On the return of Syrian refugees: AUB researchers discuss its complexity and share realistic policy recommendations

Sally Abou Melhem, sa256@aub.edu.lb, ​Office of Communications

The issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon grows more complex with each passing year: from the increasing complaints about the massive numbers of refugees, to the division among Lebanese politicians about what is actually going on in Syria.  Researchers at AUB's Department of Political Studies and Public Administration, Dr. Carmen Geha and Joumana Talhouk, grew interested in this topic because of the scarcity of content that addresses the political dimensions of this crisis. 

From research to dialogue
Geha and Talhouk point out that most existing research is normative and concerned with policies that cannot be implemented without a political decision, and that while everyone is talking about Syrian refugees, nobody is talking about how Lebanese politics impact their everyday lives. “We decided to tackle this aspect of the refugee crisis and start engaging with politicians through our research in order to understand the political dynamics behind handling the crisis and what can be done to avoid further tensions and suffering,” they say in a conversation about their ongoing work on policy recommendations that they hope can be implemented in the Lebanese political context.

The researchers argue that the return of refugees is complicated because of the challenging conditions in Lebanon as well as the potentially life threatening situation back in Syria, and that the crisis of trying to return Syrians cannot be addressed without understanding its political roots. To do that, they wrote a political brief based on their research that represents a roadmap of the different stances on this issue. “Too often scientists and scholars forget to engage with the contextual political situation and most of research falls on deaf ears. We wanted to try something different and to open up a conversation about politics and with politicians,” they explain.



The challenges
When talking about challenges they faced while working on their research and brief, Geha and Talhouk said that their biggest challenge was getting political actors from across the spectrum to agree to speak with them. “As a project approved by the Institutional Research Board (IRB), we had to stick to all the ethical and legal guidelines, but those were sometimes constraining. For example, we interviewed a ‘big shot’ in the political sphere and we wanted to show that we had spoken to him to encourage others to meet with us as well, but we could not reveal his/her name and jeopardize anonymity as per the IRB guidelines. This was difficult to explain to research participants who were curious about other interviewees.” To deal with this challenge, the researchers shared with participants that they are trying to interview everyone, and that they have spoken to people “high up” in some political parties, and that sometimes did the trick and encouraged people from other parties or ministries to speak with them. 

They add that another challenge was that several interviewees who were men gave the impression that they were not used to discussing politics with women, especially young ones. “This meant that often many interviews started with a little speech explaining to us basics about the Lebanese situation and the war in Syria. We learnt to nod and smile a lot,” Geha and Talhouk commented.

When research impacts the researcher
In spite of all the challenges they faced, Geha and Talhouk admit that taking the research into the world and attempting to make a change based on it has definitely affected their perspective as researchers. “Researching political issues means we need to know a lot about security, economics, culture, but also about the mindset of people making political decisions that affect all our lives. This tendency to be well prepared and well-read goes a long way in convincing others that we are credible and serious about this dialogue. Framing research projects as a dialogue helps people open up and want to take part in such work.” They continue, “What changed about our perspective is really this imminent need for a dialogue on politics and Syrian refugees. As soon as we established rapport and showed that we were serious about this dialogue, many people opened up.” 

They add that academic research that has political and policy implications needs to be more present in public life. “What we learnt from this project is that creating a dialogue with a broader audience beyond academia requires planning. We need to start planning for dialogue as part of the research project’s life-cycle. Taking findings to the public sphere and engaging politicians in the process is as important as collecting data and publishing in academic journals, especially if the topic of research is about people’s lives and well-being.”

A word of caution 
Geha and Talhouk speak further about the dialogue and the impact they hope to achieve saying, “There are many voices working on the Syrian refugee issue and we are hoping to be part of a broader conversation that focuses on politics. With luck, this will be the start of this conversation and not the end. The only impact we could hope for is that we could be sending out a word of caution. Sending Syrians back without guarantees of safety and security should weigh on our conscience as humans.”

The researchers express their hope to continue monitoring the situation of the return of Syrian refugees. “We will use all our research efforts to caution against any return that is not voluntary, dignified, and sustainable.” They add, “Soon, we are starting a project that focuses on Syrian school children and the politics of civic education for refugees. Syrian children in Lebanon should not become a lost generation. We really want to caution against the policy of making life so difficult that families would prefer to return to war-torn Syria.”