The teenager testified that the guards ripped his temporary protection papers, frequently beat him, held him in inhumane conditions for weeks, and forced him to sign a “voluntary” return form. This calls into question how voluntary such returns are and if Türkiye’s actions could constitute refoulement. Despite well-documented abuses and government efforts to return Syrians, the EU enables these actions by continuing to transfer large amounts of money to Türkiye.
Anti-refugee sentiment is similar in Lebanon yet compounded by the dire economic situation as the government is unable to provide basic services to refugees, much less its own people. Largescale deportation efforts began in 2022 when the Lebanese Minster of the Displaced inaccurately stated, “The war in Syria has ended and the country has become safe.” Since then, Lebanese authorities have begun arbitrarily detaining Syrians at checkpoints and in house-to-house raids, then deporting any who are unregistered or have expired registration papers. Often deportees are sent back to government-controlled areas in Syria with little regard for their safety once they cross the border. Lapsed or missing documentation is rarely the fault of the asylee as many Syrians lack access to formal registration, particularly after the government banned UNHCR from registering Syrians in 2015. Currently, over 80% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack formal registration which puts them at greater risk of deportation.
Despite millions of dollars in EU and US funding to support Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 90% of asylees live in extreme poverty, 60% of school-age Syrians are not enrolled in school, and live on half the Lebanese minimum wage. While Lebanon faces severe extenuating circumstances that cannot be ignored, outside funding meant for refugees is not reaching the people who need it most. With active deportation efforts and diminishing support for refugees, the EU needs to take a closer look at the utilization of its financial support to Lebanon.
The Situation in Syria
Although many states now lean into the propaganda that Syria is safe and stable, that is far from the reality for millions of Syrians who live in constant fear of arbitrary arrests and capital punishment, torture, and enforced disappearance. These threats are even greater for Syrian refugees, particularly those who exhibited dissident behavior while outside the country. A report by SJAC found that Syria was using its network of embassies to collect vast amounts of information on refugees that can later be used against them, while a case filed by ECCHR claims the government is using European software firms to boost its surveillance capacity. While many returnees will be allowed to enter the country unhindered, they will find their homes, businesses, and communities either destroyed or redistributed to Assad loyalists. The massive influx of Syrians to a country that cannot support them, and in some cases does not want them, will only lead to new incentives to flee the country.
As the upcoming 2023 Brussels Conference approaches, the EU must reevaluate its funding objectives in this new stage of the Syrian refugee crisis. Sending money to Türkiye and Lebanon to insulate Europe from an influx of refugees is a dereliction of the EU’s responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention and will only fund forced returns and human rights abuses. Furthermore, it will continue to force asylum seekers to seek alternative, more dangerous routes to reach the EU. Instead, the EU should consider implementing systematic changes to reinforce cooperation with Türkiye and Lebanon, while also increasing funding. The EU should improve the dismal conditions in host countries by increasing resources for education, healthcare, housing, and employment which could lessen the economic stressors that have turned public opinion against refugees and excluded them from wider domestic economies. As Lebanon and Türkiye continue their efforts to deport refugees, failure to fix the EU’s broken asylum agreements endangers nearly 4 million refugees and risks creating a renewed rush of migrants to Europe who will face treacherous conditions in the hopes of finally finding safety.