BEIRUT — Lebanon appears to be mobilizing for the mass return of Syrian refugees, disregarding warnings that conditions in their home country are not conducive to voluntary returns in safety and dignity.
Last week, ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections, Lebanese President Michel Aoun asked the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to help secure the return of refugees. After the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) stated that it was not involved in last month's return of around 500 Syrians from Lebanon due to conditions in Syria, the UNHCR's representative to Lebanon, Mireille Girard, was summoned by the foreign ministry and asked not to issue any further statements on refugee return.
Equally worrisome, Lebanon's foreign minister Gebran Bassil fiercely rejected the declaration by the U.N. and European Union at the end of the recent Brussels conference of Syria donors, because it recognized that "conditions for returns, as defined by the UNHCR and according to international refugee law standards, are not yet fulfilled."
Aoun and Bassil argue that the Brussels declaration contradicts Lebanon's constitution and jeopardizes the country by aiming to "resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon." They warn that waiting until there is a political solution to the Syrian conflict before returning refugees could mean waiting in vain. The president even said the international statement collides with his constitutional duty to "preserve Lebanon's independence and the integrity of its territories."
In what way would a voluntary return of refugees be unconstitutional? And how has discussion of voluntary returns come to be understood as an attempt to naturalize, or locally integrate, Syrian refugees?
When Aoun spoke of constitutional violations, he implicitly referred to the preamble of the country's constitution, which states that there shall be no "tawteen" in Lebanon. Although this can be roughly translated as "settlement" or "naturalization," there is no single understanding of the concept of tawteen.
Lebanon specialists have argued that it is a type of Lebanese political jargon that, because of its multiple interpretations, can easily be used to political and polemical ends. We see this confusion also in the many different English-language versions of the constitution, in which tawteen is variously translated as colonization, settlement or, more precisely, "settlement of non-Lebanese."
What is clear, however, is that this prohibition of tawteen is mirrored in the unanimous political agreement that refugees cannot be naturalized in the country. Underlying this opposition is the concern that the presence of refugees will bring demographic changes that may affect political representation, which is currently apportioned by sect according to Lebanon's confessional political system.
For a long time, tawteen was primarily used to refer to Lebanon's Palestinian refugee population. Some experts have argued that the constitution institutionalizes the country's strong fear of the permanent settlement of Palestinians. Lebanon's experience with this group of refugees, who are often blamed for playing a substantial role in the build-up to the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, is a key reason for the refugee issue being highly politicized.
Lebanon is neither a country of asylum, nor a final destination for refugees.
Since the beginning of the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon in 2011, tawteen has also been applied to Syrians. Despite Lebanon hosting up to 1.5 million Syrian refugees over the past seven years, the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, jointly drafted by the U.N. and the government, states that "Lebanon is neither a country of asylum, nor a final destination for refugees, let alone a country of resettlement."
Under international law, granting asylum does not entail a guarantee of permanent residence in the receiving state. But for Lebanon's leaders, asylum equals permanent settlement.
There are many more key norms of international refugee law that are misinterpreted by Lebanese officials – whether deliberately or not. Not only has Lebanon long rejected the U.N. Refugee Convention, there is a common misunderstanding that both resettlement and voluntary return require local integration in Lebanon, which is unanimously ruled out by all political actors.
Many Lebanese are uncomfortable with the "voluntary" aspect of voluntary return, arguing that this implicitly leaves open the option of permanent settlement. Lebanese politicians therefore prefer to speak of "safe return." Some human rights groups fear this aims to clear a path for the non-voluntary return of refugees to ostensibly "safe" areas of Syria.
In Lebanon, the concepts of local integration and resettlement have often been used interchangeably. While resettlement is understood in international refugee law as the "selection and transfer of refugees from a state in which they have sought protection to a third state which has agreed to admit them – as refugees – with permanent residence status," in Lebanon, resettlement is often used to mean local integration or naturalization (tawteen) in either third countries or in Lebanon.
The misuse of these terms helps to fuel widespread misunderstanding of international refugee law in Lebanon. This is despite the country playing a key role in the early development of the international refugee law regime, as well as in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which the "right to seek asylum" is enshrined.
Perhaps accuracy and clarity are beside the point. In an election season, appearing "tough on migration" is no less in vogue in Lebanon than elsewhere in the world.