Lebanon and Syria share longstanding political, economic, and social ties due to their geographical rapprochement as they bother share a long land border of approximately 375 kilometers.
The Syrian-Lebanese economic boundary is probably the thinnest layer of the border. Between Lebanon and Syria there is an intense economic exchange. Syria has been for decades one of the main recipients of Lebanon’s exports in competition with countries as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iraq.
Also the cultural boundary is thin between these two countries, although contested. Common language, shared historical experience (such as colonial past, Israeli occupations, Panarab ideals etc.), and religion, have weaved a social and cultural relationship between these two countries that some consider the sign of a shared identity.
Other cultural contacts between Syria and Lebanon contribute to the thinness of the border and include significant portions of territories in which family connections cut across borders especially in the norther region of the Akkar, and also close religious connections between the Shia community of Lebanon and holy places for Shiism in Syria such as the Sayda Zeyneb Shrine in Damascus. Connections like these establish transnational relations challenging a conventional nationalisation of territory.
With the beginning of 2011 event, there was no need for the authorities to undertake special measures to allow refugees into Lebanon, because Syrians fleeing their country could cross freely into Lebanon officially and unofficially by virtue of pre-existing border conditions.
Syrian refugees: Growing burden for Lebanon
Lebanon remains the country hosting the largest number of refugees per capita and per square kilometre in the world, with the Government estimation of 1.5 million Syrian refugees and some 13,715 refugees of other nationalities.
With the country facing its worst socio-economic crisis in decades, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Beirut blast in 2020, vulnerable populations have been deeply affected by a sharp increase in poverty, gaps in critical supply chains and limitations on access to food, healthcare, education and other basic services.
As a consequence, it is estimated that more than half the Lebanese population is living below the poverty line. For refugees, nine out of ten Syrian refugees are living in extreme poverty, according to the 2021 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon.
The deep economic crisis in Lebanon has exacerbated the situation of both Lebanese and refugees. Like all communities in Lebanon, refugees are deeply affected by the compounded crises and critical situation affecting the country and are making difficult choices to survive every single day, including skipping meals, not seeking urgent medical treatment, and sending children to work in-stead of school.
Lebanon to Return Syrian refugees to their Country
Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati warned that Lebanon will resort to legal means to return Syrian refugees to their homeland if the international community fails to help.
“I call on the international community to cooperate with Lebanon to return the displaced Syrians to their country. Otherwise, Lebanon will adopt an undesirable stance toward western countries by working on removing Syrians from Lebanon by legal means,” Mikati said during a conference also attended by Lebanese Minister for Social Affairs Hector Hajjar and the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon Najat Rochdi.
The conference launched the 2022-2023 Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, a multi-stakeholder plan co-led by the Lebanese government and the United Nations that aims to assist the 1.5 million Lebanese in need, 1.5 million displaced Syrians and more than 209,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
At the conference, the Lebanese government and its national and international partners appealed for 3.2 billion U.S. dollars to deliver critical assistance to people in need and to support Lebanon’s public infrastructure, services and local economy.
“With the continuing impact of the Syria crisis and the current economic crisis in Lebanon pushing everyone to the brink, partners’ joint efforts to support refugees and the host community through the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan remain essential,” said Rochdi, the UN envoy.
“Nine out of 10 Syrians in Lebanon are living in poverty, and the poverty levels have also risen substantially for Lebanese, migrants and Palestinians. These circumstances are driving negative coping mechanisms, as families are forced to send their children to work instead of school, skip meals or incur debt,” she noted.
Global Rights Watch urged international donors to step up support for Lebanon’s Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese, particularly with no end in sight to the unprecedented economic crisis.
It also called on Lebanese authorities to continue upholding principles of refugee protection, including the principle of non-refoulement and the right to voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity.