Covid-19 stopped the motion of many around the world. A drastic decline in airline passengers grounded planes. Cars used for commuting to work sat parked with nearly full gas tanks. Demand for public transit plummeted. But for some of the one and a half million Syrians living in Lebanon, the pandemic’s exacerbation of an already dire and desperate situation has encouraged movement. Covid-19 struck at a time when Syrians’ insecure livelihoods had been rendered even more precarious by Lebanon’s deepening financial collapse and political instability, a crisis signified by the horror of the 4 August 2020 Beirut port explosion that left hundreds dead, many thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands homeless. In response to these compounding pressures over the last year, many Syrians have acted by trying to leave Lebanon and return to Syria. Majdi, a 30-year-old from Suweida who has been working in a Beirut restaurant describes how “at this point I am borrowing money to feed myself in Lebanon and I’m paying rent. If I go back to Syria, I will still be borrowing money, but at least I won’t have to pay rent.”
The mobilities of these Syrians, including both migrant laborers who have not filed for refugee status and UN-registered refugees and like Hossam, constitute a second stage of involuntary migration. Displaced to Lebanon by both the brutality and devastation of war and the need to find work, their return to Syria over the past year has been forced by conditions of despair and rising tides of hostility and violence toward Syrians. This return migration has been fraught, however, with challenges.
Syrians returning through official borders have also been banned from re-entering Lebanon due to their expired Lebanon residency permits. And for Syrians registered as refugees, leaving Lebanon and entering Syria at official border crossings carries enormously high stakes. As stipulated by UNHCR, returning to one’s country of origin could lead to the cessation of refugee status. For, returning to the country of your nationality may indicate a “voluntary re-availment of national protection” such that a person demonstrates that they are no longer in need of international protection. This has left many with no choice but to avoid traveling via official borders, where regularized exits and entries are monitored, and enter Syria unofficially by foot in remote, hard to reach and insecure areas. This is dangerous travel due to the presence of militias in out-of-the-way areas, the physical toll of walking for very long distances, harsh weather conditions particularly during the winter, and the threat of violence from smugglers. In March, four Syrians trying to make it into Syria, including two children, were found dead in the mountains of eastern Lebanon. These risks have led some, like Hossam a 45-year old from the Damascus suburbs, to decide to send his wife and children through the official border using fake identification – so that their departure will not be recorded – and cross illegally on his own.
The peril faced by Syrians seeking to return to Syria through unofficial crossings draws our attention to a broader problematic of a global refugee system developed in the aftermath of World War II. The contemporary context of globalization, as Betts and Collier point out, requires a global refugee regime that can manage migration since “refugees have good reasons to move independently of the fact that they are refugees.”
Returning to Syria in the wake of Covid-19 through these unofficial and dangerous border crossings was also encouraged by the Syrian government’s issuance, in July 2020, of a policy that each Syrian national exchange USD $100 for Syrian pounds at the official rate – one quarter of the black market currency transfer rate in Lebanon – upon entering the country. In a move to help the government amass hard currency amid an unprecedented financial crisis of its own and the U.S.’s Caesar Act sanctions that went into effect in June 2020, the Syrian regime established yet another obstacle for Syrians wishing to return. Bassam, a 42-year old from Deraa who has been working in a café in Beirut for the last 7 years has considered returning to Syria but described how when he found out that the $100 fee was per person and not per family he realized he would never earn enough to pay for his family to cross the border: “even if I worked day and night, with the inflation of the Lebanese lira I wouldn’t be able to make $1 per day.”
For military-age males – officially those between the ages of 18 and 42 — crossing at the official border involves the threat of forced conscription. The land borders as well as the Damascus airport are well known, as described to me by Syrian men working in Qatar during my fieldwork, as sites of conscription. At these checkpoints, officers have access to the udrub fiche—the computerized registry that holds information about one’s military status. There was a consensus among the men I conducted research with that, while the soldiers who staff roadside checkpoints might be bribed not to check the database or to ignore the information it contains, those working at the land borders and airport entry desks are higher rank and their authority and status makes them less amenable to bribes.
March 2021 marked two grim anniversaries: one year from the start of the global pandemic and ten years from the outbreak of Syria’s long war. Some Syrians in Lebanon, experiencing profound vulnerabilities, have sought a way forward and a way out through return to Syria. This is another involuntary migration that, due to the multiple barriers to official crossings, has forced Syrians to return unofficially and maintain invisibility from both the Lebanese and Syrian states as well as the international institutions governing refugees. In these invisible movements, we see the multiplication of crises and the conditions of despair and displacement they have produced. As Bassam tells it, “Now, we ask even more than before, why does God hate Syrians?”
The views expressed in the Near East Policy Forum are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Near East Policy Forum or any of its partner organisations.