Published on: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2018/May-01/447536-refugee-policy-the-hot-topic-at-roundtable.ashx
BEIRUT: The failure of the Lebanese government to draft a unified and comprehensive policy for dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis is leading to increased tension between international organizations working with the displaced, a conference on the situation heard Monday. “We have to start searching for potential solutions. We don’t have the luxury to wait when it comes to dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis,” Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies Director Elie Al Hindy said at a roundtable discussion on the launch of a policy paper proposal for managing refugee returns.
Titled “Head out of the Sand: Refugees Management and Return Policies,” MEIRSS’ paper attempts to look at potential approaches and prospects for returning refugees.
“Eight years into the crisis, still no policy has been adopted. This is why we need to focus on managing the crisis before policies are developed and implemented,” Melissa Badr, who represented the Ministry for the Displaced, told the audience at the discussion.
Although the paper details steps for preparing for the return of refugees who are no longer in fear of returning to Syria or seeking asylum, international organizations – including UNHCR – were critical.
“We have been working and continue to work … and our heads are not in the sand,” Monique Sokhan, the U.N. refugee agency’s senior legal officer, told attendees.
One of the issues highlighted by UNHCR regarded Refugee Status Determination – the process the body or national governments use to determine whether a person meets classification for seeking international protection as a refugee under international, regional or national law.
Sokhan said reassessing RSD was “legally and practically impossible.”
Monday’s paper suggested that among the primary focuses should be to determine which asylum-seekers actually fled a risk that threatened their lives or security in their country of origin. Because the Lebanese government did not assess cases individually, UNHCR applied its mass influx policy based on the prima facie status identification – a group determination of refugee status. This cannot be changed in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
“Since Lebanon didn’t have a refugee policy, UNHCR declared prima facie for Syrians here,” the UNHCR representative said.
But she added that the local integration and long-term settling of Syrian refugees is not and never was UNHCR’s policy.
The paper stated that before reassessments can be done, the actual number of refugees needs to be determined. Due to the government’s controversial decision in 2015 to stop allowing UNHCR to register new refugees outside extreme – but undefined – humanitarian circumstances, the actual number of refugees in Lebanon is undetermined.
“The reopening of registration of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is the most important step to achieve this as it facilitates the management of the Syrians’ entry and exit through the legal border points, the verification of their status and the distinction between refugees and non-refugees in accordance with international standards,” the paper argues.
By doing so, the Lebanese government would clearly know its responsibility toward those considered refugees. However, the UNHCR representatives, as well as those from other organizations, argued that the situation in Syria does not allow for changing the status of those who fled due to security fears.
The paper also argues that many of the classifications the U.N. uses to assess safe return – such as availability of work, health coverage and access to education – are of limited availability even in host countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.
The authors set out to fill a gap in policy left by a disunited and often nonfunctioning central government – little ministerial work was carried out during Lebanon’s 29-month presidential vacuum that ended in October 2016.
The authors of the report also call on the international community to determine “safe areas,” in Syria where people could feasibly return.
This, international officials have said repeatedly, is not practical given the shifting nature of the conflict.
U.N. figures indicate 700,000 people have been displaced across Syria since the start of 2017.
The U.N. and many Western states have stated that returns should not be undertaken in the absence of a political solution to the conflict.
Badr noted that while the topic of Syrian refugees in Lebanon had been raised during the country’s ongoing election campaign, it had “thankfully” not been a major feature.
“But it is soon going to return to being the hot topic,” she said