A Syrian mother and her son in a Lebanese refugee camp.
Maja Janmyr

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.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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