In Lebanon, talk of pushing Syrian refugees to go home isn’t new.

However, there are now growing concerns that that tone has now shifted even harder,  with a seemingly growing political consensus over the fate of refugees among Christian and Shia parties, a looming economic crisis and the formation earlier this year of a government that includes several pro-Assad politicians. One of them now stands at the head of a ministry originally established to assist Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s minister for refugee affairs, Saleh Gharib, recently proposed a so-called returns plan for Syrian refugees inside the country that will be submitted to the Lebanese cabinet “soon.”

And following meetings with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo late last month, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil—a long-time proponent of returns—called for the “safe and decent return of the Syrian displaced without having it as a voluntary return.”

“All in all, we did not talk about a forced and collective return,” he added. “But it is time for their return, and this is in the interest of Lebanon.”

Bassil has repeatedly called for returns of Syrians—often using the language of “safe,” rather than “voluntary,” returns.

According to Nasser Yassin, director of research at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut (AUB), it’s a false distinction increasingly used by Lebanese politicians to push for returns.

“That’s just a play on words,” he tells Syria Direct’s Tom Rollins. “Because if it’s safe, if [refugees] perceive that the return is safe and it’s safe back home, it means they’re voluntarily making the decision to return—simply. And this is a way to demystify this issue around safe and not voluntary [returns].”

Last April, the Lebanese government authorities began organizing returns to supposedly “safe areas” of Syria, in coordination with Syria’s security apparatus. Since then between 55,000 and 90,000 Syrians have crossed the border, according to Lebanese officials.

However, some quarters of the Lebanese political establishment are looking for ways to push more refugees to go back.

“We’re not seeing—yet—mass-scale campaigns for putting refugees on buses and putting them to the borders,” Yassin says. “But what we are seeing more and more are narratives, rhetoric and actions that are slowly moving in that direction.”

Q: Clearly, talk of returns from Lebanese officials is nothing new—President Michel Aoun, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and other prominent figures have been doing this for years. And the conversation in Lebanon concerning Syrian refugees is perhaps geared more than any other refugee-hosting country towards encouraging returns.

At the same time, it seems like Lebanese policymakers have been escalating their rhetoric in recent weeks. Is that fair?

I think the rhetoric, that it’s ‘time for the Syrians to go back,’ is definitely on the rise.

If you look at all the speeches of President Aoun and Minister Bassil from the last couple of years—but particularly since last year and also this year—they’ve been stressing that return is the way forward.

And it’s always the issue of safe return, never voluntary return.

I’m just paraphrasing what they say: ‘It’s time for them to go. We’ve exhausted our resources in Lebanon, we cannot take on the burden of refugees. And it’s safe [for them] back home.’

Definitely, Aoun and Bassil have been trying to link [Lebanon’s] economic crisis with the Syrian refugee crisis, which is definitely not the case. The crisis in Lebanon has been endemic since the Nineties. So these attempts to link the current economic malaise in Lebanon with the Syrian refugee crisis is populist, to say the least.

And I think [this kind of rhetoric] is on the rise. Now, the new minister for displaced affairs, Saleh Gharib, is actually continuing that same narrative by stressing that, ‘It’s time for them to leave, return should take place,’ and so on.

We’re not seeing—yet—mass-scale campaigns for putting refugees on buses and putting them to the borders. I don’t actually think we’ll see this. But we are seeing more and more are narratives, rhetoric and actions that are slowly moving in that direction to make the solution an acceptable one.

Q: Syrian refugees are already being bussed from Lebanon back into Syria through organized returns even as UNHCR, NGOs  question just how voluntary those returns are.

But given this escalating rhetoric, how is the Lebanese government already trying to coerce refugees into going back across the border?

What we’re seeing are more and more restrictions on Syrian refugees in Lebanon—restrictions to start or have their own businesses; restrictions to work. [And] we’ve definitely been seeing all the restrictions around residency papers as well.

It’s blamed on the bureaucracy and lack of resources, or that refugees aren’t aware of how to actually do the residency papers. But, in my view, it’s deliberately left in this complex bureaucratic way in order to maintain a sense of control over the refugees.

In a way, it’s applying the concept of governmentality in reverse. So rather than actually knowing where [refugees] are, and documenting them and giving them their papers and so on, I think there’s an intention by the government...to maintain a lack of registration and a lack of proper residency documentation in order to actually maintain some kind of control—by the police, the security and intelligence.

Refugees without papers will always think twice before moving around. And to add to that, they will be exploited, or at risk of exploitation, by employers, landlords and so on.

So [restrictions] are building up.

Q: Established in late 2016, Lebanon’s Ministry of Displaced Affairs was originally designed to build a national policy for refugee and host communities. However, with the formation of a new government earlier this year and Saleh Gharib’s appointment as minister—as someone with very close ties to Damascusthat ministry appears to be focusing on advocating for returns, voluntary or otherwise.

Is this a new phenomenon, that the Ministry of Displaced Affairs is actively engaging in the same pro-return narrative as people like Bassil?

Yes, there has been a shift in the way the Ministry of Displaced Affairs is positioning itself.

The first minister, [Mouin] Merehbi, was against normalization with the Syrian government. He was anti-Syrian regime, [and] not in favor of rushed returns.

[Ed.: Merehbi is a member of the Future Movement, the Sunni party headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.]

The current minister is from the other end of the political spectrum in Lebanon, and his first official appearance was in Syria—that says a lot. That was his first official appearance, to show up meeting the minister of local administration in Damascus.

And he seems to position himself as minister whose ministry is going to actually just facilitate returns.

So definitely, there’s been a major shift in how this ministry is being run at the moment.

In the end, ministers change, they have different styles. But policies shouldn’t.

We should have a clear policy from the Cabinet of Ministers on this issue, and the [Cabinet] is actually mandated to formulate the policies that ministers implement.

I don’t think we are in a position where we have a clear policy on the issue of returns. And it’s actually left to ministers—depending on their political party, their political alliances—to make that rhetoric on the issue.

Eight, nine years into the Syrian crisis and we still lack a proper position on the issue of refugees in general and, particularly now, on return.

Q: Gharib has been talking recently about a returns plan that he’ll be submitting to the Cabinet “soon,” according to recent reports. Do you have any sense what that plan might look like, what it might contain?

I really don’t know what that proposal will include.

For any return, if some people in the government of Lebanon say that we need to go with safe and not voluntary [returns], that’s just a play on words.

Because if it’s safe, if people perceive that the return is safe and it’s safe back home, it means they’re voluntarily making the decision to return—simply.

And this is a way to demystify this issue around safe and not voluntary [returns]. These things need to go together.

Q: And yet Lebanese officials routinely talk about these ‘safe areas’ or ‘safe zones’ inside Syria that refugees can—and should—go back to.

There is the question of whether conditions in Syria now are even favorable for return.

At the moment, I think some commentators forget that Syria is going through an economic crisis as a repercussion of the war as well as the security concerns [about] how security officials, the government and the mukhabarat [intelligence services] might be dealing with returnees.

We hear anecdotes that people are being interrogated, some people are taken into prison, others are taken into military service—these are all serious, valid concerns for anyone thinking about return.

So if you’re actually claiming that you respect the fact that a return has to be safe—and of course, voluntary—then these concerns have to be taken into consideration.

The other thing is actually the economic situation in Syria. The Syrian pound has dropped, I think, 10 times; there’s a lack of real work opportunities in Syria outside the war economy. And people are questioning if they can make it back home with this fluctuation in prices, the drop of the currency and lack of services including basic, essential utilities.

Security, the economy, services, destruction of housing—all of these [factors] make a return to Syria not yet favorable.

Q: There’s massive pressure coming from Syria, Russia, neighboring refugee-hosting countries and increasingly Europe, as well, regarding returns.

Last month, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi visited Syria to discuss refugee returns with Syrian officials, and UNHCR spokespeople broadcast video messages from the bombed-out remains of Syrian cities, basically acknowledging that returns are happening and that UNHCR would support returnees. This is a shift in their longstanding policy, not to publicly discuss returns.

What impact has all this growing pressure had on UNHCR’s policy on returns to Syria?

I think UNHCR is definitely more open to the issue of return, and this reflects a change in their positioning. Initially, a couple of years ago, they were not even mentioning return, it wasn’t part of any discussion—at least publicly.

But with the pressure from host governments, including Lebanon, and the Russian initiative from last year, all of these have kind of pushed UNHCR to deal with the issue.

[Ed.: In July last year, Russian officials proposed an initiative to organize the return of Syrian refugees from neighboring countries, including Lebanon, through the establishment of return centers. Saleh Gharib’s predecessor in the Ministry of Displaced Affairs, Merehbi, dismissed the proposals as a “dream” rather than a “real initiative.”]

They [now] want to engage with the Syrian government, and I think there has been more and more discussion with the Syrian authorities. That’s a change in their position.

But these things happen with UNHCR. They move according to how dynamics change on the ground as related to the war, to how host countries perceive their roles, etc.

At some point, they will become in favor, when conditions allow for that. This is in the life cycle of any refugee crisis—and maybe later they will actually be facilitating returns, when things are much clearer about the situation in Syria.