WASHINGTON — Human rights advocates generally criticize governments for falling short and feel no need to credit them for acting the way they are supposed to. Having just returned from Lebanon, however, and seen its response to the Syrian refugee crisis, I will jettison my usual reticence.
Lebanon’s border with Syria is open to everyone, including Palestinians who are trying to escape the conflict. No one is kept in a closed camp, and only a few have been detained for irregular entry, even though 18 percent cross the border without official permission, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
As a matter of policy, security forces are not arresting Syrians or Palestinians from Syria for lack of proper documents or for overstaying their visas, though there have been some exceptions. But since Lebanon deported 14 Syrians last August, no others are known to have been returned.
The success or failure of Lebanon’s approach has implications not just for its neighbors, but far beyond. It has implications for Kenya, for example, where hundreds of thousands of Somalis are stuffed into teeming, inadequate refugee camps and the government is now instructing all urban refugees to move to those remote, closed camps.
This is not to say that life is easy for refugees from Syria in Lebanon. They face economic hardships, including lack of jobs and scarce and expensive housing.
Palestinians fleeing Syria and even some Syrian nationals are cramming into the already densely packed urban Palestinian “camps” and other impoverished pockets. Those who entered illegally feel insecure about their situation.
There have also been private attacks on Syrians — some motivated by xenophobia, others possibly by politics — that have gone unpunished. Despite growing tensions and pressures, though, the Lebanese government is mostly doing it right. Lebanon hosts more than 325,000 refugees from Syria, raising the population by about 10 percent.
Jordan, Turkey and Iraq also deserve recognition for admitting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and accommodating them. Still, by a human rights measure, they more clearly fall short of the mark. Iraq’s main border crossing with Syria, Al Qaim, has been closed for weeks, purportedly because Iraq can’t admit refugees and simultaneously prepare a camp for them.
Tens of thousands of displaced Syrians mass on the Syrian side of Turkey’s border, raising questions about how open that border actually is, and Turkey’s camps remain largely closed and inaccessible to international humanitarian groups.
Meanwhile, Jordan is outright denying entry to four highly vulnerable groups: all Palestinians living in Syria; all single men of military age, regardless of whether they are combatants; Iraqi refugees living in Syria, and anyone who is undocumented, despite the widespread bombing and burning in Syria that not only destroys homes and properties, but documents as well.
No doubt during President Obama’s visit to Jordan this week, international attention will be drawn to the Zaatari camp in Jordan with about 100,000 refugees.
Such camps bring high visibility and an outpouring of assistance bearing the flags of donors and the emblems of charities. But building and maintaining such camps are not the most cost-effective and rights-respecting ways to accommodate refugees. Granting refugees their right to move and giving them the chance to support themselves and not be totally dependent on handouts not only allows them to contribute to their host countries, but also promotes their human dignity and the possibility of living normal, productive lives.
But homeless refugees living in urban squalor can hardly be said to be living in dignity. The refugees in Lebanon are on the very margins and in desperate need of assistance, particularly for shelter. This is the critical moment for international donors to support Lebanon for doing the right thing in upholding the human right for anyone to seek asylum.
Lebanon needs help to make this work on the humanitarian level, to show that a rights-respecting approach is not only sustainable, but can become a model for other host governments as well.
Lebanon hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country in the region, including Jordan, yet the UN’s $1 billion Syria Regional Response Plan called for $495 million for Jordan and only $267 million for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
If the pledges are fulfilled, per capita, Jordan will receive 75 percent more per refugee than Lebanon. This disparity means that Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq have every incentive to keep refugees in camps where the TV cameras are trained and Lebanon is left to feel foolish for having a policy of open borders and free movement.
The Syrian crisis, including the mass influx of refugees, is a serious threat to Lebanon’s stability. It creates enormous strains on Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance, on its highly complex relationship with Syria, and on its fragile economy.
As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told the Security Council, “It is not a question of generosity, but one of enlightened self-interest.” If it does not receive sufficient aid, Lebanon may well backslide and like its neighbors take restrictive measures — such as closing its borders to some or all refugees, or confining them in closed camps.
Donor countries ought to be working to make Lebanon's urban refugee approach work, including creative new approaches to make shelter available without sacrificing refugees’ rights to free movement.
These might include providing assistance to Lebanese host families, improving the infrastructure in places where refugees are concentrated, converting available structures and lots into transitional collective accommodations for those desperately needing shelter without requiring them to live there, and providing adequate cash assistance to meet rent and other needs.
If Lebanon’s approach fails, it will be a setback not only for refugees in the region, but wherever open borders and free movement compete with restrictive measures.
Bill Frelick is the refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch.