By Hanna Fach

On May 2nd, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, and announced a multi-billion euro agreement. According to the European Commission’s press release, the country, which is struggling with an economic crisis, and particularly vulnerable people, such as refugees, will be supported with one billion euros.

What sounds good could actually have devastating effects on the approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees, according to the UNHCR, who fled the ongoing civil war, economic hopelessness, and an oppressive regime. A significant portion of the money is intended, aside from stabilizing the banking sector and investing in vital infrastructure, to be used for the Lebanese military and particularly for securing the small state’s borders to prevent illegal smugglers and so-called irregular migration. There is also talk of facilitating the voluntary return of refugees.

Policy of Isolation

The visit of the EU Commission President and the agreement are part of a long-standing policy of isolation by the European Union and come directly after the approval of the GEAS agreement, which effectively undermines human rights and the right to asylum. It allows people to be detained at the EU’s external borders without a full asylum procedure and to be deported to third countries. During the negotiations for the GEAS agreement, there were also deals with countries like Tunisia and Albania to potentially deport refugees intercepted at the EU’s external borders to EU-funded camps. The new agreement between the EU and Lebanon, and thus the renewal of financial support, is meant to provide Lebanon with the means to keep people from reaching the EU’s external borders by holding them in third countries, in this case, Lebanon. A similar agreement was made with Turkey in 2016.

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulidis was also present at the meeting in Beirut. Cyprus, as the next EU member state within reach of Lebanon, has stated that it no longer has the capacity to take in people fleeing through Lebanon.

The approach is to prevent people from arriving in the EU by keeping them in third countries with the help of EU funds. The problem with this approach is that Lebanon, neither in the past nor in the near future, can provide safe and humane shelter for people fleeing war. On the contrary, it is likely that the situation of refugees living in Lebanon will continue to deteriorate, as has been observed in recent years.

Inhumane Living Conditions

The assumption that EU funds will lead to future human rights violations is not far-fetched. For years, reports from human rights organizations in Lebanon have described violent pushbacks of Syrian refugees by Lebanese security forces. In the border region between Lebanon and Syria, which consists partly of vast mountain ranges, there have been deaths in the past because people were literally stranded and lost their lives while trying to reach safety, often freezing to death. This is only possible because Lebanon, now also funded by the EU, continues to enforce strict border control. Additionally, entire groups of people are repeatedly loaded onto buses under the threat of violence and driven across the border back to Syria. There is definitely no talk of voluntary return here.

Moreover, just in April, there were proposals from Lebanese politicians to examine Syrian refugees to determine who truly meets the criteria of a displaced person. Human rights organizations fear this is a means to revoke refugee status from thousands of people, enabling their expulsion. For years, Lebanese politicians have targeted refugees, especially the admittedly overwhelming number of Syrian refugees for the small country, blaming them for the crises Lebanon has faced in recent years.

It is the Syrian refugees who suffer the most from the crises and social issues in Lebanon.

No Perspective, Only Exclusion and Survival Struggle

In addition to catastrophic living conditions, such as living in tent camps for years without adequate sanitary facilities and no access to education or work, Syrian refugees in Lebanon face severe structural and societal discrimination. The negative attitude of society towards Syrians is fueled by politicians who constantly spread narratives blaming Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s economic, political, and social problems. Verbal and physical assaults occur regularly.

Additionally, unemployment and poverty among Lebanese citizens have drastically increased in recent years, partly due to a severe economic crisis not long ago. There is generally little prospect in the small Mediterranean country, and many young Lebanese have already left. This option is only attainable for Syrian refugees by risking their lives. Many young Syrian men try to support their families with illegal jobs on construction sites, as they are not allowed to work officially. Participation in Lebanese society is completely denied and made impossible for them. The wages from these black-market jobs are abysmal and often insufficient to buy basic necessities. Besides, the working conditions are potentially life-threatening, and the men sometimes stand for hours on the street to get a job. They also risk being caught by security forces, sentenced, and deported. Children are also affected by this situation, as the work ban only applies to adult men, forcing families to send their children to work.

Most refugees rely on aid and shelter in UNHCR tent camps. Only partial structures for children’s education exist, everything is provisional and geared towards temporary assistance. This temporary assistance has now been ongoing for almost 15 years. These are inhumane, unsafe, and hopeless living conditions. Conditions in which the EU wants to keep refugees at all costs to prevent them from coming to Europe.

One Measure Among Many

The catastrophic situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the human rights violations have been known for years, and the EU accepts and finances them. This agreement is just one of many. In recent years, the EU has heavily invested in fortifying borders and in third countries that, for substantial sums of money, keep refugees within their borders despite reported human rights violations or carry out violent pushbacks. One example is the funding and equipping of the Libyan Coast Guard, whose numerous and often deadly pull-backs are well-documented. The list could go on, and the recent agreement with Lebanon, along with the financial aid, seems to be a logical next step in the EU’s isolation policy.

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