Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world, including an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Amid the country’s worsening economic crisis, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak and Beirut Port explosion, many have been thrust into extreme poverty and increased protection risks.
In 2022, Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of the Displaced, Issam Charafeddine, announced a plan to repatriate 15,000 Syrian refugees to Syria every month, insisting that “the war is over and the country has become safe.” Charafeddine subsequently visited Syria in August 2022 to reportedly discuss a repatriation plan, but did not specify how the ‘end of the war’ and safety of the country had been determined. In fact, human rights organizations have documented cases of Syrians being arbitrarily detained, sexually abused, and tortured on their return to Syria.
It’s crucial that we examine what the return process should look like for Syrian refugees, paying close attention to principles of protection and preconditions for safe return, while reflecting on wider conversations surrounding Lebanon’s approach to repatriation, the stance of UNHCR and its role, as well as regional and international conversations on how return can become durable and sustainable.
The meanings of repatriation, safe return, and protection
The concept of voluntary repatriation was developed during the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. UNHCR may participate in repatriation where refugees have requested to be repatriated voluntarily, and once determined that return is strictly voluntary, and not the result of any form of pressure. Conversely, repatriation cannot be considered voluntary when political groups encourage repatriation by disseminating false information or applying pressure.
In practice, in order to ensure the principles of safety and dignity are being respected, UNHCR evaluates the following elements: (1) the physical safety of refugees at every stage during their return; (2) the respect for family unity; (3) the attention granted to vulnerable groups; (4) the alleviation of formalities at the border; (5) the authorization that refugees can bring all their transportable belongings with them; (6) freedom of movement; and (7) the respect for human rights.
UNHCR’s position, mandate, and role
To date, UNHCR insists it has not received the guarantees it needs to endorse repatriation. In an official statement, UNHCR confirmed it had not engaged in negotiations with Beirut and Damascus over refugee repatriation, and called on the Government of Lebanon to respect the fundamental right of all refugees to a voluntary, safe, and dignified return. Despite this, the Government of Lebanon claims it has made proposals to the UN agency on the repatriation of refugees, including the formation of a three-way committee with Syria and UNHCR. Evidence on this, however, has yet to materialize.
Involuntary repatriation to Syria would amount to a breach of Lebanon’s refoulement obligations not to forcibly repatriate people to countries where they face a clear risk of torture, persecution, and an immediate threat to their lives. It would also constitute a direct violation of Lebanon’s obligations under international legal instruments. While Lebanon has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has signed most other human rights treaties relevant to the protection of refugees.
Given that UNHCR currently operates in Syria, essentially conducting registration and refugee status determination, its role in the repatriation of refugees from Lebanon to Syria should be evident. In addition to providing protection assistance and services, the agency also promotes self-reliance – a pivotal consideration in ensuring that refugees’ repatriation to Syria is a long-term and sustainable solution.
In order for UNHCR to actively promote repatriation: (1) the country of origin must show an overall and significant improvement in conditions; (2) all parties must respect the voluntary nature of the return; (3) the country of origin must have supplied adequate guarantees concerning the refugees’ safety; (4) UNHCR must have free and unhindered access to refugees and returnees; and (5) the terms and conditions of return must be set forth in a formal, written repatriation agreement, signed by UNHCR and the concerned parties.
Only when these conditions are met should UNHCR promote a process of repatriation. In practice, this means encouraging refugees to return and take part in different stages of the process. In such cases, the role of UNHCR encompasses everything from obtaining access to the entire refugee population, ensuring the voluntary character of their decision to return, and interviewing, advising, and registering candidates for repatriation.
Implications for policy and practice
Moving forward, Lebanon needs to adopt a uniform approach to repatriation and align this approach with its international legal obligations and UNHCR’s regional role and mandate. If Lebanon intends to repatriate refugees to Syria in accordance with international humanitarian principles, human rights law, and through upholding the principle of non-refoulement, UNHCR’s involvement will complement, facilitate, and ensure the sustainability of the process.
In 1980, the UNHCR Executive Committee examined the issue of repatriation and durable solutions at length, and codified what the UN agency’s role would be in such operations (Conclusion 18, Session XXXI, 1980). Following this codification, UNHCR’s mandate translates into the obligation to: (1) ensure that the voluntary character of repatriation is respected; (2) cooperate with governments to assist refugees who wish to be repatriated; (3) obtain formal guarantees for the safety of returning refugees; (4) advise refugees on these guarantees and on the prevailing conditions in their country; (5) monitor the situation of returning refugees to their countries of origin; and (6) receive the returning refugees and establish projects supporting their reintegration.
It remains pivotal that Lebanon’s policy on repatriation is rooted in protection standards and principles, including that refugee repatriations must be well-informed on the process. As for the monitoring of the repatriation process, this must be ensured through close cooperation with UNHCR and the Syrian Government, and comprehensive information must be provided to Syrian refugees so they are well informed of conditions in areas of return. Importantly, voluntary repatriation must be carried out in safety and dignity by local authorities, and should only be carried out in specific areas of Syria where there is evidence that the conflict has ceased and protection thresholds, in accordance with international refugee law and standards, are upheld.
The arguments put forward in this blog are based on a UNU-CPR discussion paper, ‘Safe Return and Voluntary Repatriation for Syrian Refugees from Lebanon: What Needs to Happen Next?’
The issues will also be discussed at an invitation-only roundtable in Beirut on 5 April 2023 hosted by UNU-CPR and the Institute for Migration Studies at the Lebanese American University.
Suggested citation: Diab Jasmin., "Repatriating Syrians from Lebanon: A Pivotal Role for UNHCR," UNU-CPR (blog), 2023-02-08, 2023, https://unu.edu/cpr/blog-post/repatriating-syrians-lebanon-pivotal-role-unhcr.