If You’re a Refugee Dreaming of America, Don’t Come to Lebanon

This tiny country already hosts more than 1 million Syrians — and the U.S. resettlement process for them is completely broken.


BEIRUT — As U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for the banning of all Muslims from the United States and many of his Republican rivals have endorsed a ban on admitting Syrian refugees, there’s one country where refugees of all religions have effectively been barred from reaching American soil.

The resettlement process in Lebanon, which is home to more than 1 million Syrians fleeing violence and is the country with far and away the largest number of refugees per capita on the planet, is broken in two important ways. First, the U.S. Embassy here is undergoing renovations, which has meant that immigration officers have not had a place to stay on the compound. As a result, they have stopped coming to Lebanon to conduct interviews with refugees, thereby bringing the process to a halt. Secondly, the Lebanese government has ordered the United Nations to stop registering Syrian refugees, which prevents it from referring new arrivals to the United States for potential resettlement.

Lebanon is currently home to roughly 1.1 million Syrian refugees. With only about 4.5 million citizens, there were roughly 23 refugees for every 100 citizens of this small country in 2014. Unlike Turkey or Jordan, which also host huge numbers of Syrians, Lebanon has also refused to construct formal refugee camps, hampering efforts to properly house the new arrivals or provide them with humanitarian aid.

Syrian refugees must pass through an intensive, 20-step process to be resettled in the United States. With the U.S. Embassy unable to house visiting immigration officers — the U.S. government having made the determination that there is nowhere else in the country safe enough for them to stay — this process in Lebanon is currently stalled. Security considerations have long been paramount for U.S. diplomatic personnel in Lebanon: In April 1983, 63 people, including 17 Americans, were killed when militants targeted the U.S. Embassy in Beirut with a suicide car bombing; six months later, Islamist radicals bombed the Marine barracks near the airport, killing 241 American servicemen.

“Due to resource and space constraints, the United States has not been able to conduct refugee admission interviews at U.S. Embassy Beirut since August 2014,” Alan Holst, a public affairs officer at the embassy, wrote in an email. “[The Department of Homeland Security] last conducted refugee interviews in Beirut for some urgent cases in March 2015. We are close to resolving those resource and space constraints, are accepting new referrals and preparing new cases, and are hopeful that interviews can resume in early 2016.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services regulations, Holst wrote, require that resettlement applicants “appear in person before an immigration officer,” prohibiting interviews from being conducted electronically.

Not all refugee advocates, however, are convinced by that explanation. Betsy Fisher, the deputy policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, suggested that resettlement applicants could be allowed to come to the embassy to talk with immigration officers via videoconference. “We’re confident that, first of all, this regulation could be changed, but secondly, that this regulation could be interpreted to allow refugees in Lebanon to proceed through without a delay caused by limited space in the embassy,” she said.

If the renovation of the U.S. Embassy proceeds on schedule, it will be only several months before immigration officers can once again return to Lebanon. When that happens, however, they will still be unable to consider the cases of new Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon, who are unable to register with the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and thus complete the first step in the process of applying for resettlement.

The Lebanese government ordered the United Nations to stop registering new Syrian refugees in May, as part of a broader effort to restrict Syrians from entering the country. The U.N. does not have any estimates of how many Syrians have entered Lebanon since the ban went into place, meaning that it is slowly losing its sense of the scope of the refugee crisis in the country as the months pass.

Lebanon’s registration ban prevents UNHCR from directing help to some of the most vulnerable refugees, said Fisher. This initial registration is when the United Nations identifies the most at-risk refugees, such as young, single women; gay or lesbian refugees; or those with urgent medical needs. “Without the opportunity to have initial contact with refugees, it is very difficult for UNHCR to find the newer arrivals who need help the most urgently,” Fisher said.

UNHCR has “expressed its utmost concerns regarding the potential consequences of not registering these persons” in its discussions with Lebanese officials, said Dana Sleiman, a spokeswoman for the agency. The ban, she explained, does not prevent previously registered refugees from applying for resettlement in the United States once the embassy removes the obstacles on its end — but those refugees who are unable to register cannot begin the process.

Once the resettlement process does restart at the U.S. Embassy, Fisher said, the initial focus will likely be on interviewing applicants already referred to the United States, rather than taking on new referrals. The long suspension has created a glut of applicants who haven’t been able to move forward with their cases in over a year. “Already registered refugees, if they’re not already referred to the U.S., probably will still be routed to Europe, Canada, [or] Australia,” Fisher said.

Germany has pledged to resettle 38,500 Syrian refugees from across the region, and Britain promised to take 20,000 Syrians by 2020; together, these two countries make up the vast majority of the pledges offered by European countries. Canada’s new government, meanwhile, has pledged to resettle 25,000 more Syrian refugees by the end of February.

U.S. diplomats, meanwhile, are still processing resettlement applicants in Istanbul and Amman, Jordan, and have plans to begin the process in the Iraqi city of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. But Syrians fleeing their country today who dream of making it to the United States would do well to avoid Lebanon.

Photo credit: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Dec. 8, 2015: Betsy Fisher is with the International Refugee Assistance Project; an earlier version of this article referred to the organization by its former name, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.