The EU Must Do More to Aid Refugees Trapped in Syria's Neighbor, Lebanon

Sheikh Abdo
Sheikh Abdo, a Syrian refugee now residing at a camp in Lebanon, is one of the main protagonists of 'Lost in Lebanon,' a new documentary highlighting the plight of those forced to flee the brutal six-year war in neighboring Syria. Groundtruth Productions

Lost in Lebanon, which premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Monday, follows the stories of four Syrian refugees in Lebanon as they struggle to come to terms with their new lives. As they battle with the fundamental issues that shape their daily experience—attempts to secure legal status, access to education, the right to work and resettlement—the film serves as a powerful reminder that, whether or not a political settlement is reached, the gravity of the Syrian refugee crisis will continue to be felt by not only the immediate victims of the conflict, but also neighboring states like Lebanon, for decades to come.

By focusing on the lives of otherwise ordinary people—a community leader Sheikh Abdo, an artist Mwafak, a political activist turned NGO founder Reem, and a should-be high school student Nemr—the film breaks from the tradition of showing refugees either as victims or villains. In doing so, the film takes the audience—and with it policymakers—away from the hyperbole that surrounds refugees to intimately depict the daily challenges that they face.

Although they come from different backgrounds, all four share in common a desperate quest to acquire and retain legal status and the right to remain in Lebanon. A change in the law in early 2015 placed a freeze on Syrians registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and introduced a series of far-reaching measures that made renewing residency permits next to impossible. Failure to renew means returning to the war zone, living illegally, with no papers and in constant fear of deportation or placing their lives in the hands of human traffickers.

For Lebanon, granting that right to remain is politically contentious. So far, the international community has pledged—but not fulfilled—to receive 179,000 Syrians in total. Lebanon alone has accommodated to date over 1.5 million refugees in a country of only 4.4 million people—a significant demographic, political, social and economic challenge for any government. In Lebanon, with its delicate demographic balance and vulnerable political system, it has the potential to destabilize the country and further destabilize the region.

Lebanon currently enjoys substantial economic support from the international community, but there is no guarantee that critical funding will continue over the long-term. Indeed, less than half the $9 billion target pledged by Western and Gulf Arab states at the Syria Conference in London last year has materialized. It is likely a commitment of diminishing returns, which will ultimately come to pose a threat to Lebanon's economy and stability, especially as donor fatigue sets in and Western states become more inward-looking.

It is not surprising therefore, that the Lebanese authorities in 2015 tightened the visa regime and closed the former open-door policy towards Syrians in a bid to securitize the refugee issue. However, closing the door to Syrians and making it near impossible for those already in Lebanon to renew residency permits is like locking the stable door when the horse has already bolted.

The Syrian conflict has now reached its sixth year. With no real end in sight, the international community, most notably the EU, must now recognize that the four million refugees living in the neighboring states will not return home for decades, if ever. It is a difficult reality to accept, but the sooner it happens, the better equipped the neighboring states will be to face the long-term consequences of the conflict.

Strategic planning will not only help defuse a demographic time bomb, but also help transform the refugee community into an asset, one that is trained and prepared to rebuild Syria when settlement is eventually reached. For that, the EU needs to provide long-term commitment and encouragement to the Lebanese government, so that it can take a number of difficult steps.

Thus far, the failure to provide comprehensive education risks making new generations of Syrians susceptible to disillusionment and radicalization.

While the EU and NGOs have supported efforts to educate primary school children, they have missed out on the critical teen years. Eighty-four percent of 15 to 17-year-old Syrian refugees—those who have lost six years of education—are not in school. In the film, Nemr is representative of this generation that has neither finished school nor is able to work. Young men like Nemr are easy prey to militant groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS), who not only carry a lot of money, but also offer meaning to an otherwise lost generation. Supporting long-term comprehensive support to education for the Syrian refugee community will help provide immunity against radicalization.

While the right to work is a tricky issue and arguably places the Syrian refugee community in direct competition with the Lebanese workforce, the failure to provide legal employment rights to Syrians will only force them deeper into the informal economy. As such, they represent a pool of cheap labour to be exploited, which carries with it the threat of social conflict. Furthermore, it denies Syrians the security and safety that they seek through gainful employment and a chance to recover not only their self esteem, but also their dignity.

The Jordanian government's approach of creating special economic zones to accommodate both Syrian refugee and host communities with privileged access to targeted markets provides a good example of how the right of Syrians to work can be made to benefit a host country.

The EU cannot simply turn a blind eye to the crisis and hope that the problem disappears. Time cannot heal this problem: failure to address the long-term impact of the refugee crisis will not only begin to destabilize EU allies in the region, but come to threaten the wider security of Europe. EU policymakers should watch Lost in Lebanon to better understand how providing long-term support to Syrian refugees in Lebanon will not only help the likes of Sheikh Abdo, Reem, Mwafak and Nemr, but also enable them to contribute towards Lebanon and, in the distant future, Syria.