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Could the EU-Lebanon aid deal backfire on Syrian refugees?

May 7, 2024

The EU will give €1 billion to Lebanon to help the country deal with high numbers of refugees from Syria. But there's concern it'll be counterproductive and increase irregular migration.

Front left to right: Ursula von der Leyen,  Nikos Christodoulides and Nabih Berri
Ursula von der Leyen and Nikos Christodoulides met with Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri (far right) in Beirut last weekImage: Hussein Malla/AP/picture alliance

Shortly after last week's €1 billion ($1.08 billion) deal between the European Union (EU) and Lebanon was announced, it quickly became clear the arrangement was not particularly popular in the host country.

"The Lebanese ... people are not for sale, nor for rent," one politician in Lebanon, Gebran Bassil, stated in an interview.

"The ruling junta has exchanged the security, stability and future of the Lebanese for 30 pieces of silver," politicians from an opposition coalition complained in a statement.

"It is propaganda from Brussels to Beirut, without guaranteeing governance or investigating corruption," Halime El Kaakour, a politician who took part in anti-corruption protests in 2019 before being elected into office, argued on social media.

Why has the EU-Lebanon deal sparked outrage?

The deal was announced last Thursday during a visit to Beirut by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Cyprus' President Nikos Christodoulides. It consists of a €1 billion aid package for Lebanon, starting this year and running until 2027. Most of the money — around €736 million — is intended to help Lebanon care for its refugee population, most of which is Syrian. The rest is to help Lebanon improve border and migration control.

Lebanon has one of the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. The country, with a population of over 5.2 million, hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrians, most of whom fled from next-door Syria during their country's civil war.

Since the start of the war around 2012, there have been tensions between native Lebanese and displaced Syrian residents. Lebanon's recent economic and political crises have only worsened this.

Supporters of Christian Lebanese Forces wave party flags
The murder of a Lebanese politician in early April in a carjacking gone wrong has recently re-ignited tensions between Syrian and Lebanese residentsImage: Marwan Naamani/ZUMA/picture alliance

Populist politicians have called for undocumented Syrians to be expelled, and rights groups have reported that Lebanese security forces are forcibly repatriating Syrian migrants by picking them up off the street, then dropping them at the border. In Syria, forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad are likely to imprison, torture or kill returnees, or conscript them into the Syrian army.

As a result of these growing tensions and deportations, more Syrians have been trying to leave Lebanon. Record numbers have been arriving in Cyprus, the closest European territory, seeking asylum. In the first three months of this year, Cyprus recorded 2,000 new arrivals by sea. Over the same period last year, there were 78.

The European aid package is supposed to help remedy this. But in fact, observers told DW, it is likely to make things worse.

European bribery? 

Inside Lebanon, the accusations of EU bribery refer to the fact that some Lebanese think the EU is paying to keep unwanted Syrians in their country. In fact, the controversy got so bad that a few days after the Europeans' visit, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati publicly denied the country was being "bribed" during a television interview.

In some ways, you can understand why the Lebanese might think that way, says Philippe Dam, Human Rights Watch's EU director based in Brussels. "There could be a bit of truth to that when you look at the transactional approach the EU is taking to irregular migration and basically paying other states to keep people away," he explained, noting similar deals struck with Turkey and Tunisia

Protesters sit around blue graffiti on the street protesting agains the "resettlement of Syrians"
There have been protests in Lebanon against the "resettlement of Syrians" Image: Fadel Itani/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Additionally the details of the EU-Lebanon deal remain unclear. This is also causing tension, Dam told DW. There may well be some positive steps in the deal, such as support to basic services in Lebanon.

"But [von der Leyen] also said some very problematic things," Dam continued. "She announced support for the Lebanese security forces on migration and border management which could be problematic. Because these people are the ones practicing coerced deportation of Syrians," he explained.

"She also mentioned a structured approach to voluntary returns and referred to support for Syrians living back in Syria in a way that favors returns over true protection," he pointed out, referring to the fact that rights organizations, including his own, worry that this may be a step towards recognizing parts of Syria as safe to return to.

"The war in Syria is not over," the governments of Germany, the US, UK and France said in a joint statement in March. "The conditions for safe, dignified and voluntary returns of refugees to Syria, supported by the international community, are not yet met." 


Syrians in Lebanon face mounting hostility

A 'dangerous' deal for Syrian refugees

This was never about supporting Syrian refugees, adds Kelly Petillo, program manager for Middle East and North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "This is first and foremost about preventing migration to Cyprus and to the rest of Europe."

Giving money to the Lebanese military "means more insecurity for Syrian refugees," Petillo added. "They face more pressure to leave by themselves or be deported. That will result in the opposite of what von der Leyen apparently wants to achieve, creating more pressure for Syrians to move towards Europe."

Willem Staes, the Middle East policy officer for Belgium-based organization, 11.11.11, which brings together 60 non-governmental and rights organizations, agreed.

Staes points to a survey conducted by his organization in late April of Syrians in Lebanon. The survey showed the overwhelming majority of respondents to be very worried about being deported amid the deteriorating security situation for Syrians in Lebanon. Eighty-eight percent said this had a direct impact on their decision to try to reach Europe.

Detained en stand in lines, facing a concrete wall, with their heads bowed
Refugee rights groups in Lebanon report the Lebanese Armed Forces forcibly detained and deported thousands of refugees back to Syria in 2023Image: Lebanese Army Website/AP Photo/picture alliance

Lebanon deal 'motivated by electoral fears'

"[The EU-Lebanon deal] is really some kind of stupidity Olympics," Staes argues. "Instead of taking effective action against these deportations, von der Leyen is going to give the Lebanese army more money and increase their capacity to violate international law."

There's no way it's going to make life better for Syrian refugees or even Lebanese citizens, he said. "This deal is dangerous and will lead to more deaths, more violence and more irregular migration," he told DW. "It is indicative of problematic European policies that are solely motivated by electoral fears, rather than realities on the ground."

The only potentially good thing about the EU-Lebanon deal was the fact that it puts renewed focus on Lebanon's problems, experts agreed.

"EU action is long overdue," Staes said. A winning plan would involve Lebanon ending forcible deportations, giving more Syrians temporary residence and work permits, he argued. Meanwhile the EU could facilitate more legal migration to Europe and put together an economic package to help the Lebanese people.

"The expert community has been calling for a EU-Lebanon deal for a very long time," Petillo concluded. "Unfortunately it's gone in the wrong direction."

Edited by: Maren Sass

EU announces €1 billion in aid for Lebanon

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.