Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon draft peace proposal to create safe return zones in Syria
As the sun sets over the sea, Abu Mohammed looks northwards to the Syrian border. We are on the mountains of Akkar, Lebanon’s most northern region; fifty kilometres away from the village where Abu Mohammed lived every day of his life until he was forced to flee in 2012. Driving down the mountain towards his new home, a huddle of tents in the middle of Akkar’s strawberry fields, Abu Mohammed sighs. “I miss Syria.”
Lebanon currently hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. With refugees accounting for over twenty-five percent of its population, social, economic and political tensions are at a breaking point. Unlike in Jordan or Turkey, the construction of formal refugee camps is prohibited and most Syrian refugees and Palestinians refugees from Syria (PRS) live in substandard conditions; renting land in informal settlements, garages, unfinished buildings, sheds and even animal shelters. According to the 2017 data collected by the UN, more than seventy-five percent of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line, with the same proportion of refugees also unregistered. Unregistered refugees are unable to legally access the labour market and have little choice but to survive on exploitative labour and humanitarian aid. The constant threat of arrest and hostility from host communities exacerbates conditions.
However, refugees are not the only ones to suffer from the current situation. Most Syrian refugees and PRSs have settled in Lebanon’s most marginalised regions, placing them in direct competition for access to work, public services and resources with vulnerable Lebanese communities. Consequently, the influx of refugees is often cited as a reason for Lebanon’s stagnating economy. Equally, Lebanon’s socio-political stability rests on a precarious sectarian balance, one that could be threatened by the predominantly Sunni refugee population. Haunted by past memories of Palestinian refugees’ involvement in the country’s fifteen year long civil war, the fear that the presence of Syrian refugees could be a catalyst for instability and conflict within Lebanon is widely felt.
Speaking to representatives from the Arab League, the UN Security Council, and the EU in September 2017, Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun stated that Lebanon could not sustain the presence of Syrian refugees for much longer. “My country cannot handle it anymore”, he said, suggesting that Syrians should start returning to “calmer areas” in Syria. His words were echoed by Prime Minister Hariri a few months later. And while such words were caveated with the guarantee that Lebanon would never force returns, human rights advocates fear the possibility of indirect refoulement, whereby government-promoted hostile policies towards refugees could make living conditions for refugees so unbearable that they would be indirectly pushed to leave the country.
When a deal between Hezbollah and militant groups in Syria repatriated over three thousand Syrians last year, reports of refugees facing bombing, torture, and imprisonment provided insight into how dangerous pushing for returns can be if carried out without proper safety checks.
To Stay or to Go
As conditions deteriorate for Syrian in Lebanon, refugees increasingly face the difficult choice of whether to stay, despite growing hostility and hardship, or to leave. “I would love to return home.” Yara, a single mother of sixteen from Aleppo living in an informal camp in Akkar tells us. “We had a house and land and we would grow food. I love Syria. But we cannot go back, it is too dangerous now. There is no other place for me to go to.”
Reports of Jordan deporting refugees back to Syria and Turkey shooting refugees at the border are well known amongst the refugees in Akkar, meaning few desire to relocate to these places. And the chances of being resettled to Europe gets slimmer by the day. Yara’s husband tried to reach Europe via sea, but she has not heard from him since he left on a blow up dinghy in 2013. And it is not only Syrians disaffected with the regime who are caught in this conundrum. Yussef, who has served in the Syrian military, also feels that he cannot return: “I do not have any personal problems with the regime, but returning to Syria would be too risky just because of the address on my ID. I come from a certain area of Homs…that is all it would take to get me arrested.”
Nonetheless, despite the continued violence in Syria, many refugees advocate for return. “We cannot stay here forever” says Abu Mohammed, a Syrian teacher living in Akkar, “Returns need to be voluntary and carried out in areas that are truly safe. But in order to ensure that, we need to start organising ourselves now, so that when the times comes to return, we will be ready.”
Abu Mohammed worked in a school in Homs before coming to Lebanon in 2012. Today he is a key spokesperson for a proposal for peace in Syria, written by an informal network of Syrian refugees. The proposal is the product of a rare process, where Syrian refugees have found the strength and resilience to create a platform upon which they can speak for themselves about the conditions needed for return to Syria to occur in a safe and dignified manner.
The catalyst for the creation of the peace proposal was the new legislation passed by the Lebanese government in 2015, which made it harder for Syrians to renew their papers, exposing many to unemployment, arrest and detention. “It was not always like this” Khaled, a long-term intermediary for the UN, told us during an interview in Tripoli. “Before the border was open. When my first daughter was born, we had no problem registering her. But when my second girl was born last year, I had to pay thirteen hundred dollars to get someone to register her in Syria so she did not become stateless.” With eighty-three percent of Syrian children born in Lebanon since the beginning of the crisis lacking birth registration, Khaled’s story resonates with many.
“I do not blame the Lebanese authorities when they say that the situation has reached its limit and Lebanon cannot do more than this”, said Abu Mohammed. “But Lebanon will not help us more than it is now, so we must seek alternatives.”
The network behind the proposal is made up of Syrian refugees from different confessional communities, often represented by the shawish (leaders) of camps in Akkar and the Beqaa. “The people who wrote the proposal have very diverse backgrounds and come from different places in Syria, there are teachers and farmers, mostly from Homs, but also from Damascus, Aleppo, Raqqa” Abu Mohammed told us. “It was written here in Akkar and has been slowly gathering support. We also keep in touch with people in Syria, as well as with refugee communities in Turkey and Jordan. Many call us by phone or Skype to ask what is the progress.”
The strength of Abu Mohammed’s conviction stretches well beyond his words. When he was offered the chance to travel to Europe with a humanitarian corridor he turned it down to stay with his wider family in Lebanon and to continue to run the school he had helped set up. Five hundred children from over twenty-two different refugee camps come to his school every day. “My work in the school goes hand in hand with the peace proposal. It is crucial we help ourselves over here, but this cannot be a long-term plan, we want to return to Syria as soon as we can.”
The peace proposal advocates for the establishment of safe demilitarised zones in Syria, based on Articles 14 and 15 of the IV Geneva Convention for the Protection for Civilian Persons, which sets the conditions for the establishment of neutral zones in areas of warfare. Such zones would allow for the return of refugees and displaced people.
One such zone has already been identified south of Homs, between Qusayr and Yabroud, stretching between the Lebanese border and the Homs-Damascus highway. This area is currently under the control of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. Home to more than twenty percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, this region has been chosen for its proximity to the Lebanese border and its agricultural resources. The proposal for safe return areas is “beneficial for all parties” explains Abu Mohammed, “as Lebanon would guarantee its border to be open for voluntary returns to this region, and Syrians would be allowed to attempt a first return to their country.”
“One of the main reasons Syrians do not want to be in Syria today is out of fear of vengeance and of our children being arrested or drafted in the army. This fear involves everyone, even regime supporters. The strength of the proposal is one: that it speaks to all Syrian refugees”.
In a UN survey carried out in 2017, seventy percent of Syrian refugees expressed the desire to return to Syria if they felt there was somewhere safe for them to return to. “We fled from our homes in Syria because we did not want to kill or be killed. We have paid an enormous price for our freedom. We want to live with freedom and dignity, and we want to make a peaceful return to our homeland,” said Abu Rabia, a former resident of a refugee camp in Akkar, today resettled in Italy.
The Role of Operazione Colomba
Looking for a way to promote the proposal and gain support amongst the international community, Abu Mohammed met with Operazione Colomba, the only humanitarian organisation with a permanent presence in the camps of northern Lebanon since 2014. Strong from its protection and peace-building experience in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó in Columbia, and in demilitarised nonviolent communities such as the village of At-Tuwan in Palestine, Operazione Colomba has gained international experience in promoting safe zones in places of protracted violence. Seeing the importance of the proposal and understanding the dangers faced by refugees who get publicly involved with politics, Operazione Colomba helped to circulate, translate and promote the proposal. Most recently, a Syrian delegation from the refugee camps has been presenting the proposal to EU officials such as the EU Vice-President and the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini.
Critiques of the Proposal
However, not everybody is in favour of the idea. Interviewing a number of refugees living in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, the proposal was met with many doubts; many fearing for their safety and livelihood were they to return to safe zones without a political settlement taking place first. “Without weapons?” One women laughed. “Impossible. All it takes is one rocket. And how would we live? The land is covered in mines, my home is destroyed. What would I do?” Many refugees in Lebanon see safety and security as the first conditions to return, with access to basic services and employment opportunities also as key.
Abu Mohammed is no novice to such questions and having been previously detained in Syria, he is aware of the risks that return to Syria could entail. “We know that such a solution today seems too far-fetched and unrealistic. With the recent sieges and bombings continuing in Syria, it is difficult for anyone to speak of return. For today the proposal is impossible, but one day the violence will lessen.”
Most refugees feel trapped in a stalemate between a country that does not want them and a country to which they cannot return. To Abu Mohammed’s eyes, the proposal is a starting point to begin opening up routes to move on from such impasse, working on finding alternatives between degrading treatment abroad and war at home. “Return is key to any solution,” he insists, “and it will happen eventually.”
“This war has been long, but it will not last forever. The day it will be over, we want to be ready to return in a safe manner no matter who wins the war. Even if we will simply move in other provisional camps at first, it will be better to live in a camp in our own country than here.”
Lorenzo Trombetta, a Middle East expert based in Beirut, was consulted when the proposal was at its embryonic stages. “The first time Operazione Colomba told me about the proposal I was very skeptical. But after learning more about their work they do in Akkar, I took a more listening attitude.” Trombetta does not see the feasibility of truly safe zones being established in the near future. “For most of the actors in Syria, the idea of safe zones is more a strategy to further political and military goals rather than a method of civilian protection.” With the failure of past de-escalation zones all too present, Trombetta warns of the difficulty of disconnecting zones of safety with zones of influence and the future demarcations of post-war Syria. “No safe zone can be established without first reaching a political settlement with the government and its allies. You may find statements of solidarity amongst EU institutions, but they are unlikely to act unless they believe it to benefit their diplomacy in Lebanon.” As demonstrated at the international conference recently held in Rome, international diplomacy in Lebanon is mostly concerned with anti-terrorism securitization and stability. “The Western consensus towards Lebanon is to keep it as the bench outside the football pitch, make sure Syrian refugees can survive and wait without spilling over towards European borders.”
Those behind the proposal are only too used to the hollow promises of politicians, but they also hope that with support from EU countries, local players would be more likely to take the proposal seriously. Alex, a member of Operazione Colomba who has lived in the camp for over two years, acknowledges the risk that regional actors might try to use the idea of humanitarian zones to further their own political ends. “There is a lot that will have to be negotiated and that will depend on what happens in the near future. But on the core tenants of the proposal we cannot negotiate: on the need of security, food, healthcare, and the request of dignity Syrian people want back.”
Whilst Trombetta believes that any true safe zone could not exist in the near future, he does not deny the possibility completely. “Operazione Colomba and the Syrians who wrote the proposal are working at the forefront of what the current situation allows.” He concedes that while keeping nuance against misinterpretations of the proposal advocating for an unsafe return, there is a need to start working on the idea of safe return zones in advance and to start from social inclusion. “Remember to look beyond the national borders on maps.” He points out how the triangle formed by the cities of Homs, Tartus, and Tripoli is a very resourceful and interconnected socio-economic area, gravitating the north of Lebanon closer to Syria than to the more politically and economically distant Beirut. Roots of support for the proposal could grow from the re-establishment of local economic activities through projects of social inclusion and cohesion between Syrians in Akkar and their communities of reference in Syria. “We need to aid the construction of a socio-economic context that can precede the physical return of refugees in the foreseeable future.”
International aid organisations have expressed concerns that such a proposal is premature and that establishing safe zones would risk supporting efforts of forced returns from Lebanon where basic security conditions are far from being met. When asked to comment, the International Red Cross replied stating that any return should be done in a safe, dignified, and informed manner in accordance to international humanitarian law, and that such conditions have been currently met on the ground.
Many points remain unclear in the safe zones proposal, such as issues of governance, mobility, and access. When facing such questions Alex replies that the Syrians involved in the proposal, alongside Operazione Colomba, are constantly evaluating details in accordance with the evolving situation. “When we are asked about the details of the proposal, we often say that it is like asking a child who they want to be when they grow up. We cannot know now how safe zones will form, it is too early and it will always depend on which interlocutor we will face the day we will sit down and discuss. But it is still important to ask the question, to spur imagination and the will to change this situation.”
For the millions of Syrian refugees surviving in rapidly deteriorating conditions, there are not many alternatives. This is why for those behind the proposal, working for the establishment of safe return zones is not more unrealistic than a scenario in which millions of refugees stay endlessly in a foreign land.
Caught between the growing hardships of displacement and premature conditions for return, Syrian refugees in Lebanon have to walk the fine line between advocating for safe and dignified return whilst careful not to fuel excuses for coerced refoulement.
“Why are the representatives of the forces destroying our country the only ones sitting at the negotiating table?” asks Abu Mohammed, as he mends a leak in his tent. “Refugees are treated as if their only role is to run away from war, becoming powerless victims begging for help. We want to show you how far is this from reality.”
In the midst of growing escalation in Syria, the peace proposal, coming from civilian refugees, provides an example of what wars too often leave out: the voices of those who refuse violence. Against all odds, a group of Syrians are trying to launch a message of peace, taking concrete steps towards a proactive involvement in negotiations. Notwithstanding the necessity of a political settlement to be found in Syria to bring war and violence to a halt, refugees want to part-take in the process. They are asking for the ear of the international community not to fall deaf to their call.