By Lyla Andreé
Lebanon resembles other Middle Eastern states (except for Yemen) in that it is not part of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 protocol on the Status of Refugees and did not develop a national asylum system. After 3 years of relative openness, the Government of Lebanon forbade in 2015 the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) from registering additional Syrian refugees thereby denying them national but also international rights. This policy led to a situation in which about 70% of Syrian households in Lebanon have not one single member with a legal residency[i]. With the UNHCR contribution to asylum in such a deadlock in Lebanon, its mandate has mainly focused on burden-sharing, that is to the contribution to protection in the host country. Closely embedded in a large scale "resilience" approach to refugees' plight, the way in which the UNHCR implements its mandate in Lebanon is illustrative of the rise of a new conception of refugee protection that weakens the Refugee Regime, as I argue in what follows.
UNHCR mandate in Lebanon targeting refugees' resilience and self-reliance
Framing the international stakeholders' response to the Syrian crisis, the Refugee Resilience Regional Plan (3RP) to address the Syrian crisis outlines the goal of "bringing about a scaling-up of resilience and stabilization-based development and humanitarian assistance to cope with the crises" by bringing together about 200 humanitarian and development partners, including governments, United Nations agencies, and national and international NGOs. Resilience was tellingly defined in 2017 by UNHCR as "the ability of individuals, households, communities, national institutions and systems to prevent, absorb and recover from shocks, while continuing to function and adapt in a way that supports long-term prospects for sustainable development, peace and security, and the attainment of human rights."[ii]. Resilience has become the essential goal of humanitarian & development joint action at a global level because it intends precisely to bridge the divide between relief, recovery, and development to prevent future crisis. In this perspective, service provision through the inclusion of forcibly displaced people into the hosting state services targets both resilience and self-reliance of refugees, linking humanitarian assistance and development: "While humanitarian action tends to be seen as contributing to the self-reliance of forcibly displaced people and development cooperation as building the resilience of host populations, bringing these concepts together has evident value." Building on this common ground, UNHCR's contribution is supposed to serve its mandate of international protection: "UNHCR’s work enhances protection and solutions by supporting self-reliance and resilience in three key areas: (1) strengthening the capacity of national services in the area of preparedness and emergency response, including contingency planning; (2) supporting national systems and local communities in responding to displacement once it occurs; and (3) helping equip the displaced for the future."[iii]
This evolution has also reached the education sector. In the same communication on resilience from a protection perspective, education is listed among UNHCR's main roles: "(2) supporting national systems and local communities once displacement occurs, in order to ensure the inclusion of displaced persons in national services, such as healthcare and education". In the case of the Syria crisis, the provision of education to refugees is enshrined both in the 3RP and in the international "No Lost Generation" initiative launched in 2013 by UNICEF and Save the Children to ensure that the Syrian children affected by the conflict are provided with education and protection in Syria and in neighboring countries.
In Lebanon, the 3RP regional framework gave way to the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan that requires yearly assessments of refugees' needs for each sector. Within this setting, the education sector has been one of the most funded and the most visible in Lebanon from the onset of the Syrian crisis, as childhood education has remained a core objective of the international endeavor. According to its mandate, UNHCR leads the Refugee component of the 3RP that merely deals with protection activities implemented in coordination with the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA). Besides overseeing the Response, UNHCR is also a fund custodian, counting among the main humanitarian actors providing services to refugees. This prioritization of Education in Emergencies and its integration within the public system in Lebanon conceptually fits with UNHCR's stated objective of building multi-scale resilience of the individual - reaching both Lebanese & Syrian refugees; of the community - empowering most vulnerable local communities in the society; and of the State - reforming Public education.
Widening UNHCR's mandate: Legal Protection versus Protection activities
The past twenty years saw the development of discursive and institutional strategies prioritizing education among UNHCR's fields of action as it is a basic human right enshrined in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1951 Refugee Convention. Accordingly, education is defined as a tool for protection fitting UNHCR's mandate and shedding new light on its "raison d'être". UNHCR education activities foster social cohesion, provide access to life-saving information, address psychosocial needs, and offer a stable and safe environment for those who need it most[iv]. Based on this definition, protection is seen as an outcome of the implementation of UNHCR's mandate. Such a conception of international protection - as service provision - gained ascendency over that of protection - as the provision of rights to the individual - as it used to be traditionally prioritized in the Refugee Regime. Gradually, the normalization of UNHCR's humanitarian mandate aligned with that of other humanitarian stakeholders privileging a more technical and "evidence-based assessments of needs" that might overshadow the advocacy in favor of increased rights.
International efforts in the field of education in Lebanon are particularly illustrative of this tendency. In Lebanon, over half of Syrian refugees are children below the age of 18[v]. This situation has confronted the Lebanese public-school system with a gradual influx since 2013, as the country has always allowed Syrian refugee children to pursue an accredited education. The Ministry of Education (MEHE) has taken the institutional lead of the Education in Emergency response with the “Reaching All Children with Education” (RACE) program developed with the support of the international community led by the UN. The strategy has targeted Syrian and Lebanese pupils covering "both immediate humanitarian response interventions as well as longer term support that will build the resilience of children, communities, the education and protection systems, and infrastructure that are so critical to their future".[vi] The understanding of education as a tool for protection is mentioned in the introduction of the RACE II Strategy as an emerging theme for donors considering "the need to increase the focus on those sectors traditionally not well covered in humanitarian responses, but which are essential to protecting the future of an entire generation of children and the prospects of stability in Syria and the region". Education as a socio-economic and collective right encompasses refugees in the wider community of the “most vulnerable” enabling them to access public services.
UNHCR response to Syrian refugees is well enshrined in the international joint humanitarian-development effort, tipping the scale from a strict definition of international legal protection to a widened definition of protection based on service provision. Thereby, UNHCR's contribution to Syrian refugees' protection in Lebanon might overshadow the Refugee Regime's two mandates, namely that of (a) legal Protection and (b) the purpose of finding durable solutions for refugees. In other words, the international response to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon further shifts away international practice; from a rights-based approach to a need-based approach of international Protection; and from a purpose-centered process of finding durable solutions to a never-ending process of service provision. In doing so, both the discursive strategy and the implementation of UNHCR mandate in international protection question the classical statement according to which “Protection is thus based in the law; it may be wider than rights, but it begins with rights and rights permeate the whole”.[vii]
Service provision and the lack of legal and political responsibility for refugees
Deprived of its legal component, UNHCR's mandate of protection in Lebanon emphasizes the provision of services and targets resilience of the individual and beyond, refugees' self-reliance. The resilience-based approach to burden-sharing somehow institutionalized what used to be an anomaly or an “institutional curiosity”[viii] of the interstate system embodied by The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Established in 1949 as a three-year temporary mandate until a just and durable solution for Palestinian refugees was achieved, the agency’s temporary mandate has periodically been renewed for over 70 years, and it continues to provide essential services such as education, health, relief and social services to Palestine refugees in the Near East until the present. Far from being an innovative solution, the widened definition of protection promoted by the international community via the 3RP rather serves to mainstream an exceptional formula used decades ago in response to the exile of Palestinians. However, even lacking a protection mandate, UNRWA has played a changing and ambiguous political role representing Palestinian refugees in their hosting territories; this is precisely what distinguishes the Palestinian experience from the current response to Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Moreover, as it has widened its relief and humanitarian mandate towards development, UNRWA has increasingly acted as a service provider, therefore playing a Nation State’s role. In contrast, through its fragmented sectoral approach, the 3RP is able neither to be a representative agency nor to embody political and legal responsibility for Syrian refugees.
Protection beyond service provision
Currently, the collapse of basic economic and social services following the accumulation of major crises in Lebanon points out a "protection gap" and brings back the issue of legal protection for refugees and migrants. Amid an unprecedented economic crisis and following the Beirut Blast of August 4, 2020, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese experienced a rapid deterioration of their socio-economic conditions. Gaps in resources, services and capacities continue to widen, further hindering the access to and the quality of basic services (water and sanitation, shelter, electricity, food supply) before even tackling the issue of education. As the government was forced to put the country under a strict lockdown in January 2021, UNHCR reported that 88% of the refugees are living below the extreme poverty line and 50% of the Lebanese population fell below the poverty line.
In the light of refugees' increasing vulnerability, the provision of basic services seems to go hand in hand with the provision of legal protection. A lack of legal residency and a work permit de facto worsens refugees' living conditions as legal discrimination weighs on their daily lives exposing them to the risk of arrest and detention. It also hampers their access to basic services like education, as well as to obtaining civil status documents (marriage, birth registration). Indeed, despite the many accomplishments of the RACE strategies and while their exile reaches nearly a decade, around 44% of Syrian children (aged 6 – 14) remain out of school, out of which 36% remained out of learning in the year 2018-2019.[ix] The COVID 19 outbreak one year ago has further compromised Syrian refugees' access to education. Notwithstanding COVID 19 contamination rate fluctuances, schools have remained closed for about a year in Lebanon. Educational programs are conducted remotely and more than 90% of public schools are delivering daily lessons via WhatsApp or Telegram. Remote learning reduces consequently the quality and outreach of education as it also conditions attendance to an internet connection and the availability of a smartphone and/or a computer. Even though UNHCR officially advocates for the fulfillment of its original mandate, the management of Syrian refugees' protection in Lebanon is facing a political stalemate. As a result, the resilience-based approach of service provision remains the only viable and consensual approach.
At the core of the resilience-based burden-sharing lies the danger that the approach of prioritizing collective rights over the traditional Refugee Regime takes root. It is worth remembering that the traditional Refugee Regime was achieved through the creation of an independent international institution responsible for refugees' international protection. To quote Hyndman, "Responses to human displacement and assistance to Forced migration speak the language of humanism: the protection of rights for all people."[x] Without alternatives to the current resilience-based frame, there is a great risk that the precarious situation of the refugees will be reproduced and exacerbated. This would once again raise the issue of statelessness issue that the Refugee Regime was supposed to solve.
[i] 2020 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon.
[ii] Resilience and self-reliance from a protection and solutions perspective
[iv] UNHCR Refugee Education 2030 – A Strategy for Refugee Inclusion.
[v] As of December 2019, Lebanon hosts 620,706 refugee children and youth of all nationalities (i.e. Syrian, Iraqi, Somali, Sudanese, Eritrean, etc.) between the ages of 3 and 18, out of a total refugee population of 1,518,500. UNHCR registration figures, Lebanon Education Unit, 2021.
[vi] RACE II, June 2014, 5.
[vii] Goodwin-Gill. (2014) The International Law of Refugee Protection in The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199652433.013.0021.
[viii] Al Husseini (2005) Réfugiés 50 ans après : l’évolution de la représentation du réfugié palestinien dans le discours officiel de l’UNRWA. Stephanie Latte Abdallah. Images aux frontière : représentations et constructions sociales et politiques –Palestine, Jordanie 1948-2000, IFPO. 117.
[ix] UNHCR Lebanon Education Unit, 2021.
[x] Hyndman. (2000). Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism. University of Minnesota Press. 181-182.