In recent months the pressure on Syrian refugees in Lebanon to return has increased dramatically, while their situation in Lebanon is rapidly deteriorating as well. A new report by 11.11.11, "Long Road to Return", calls upon the EU to take urgent action and to actively promote the 3 internationally recognized "durable solutions" for Syrian refugees.
In July 2018 the Russian federation proposed a large-scale program that would return 1.7 million Syrian refugees (including 200,000 in Europe) to Syria in the near future. Russian officials have explicitly sought European endorsement of these proposals, explicitly linking them to the demand that the EU provides unconditional financial support for the reconstruction of Syria.
The EU is thus faced with a key strategic question: should it support the Russian "return agenda" or not at this point in time? Many observers are warning that the Russian return agenda is not aimed at improving human rights and protection of Syrian refugees, but that Syrian refugees are being used as a bargaining chip in a political ploy.
11.11.11 argues that the EU needs to develop a strategy that recognizes that the 3 internationally recognized "durable solutions" for refugees are inherently interlinked and should be promoted simultaneously:
- Safe, voluntary and dignified return: the EU should hold the political line on safe, voluntary and dignified returns, while simultaneously communicating to Russia it is ready to engage on the return agenda if (and only if) Russia uses its leverage over the Syrian government to ensure that specific human rights and protection thresholds are met. As such the EU should insist that UNHCR's "thresholds and parameters for return" are the basis of any return program, and should be further operationalized through the development of specific progress monitoring benchmarks.
- Dignified stay in host countries: if the EU is serious about promoting safe, voluntary and dignified returns, it has to increase its efforts to tackle the "push factors" (both physical, legal and material) that prevent Syrian refugees in Lebanon from making a voluntary and informed decision on return.
- Resettlement and complementary legal pathways: the limited number of resettlement quota for Syrian refugees in Lebanon has seriously hampered and undermined the EU's credibility and political leverage to promote its "protection in the region" agenda. By increasing resettlement quota for Syrians residing in Lebanon, the EU can send an important signal to Lebanese public opinion and government and show a real commitment to responsibility sharing. As such the EU can create goodwill and momentum to increase the protection space for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
The report proposes a set of 16 policy measures, including:
- Insist that UNHCR's "Thresholds and Parameters" are the basis of any future discussion on returns. Work actively together with relevant partners to further operationalize these thresholds, through the development of specific benchmarks that can be used to regularly assess progress in the implementation of the thresholds.
- Ensure that any EU support for rebuilding efforts inside Syria respects the principles of "do no harm" and "conflict sensitivity". To this end, develop robust conflict sensitivity guidelines (building on the "Parameters and Principles for UN Assistance in Syria"), expand the geographical scope of the EU Madad Fund towards projects inside Syria and allocate dedicated resources for surveys that determine rebuilding priorities of local communities.
- Create a dedicated mechanism that ensures that the views of Syrian refugees and IDPs are actively sought and integrated into any policy planning discussion on returns.
- Adopt a concrete action plan for implementation of the main commitments made during the Brussels II conference on the future of Syria and the region (April 2018), to which all parties can be held to account.
- Deliver on the EU-Lebanon partnership paper presented at the Brussels II conference on the future of Syria and the region (April 2018), wherein the EU promised to continue efforts to increase resettlement opportunities and to create complementary pathways.