In our first year of law school, we are taught that legal reasoning leads to immutable truths. The standard approach to analyzing a problem is known by the acronym IRAC, or Issue; Rule; Application; Conclusion. We present the issue; we state the rule; we apply the rule to the issue; and we arrive at a clear cut, legally correct solution.
The Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon defies this formula.
First, the issue: an intractable six year old conflict in Syria between an autocrat who has committed war crimes - thus far with impunity - and multiple poorly organized, sometimes extremist opposition factions. A conflict that has led to Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people smaller than Connecticut, to be flooded with 1.1 million Syrian refugees, refugees from a country that, from 1976 to 2005, effectively occupied the country and controlled Lebanon’s national government.
Like all refugees, those in Lebanon need food; clothing; housing; shelter; access to health care; and education for their school-age children.
Thinking like a lawyer, you would assume that a rule exists to apply to this issue, complicated as it is. A rule that holds Lebanon to specified standards regarding the rights and entitlements of refugees who have come into the country seeking safety.
So first, of course, you would look to the most significant international law regarding refugees, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees Convention, which entered into force in 1951 and has 145 country signatories.
But on closer examination, you would see that Lebanon is not one of those signatories. And perhaps not unreasonably: a tiny country at the epicenter of a conflict zone that is also host to 450,000 Palestinian refugees, who first arrived in Lebanon in 1948 and show no signs of returning to Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza. Because it has not signed the Refugee Convention, Lebanon has no legal obligation to abide by its standards of refugee care. Indeed, according to the technical legal definition, the Syrians in Lebanon are not even refugees, but merely displaced persons.
So like any good lawyer, you’d search for an alternative rule to hold Lebanon accountable. And you’d arrive at what is not exactly a rule, but a set of standards – the SPHERE standards for humanitarian crises, adopted in 1997 by hundreds of humanitarian organizations, NGOs, and governments. If there is no binding international law, per se, then surely Lebanon can be persuaded to implement the SPHERE standards as a matter of social responsibility and best practices.
In seeking to apply these rules or standards to the issue at hand, you would travel to Lebanon, and size up the situation for yourself.
There, in in the land of the cedars, you would see Syrian children working in the fields and hear the landowners’ assurance that it was their parents who wanted them to work. You would sit in a tent with nine Syrian school aged siblings who were not in school, a seemingly temporary shelter they told you they had lived in, along with their mother and grandmother, for six long years.
You would learn about the initiative of the Lebanese Ministry of Education to standardize the education of all children in Lebanon, regardless of nationality, and its policy that schools remain open in multiple shifts so that they can accommodate all children - but you would also hear from Syrian refugee parents that the standard of instruction in the afternoon shift, which Syrian children attended, was inferior to that of the morning shift, which Lebanese children attended. You would hear a Syrian father complain that he had been trying for six months to enroll his two children in school, but you would also hear that the town’s population of 5000 had swelled to 35000 since the start of the war in Syria.
You would ask healthcare providers, NGO workers, teacher, politicians, and refugees themselves what they predicted would happen in Syria. Every time, the response was a shrug and a “no idea.”
Finally, when you had begun to despair of finding a rule that applied to the issue and that led to a just conclusion, you would meet Omar and Walid. Walid, who greeted you as you drove up to a half demolished building at the epicenter of three Syrian sectarian neighborhoods in a periurban slum in the north of Lebanon, then proudly escorted you to the office of Basmeh & Zeitooneh, the community-based NGO whose work in the north of Lebanon is managed by Omar. An NGO that includes peacebuilding and computer coding in its refugee services, with a comprehensive program to build capacity in the communities it serves. Omar told us that the night after Basmeh & Zeitooneh moved into the half demolished building, Walid and his gang broke all the windows. Today, they’re ambassadors for the organization.
You asked Walid and his buddies what they learned at Basmeh & Zeitooneh. Their response was immediate: “respect your elders; don’t judge; and be kind.”
At that moment, you realized that the rule was staring you in the face.
The rule wasn’t a national law or treaty, it was a commitment – by one community-based organization in one slum in Lebanon – to embrace the Syrian refugees. To provide them with opportunities notwithstanding official limitations on their access to work and education.
The conclusion is exemplified by Walid. Walid is about 13 years old. He’s not in school, and he might never be. But in Lebanon, far from home, he has a community, a mentor, and a place that builds his capacity and human capital.
Not every problem lends itself to an obvious legal solution. Sometimes, the best response to a problem is found at the community or even the individual level. At the grassroots of a society. In personal commitments, and in personal relationships.
This is the strategy most likely to succeed in Lebanon. Because Lebanon isn’t going to sign the refugee convention anytime soon, and Walid and his friends won’t be able to return home to Syria anytime soon. In the meantime, they need a community. And when you realize that, you’re not only a lawyer, you’re a global citizen.
Author’s Note: This article was adapted from remarks given to the Northwestern Public Health Symposium, “Through the Eyes of Refugee Migration,” on April 19, 2017.