Almost one million Syrian citizens have fled their country since peaceful protests, beginning in March 2011, transformed into a violent civil war. Fighting between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and opposition militias has ravaged cities and towns throughout Syria. Lebanon, which has an official policy of dissociation with the Syrian conflict to prevent hostilities from spilling over the border, is absorbing a large portion of the Syrian refugees who are fleeing the war-torn country. As of March 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon exceeds 300,000. The country of four million, however, is not legally obligated to care for the refugees because it is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention). Due to the large influx of refugees into the tiny country, Lebanon is faced with a predicament seen in many conflicts that international law provides an insufficient framework for solving.
According to the Statute of the Office of the UNHCR, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly, all governments should cooperate with the High Commissioner in the performance of his functions. Article 23 of the Refugee Convention promises refugees the same treatment, with respect to public relief and assistance, as is accorded to a country’s own citizens. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) enshrines the right of persons to enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries. However, this framework may not be enough to safeguard the rights of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Approximately 100,000 of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon have yet to register with the UNHCR, which means that they cannot receive necessities such as food, blankets, and rental assistance. In a February interview with National Public Radio, the UNHCR representative in Lebanon said that the agency simply cannot keep up with the growing number of refugees—3,000 people per day currently approaching the agency, as compared to 1,700 people per day in December 2012. Aid workers have indicated that the registration process is hindering refugees from receiving necessary aid in a timely manner.
Lebanon absorbed over 400,000 Palestinian refugees since 1948, many of whom are still living in refugee camps run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Because of this history, Lebanon has forbidden the construction of formal refugee camps for Syrian refugees. The UNHCR says that Lebanon does not have the legal or administrative procedures in place to address the specific needs of refugees, leaving them vulnerable to arrest, detention, and deportation. The agency notes that improving protections for refugees in Lebanon is a priority and that it is working toward a more stable understanding with the Lebanese government.
Lebanon’s fragile political balance and its history with Palestinian refugees certainly provide reason for caution, but these are not an excuse to escape the steps that need to be taken. According to the UNHCR Syria Regional Response Plan, refugees are scattered across Lebanon in over 540 locations, in some of the poorest areas of the country, because Lebanon has not established refugee camps. Without centralized locations for refugees to live, they are forced to find shelter throughout Lebanese communities, making aid more difficult to distribute.
The UNHCR emphasizes that burden sharing is key to maintaining the protection of refugees. In furtherance of this theory, the UNHCR assists refugees so that the cost of their welcome is not borne by the countries of refuge alone. Turkey and Egypt are the only countries, of the five formally accepting Syrian refugees, that are bound by the Refugee Convention. They are better equipped to deal with the refugee situation because they are bound by international law to provide additional protections. If Lebanon were a party to the Convention, the refugees would be afforded automatic protections, such as the right to receive identification documents and the right not to be deported back to Syria.
The UNHCR Statute, the Refugee Convention, and the UDHR all highlight the rights that should be afforded to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Improving the situation for these refugees falls on the UNHCR, the Lebanese government, and other developed countries to provide sufficient aid. Without binding international guidance, Syrian refugees depend on the good will of the international community for survival. The UNHCR can be better prepared to deal with the influx of refugees in Lebanon by making the registration process more efficient and reinforcing the staff and resources available for registering refugees. Since the key players dealing with this refugee situation lack necessary resources and there is an insufficient binding legal structure, it remains an insurmountable challenge to provide the Syrian refugees with their UDHR rights to asylum and for them to be treated like Lebanon’s own citizens.