Strategic aid: How the EU-Lebanon migration deal can work

To effectively deter migration to Europe, the EU’s €1 billion aid package to Lebanon must require that Beirut address its deep political and economic troubles

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati meets with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the Government Palace in Beirut, Lebanon, May 2, 2024
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Hussein Malla

On 2 May European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced a €1 billion aid package for Lebanon, amid a surge of Syrian refugees arriving in Cyprus from the country. The deal is based on the model set out in the recent deals with Tunisia and Egypt, whereby these countries halt arrivals of irregular migrants into Europe in exchange for financial support and enhanced border management cooperation.

An EU support deal with Lebanon is badly needed. The country hosts the largest number of refugees in the world per capita, yet received only 27 per cent of global funding for its Syrian refugee response last year. But trying to replicate these deals in Lebanon risks backfiring. To fulfil its migration imperatives in these agreements, the EU sacrificed pushing for badly needed economic and structural reforms. In Lebanon, any deal that avoids tackling the country’s deep problems will fail to stabilise the country and will not address the reasons that push people towards Europe, whether Syrians in Lebanon or Lebanese, likely resulting in even more departures.

Beyond assistance

When implementing the deal the EU should:

  • Set conditions to secure urgently needed reforms that address the country’s dire financial situation and deep-rooted corruption. Europeans should make clear that their support is also about helping the Lebanese address current grievances in the name of a shared interest in stability. As part of this effort, the EU should increase funding directly to local (including refugee-led) organisations, besides international NGOs and the United Nations, rather than channelling it through the corrupt government.
  • Avoid providing any assistance that makes the EU complicit in forced refugee returns to Syria. Forced deportations of Syrians by Lebanese security services increased in 2023 and are a direct cause of a surge in arrivals into Cyprus and into Europe overall. Many Syrians who have returned (or have been deported) to Syria are killed or abused by Syrian authorities, pushing more Syrians in Lebanon to try and leave for Europe instead. Rather, the EU should use the new funding as leverage to enlist the political buy-in of the Lebanese government to ensure it avoids prematurely and forcibly returning Syrians back home.
  • Firmly tie financial support to progress in issuing more legal residencies for Syrians in Lebanon, which is key to make their presence in Lebanon sustainable. Currently, given existing difficulties in attaining them, 80 per cent of Syrians lack such documentation. To address Beirut’s concerns around a permanent Syrian refugee presence which could tip the country’s fragile political balance, the EU could call for these permits to be temporary and subject to regular review based on the situation inside Syria (which should be independently monitored).

Holding the political line

Growing domestic political pressure in some EU member states to address growing migration numbers have triggered an emerging trend of European governments arguing that Syrians should be deported to “safe areas” in the country, despite reports that it remains unsafe. The EU should do all it can to resist these trends and maintain the line that Syria is not safe in its statement at this year’s conference to support Syria. Failure to do so will likely result in a spike in forced and premature returns, and ultimately in more attempts to irregularly reach Europe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Programme Manager, Middle East and North Africa

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