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Shatila Palestinian refugee camp near Beirut, where many Syrians moved after the onset of the conflict. Photo by Yahya al-Abdullah.

Syrian Students in Lebanon: Challenges to Return

by Yahya Al-Abdullah on May 3, 2019

Introduction:

The question of refugees’ return is one of the major issues addressed in conflict resolution literature. People usually flee to the nearest safe location at the time of conflict because when refugees abandon their homes, they hope to return as soon as possible. That is why the question of refugees’ return is inextricably linked to geographical proximity. For this reason, countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are hosting the majority of Syrian refugees.[1] in the Middle East, while countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda are hosting large numbers of African refugees. This blog will focus on the case of young Syrian students who arrived in Lebanon after the uprising in 2011 and still live there. Specifically, it will address challenges and barriers that prevent these refugees from returning home and will examine the Lebanese reaction to the presence of these Syrian refugees.

Why Lebanon?

Lebanon is one of the first countries Syrian refugees fled to at the outset of the Syrian uprising in 2011; it is the closest neighboring country where Arabic is spoken. Additionally, Syrians have hosted Lebanese refugees in recent years, the latest was in 2006. It is difficult to provide the exact number of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon since Lebanese authorities demanded that UNHCR suspend registering Syrians in Lebanon in May 2015. At that point there were more than 1,200,000 Syrians in the country. This is a significant number considering that the Lebanese population does not exceed 5 million. In fact, Lebanon still has the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide and according to the European Commission’s latest updates, there are currently more than a million Syrians in Lebanon.

At the very beginning of the Syrian uprising, Syrian students started moving to Lebanon to escape the oppressive Syrian regime. They found Lebanon to be the best location to continue their studies given the difficulties they faced in accessing higher education in cities such as Homs, and the heavy regime surveillance in cities such as Damascus and Aleppo.

At the beginning of the uprising, the regime sought to force students to flee the country as they were the leaders of most of the peaceful demonstrations. The tactics the regime used with respect to the students included massive raids to university dorms and targeting young students in demonstrations. Once arrested, the leading student figures were detained, tortured, and eventually executed or they would simply “disappear.” Remaining students were tortured and forced to sign affidavit refrain from participating in protests under the threat of losing their student status and their future. A Syrian student in Beirut said:

“When I was arrested, I was almost directly told that I have no place in the country. They knew that my family would pay them to let me out. They also made me understand that if I stayed in the country, I would be arrested again and again. To me the message was clear: save yourself and leave the country.”(Interview, Beirut, October 2017)

Unfortunately many students started leaving at an early stage of the Syrian uprising, especially male students, as they were subject to obligatory military service. This card was the most effective strategy the regime managed to play. It started by spreading rumors, which it sometimes followed through with— about canceling official delays for military service for students and by banning students from leaving the country in some instances. Then, it moved to the level of forcing young people and students to join the army even if they were granted official postponement.

As the conflict continued, the number of Syrians fleeing to neighboring Lebanon continued to increase: Syrians arrived to Lebanon both through official border entry points and through illegal crossing points. According to a survey conducted by the Higher Education Alliance for Refugees in October 2017, the second half of 2011 witnessed an increasing number of Syrian families crossing the border to Lebanon to escape the Syrian regime’s escalating violence directed towards civilians. The flow of refugees to Lebanon continued with greater intensity in the years 2012-2013, which prompted the Lebanese authorities to introduce an unwritten policy for visa restrictions prohibiting Syrians from entering Lebanon in 2014. This new policy was communicated directly with Syrian nationals who were planning to come to Lebanon. First, it started to be circulated on social media networks then directly to people who contacted the Lebanese embassies to ask about the visa requirements. These restrictions included requiring visa applicants to have bought a return ticket, to have a residence permit in another country, to have a hotel booking for the entire period of their requested duration of stay, and to have sufficient cash to cover all expenses for the duration of their proposed stay in Lebanon. Furthermore, Lebanese authorities were given the right to deny entry to Syrian citizens even if they met all of the aforementioned conditions, despite the two countries’ signing of the 1989 Altaif Agreement, which included a full segment talking about the cooperation and the fraternity between the two countries. This eventually resulted in a reciprocal visa waiver agreement between the two countries that is still supposedly in place up till now.

The second reason is economic. Prior to the Syrian uprising in 2011, Lebanon was very dependent on the Syrian economy: the Lebanese market was full of cheap Syrian textiles, food and electronic products, and agricultural crops. Many of these products were never manufactured in Lebanon as it lacked the industrial facilities, the manufacturing ability, and the requisite labor. According to the World Bank’s April 2015 Annual Report, since 2011 there has been a drastic decline in many imported Syrian supplies, including key agricultural products. The report also shows that the refugee crisis in Lebanon has cost the country $18 billion, mainly on the war’s border economic implications. The new export resources Lebanon is depending on are more expensive and are also more costly to be shipped into the country.

Lebanese Reaction

The Lebanese authorities have started responding strictly to the influx of Syrian refugees since 2015 with political campaigns aimed at restricting Syrians from entering the country. The authorities increased the density of their responses when they started raiding refugee camps and sending people back by force to Syria. Given Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict, its support for the Assad regime, and its strong presence in Lebanese politics, the Lebanese army has conducted a few refugee camps raids in the south of Lebanon sending Syrian refugees back to Syria through an agreement with the Syrian regime. The number reached 50,000 people in 2018. Also, a majority of Lebanese media outlets spread propaganda blaming Syrians for all of Lebanon’s current economic, social and political woes. “Discrimination is quite direct against Syrian refugees in Lebanon” and is prevalent according to Farah Kobaissy, from the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship. In some cases, it has led to the implementation of some illegal policy practices by some municipalities in Lebanon that target Syrians. For example, in some small towns, there is a curfew for Syrians which restricts their movement after 19:00 pm. Other problematic public policy practices are related to obtaining a residence permit, especially for Syrian students. This is evident because of the high dropout rate of Syrian students in Lebanese universities at the same time the number of young Syrians in the country is increasing. It’s possible that such policies were put into place due to, “the fear of Syrian students deciding to stay in Lebanon after obtaining a Lebanese degree and eventually entering the Lebanese job market and staying in Lebanon,” according to Georg Haddad, a researcher at Synaps Network in Lebanon.

Challenges and Barriers to Return:

In Lebanon, Syrian students struggle to survive in a fragile economy and a poor administrative capacity to be able to find a way to continue their studies. While some have managed to find scholarships abroad, many could not. With the increasing number of Syrian refugees in the country and the NGOisation movement to accommodate these large numbers, many Syrian students have found it useful to stay in Lebanon and do some “significant work”. There has also been a significant number of scholarships for Syrian students in Lebanon. Another Syrian Student in Tripoli pointed out:

 “I decided to switch to psychology after I was studying law. I believe Syrians will stay in Lebanon for a while and most of the children have either gone through traumatic experiences or going through discrimination now. Psychological and mental health is very important and I would be happy to stay here to do it.”(Interview, Tripoli. October 2017)

Finally, in a country like Lebanon with severe problems with the formal economy despite the open market opportunities in the country, many Syrian graduate students have created an informal economy in and outside the country. Internet savvy students have found a venue outside the formal economy in the form of freelance jobs in design and data analysis.[2] Also, in some areas, students managed to find opportunities to respond to the needs of the Syrian community by creating some small mobile businesses. One student put it in the following way:

“Now I have the opportunity to access a better form of education in Lebanon. I worked hard to get a scholarship and I am about to graduate with a master’s degree. Also, I managed to start my own small business with the support of my father. I am able to support my family financially. Something I cannot dream of in today’s Syria.”(interview, Tripoli,. October 2017)

With the escalating political and economic upheaval and resulting humanitarian crisis in Syria, the challenges and barriers to return are daunting, especially for young Syrian students who have finished their degrees or enrolled in Lebanese universities. These challenges include the following:

The full-fledged dictatorship regaining power; as mentioned above, most students fled the oppressive regime because they did not want to be involved in the extreme machine of violence and killing. They know that they will have no place in Syria as long as the current regime is in power. They fear that harsh measures, including imprisonment, torture, or even execution could be employed against them. As the regime is still in power in areas that most of the student refugees came from, the question of return is a premature one. Syrian students continue to leave the country looking for better. For many of them who stayed in Syria throughout the conflict and managed to obtain a university degree, finding a job and leading a ‘normal life’ is not possible in Syria. One student who arrived to his appointment in the German embassy in Beirut said:

“Well, you know it is safe in Damascus now and there is no bombardment, but as an engineer, I do not see any future prospects in the country. What I want is a normal life with a good job. This is difficult to achieve in Syria now.” (interview, Beirut. October 2017)

Another challenge is the declining economy and increasing cost of living: the Syrian economy is suffering at many levels and the conflict has forced a lot of capital and labor force to migrate outside the country. With the level of destruction in the country’s infrastructure and the exodus of more than six million people from the country, Syria’s economy will need several years to recover after the conflict is over. Adding to this , if we consider the fact that a majority of students fled the country at an earlier stage, and the country is suffering a generational loss in terms of education, an even grimmer picture of the future of the Syrian economy emerges.

The education system in Syria suffered from a lot of serious problems before the uprising, including over- crowding and a lack of academic resources. These difficulties have only been exacerbated given the ongoing security issues and the lack of mobility within cities. These conditions constitute additional barriers for the return of Syrian refugee students, as voiced by one student in Beirut:

“I do not think I can have the same education opportunities I have had in Lebanon so far. At least I have learned a foreign language and I am planning to do my master’s next year.” (interview, Beirut. October 2017).

Conclusion:

Although the socio-political situation is not stable for Syrians in Lebanon, the return of Syrian refugees does not seem to be a plausible option, especially for the young student community, which has been fighting to build something even in the most difficult of circumstances. This is very important to consider when thinking about refugees’ return to Syria. The conflict will not have a resolution without the return of educated youth and a productive community. For this to happen, a significant political change needs to take place, along with serious reforms in the educational system and the economy.

 

[1] It is important to mention that Syrians in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are not entitled to a refugee status. They are mainly either registered at the UNHCR records or have a private visa/residence permit. Thus, the term refugees here does not have any legal implication.

[2] Throughout the fieldwork I did in Lebanon, most of the Syrian students mentioned that the first option for having a job for them was to work online mainly on the domain of information technology.

Yahya Al-AbdullahSyrian Students in Lebanon: Challenges to Return