Photo: Christian Boe Astrup/UiO

Maja Janmyr has been awarded the Chr. Michelsens prize for outstanding development research («Chr. Michelsens pris for fremragende utviklingsforskning») for 2018 for her article No Country of Asylum: ‘Legitimizing’ Lebanon’s Rejection of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was published in the  International Journal of Refugee Law (2017). In this article, she examines Lebanon’s approach to the UN Refugee Convention.

Lebanon has welcomed 1.5 million Syrians who have fled from war, but does not want to be ‘a country of asylum’. This makes life difficult for the refugees who have made the country their home. In an award-winning article, Maja Janmyr explains Lebanon’s paradoxical approach to refugee politics and law. 

Living in a limbo
Lebanon is internationally known for its generous and welcoming attitude towards people fleeing from war and conflict in neighbouring countries, but consistently refuses to ratify the UN Refugee Convention.

Lebanese authorities claim that they in practice already adhere to the Convention’s principles, and that ratifying it or not will not make any difference. But for the refugees in question the consequences of living in a country that has not ratified the convention are palpable.

-Because of the decision not to ratify the refugee convention, Lebanon lacks a consistent legal framework and judicial clarity concerning refugee status, says Maja Janmyr, professor at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights at the University of Oslo.

The uncertainties this causes for refugees is particularly visible when it comes to the Syrians that have fled to the country. The most important question is whether they are registered as refugees or not.

-Syrians are increasingly being re-categorised from refugees to labour migrants, not the least following the Lebanese government’s suspension of new refugee registrations in 2015. Being registered as a refugee with UNHCR generally provides increased protection, and this is not available for those merely seen as migrants. In contrast with registered refugees, and in order to secure residency, these migrants are forced to secure a Lebanese national as a sponsor. This is a difficult and costly process. That said, most Syrians in Lebanon -whether officially considered to be refugees or not - struggle to maintain legal residency in the country, says Janmyr.

Researching the effects of Lebanon’s reluctance
The war in Syria does not seem to come any closer to an end. Neither do discussions about the Syrian refugees’ rights. This is a recurring debate in which the actors tend to conclude that Lebanon should not change its approach.

-The standard reply is that ‘Lebanon already voluntarily adheres to the Refugee Convention’. The slightly more complicated reply is that they do, but only to a certain degree, says Janmyr.

No matter what Lebanon decides to do or not though, the country is still not free to do whatever it would like.

- Each state is allowed to decide which treaties it wishes to ratify, but a number of important refugee law principles are binding on all states irrespective of which treaties they have signed. This means that Lebanon is as such obliged to follow the key principle concerning non-refoulement. In addition, Lebanon has ratified a number of human rights treaties and these may offer important protection also for refugees, says Janmyr. 

In her article No country of asylum: ‘Legitimizing’ Lebanon’s rejection of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Janmyr pinpoints the reasons for Lebanon’s reluctance to sign the Refugee Convention; some are pragmatic, some based on misunderstandings of what the Convention actually says.

-For example, there is a widespread belief that by ratifying the Convention, Lebanon will be required to give the refugees the right to permanent settlement, says Janmyr.

She also stresses that the responsibility-shift for refugees from nation states to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has made Lebanon less inclined to sign any international agreements.

Janmyr plans to do more research on the consequences that Lebanon’s approach to refugee law have for the people who have made Lebanon their ‘country of asylum’.

-There have been many studies on the effects of benefits of ratification of international agreements when it comes to human rights matters, but studies of the effects on refugee law are scarce, she says.

Maja Janmyr is a professor in international migration law at the Norwegian Center for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo. Her research has focussed on the Middle East and refugees. Janmyr holds a PhD in International Law from the University of Bergen, and is an affiliated scholar at the American University of Beirut. Janmyr is also a member of the Young Academy of Norway (Akademiet for yngre forskere) and serves on the Steering Committee of the Center for Law and Social Transformation, located in Bergen. She has previously been a member of the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights’ Prize Committee. Janmyr received the Meltzer Young Researcher Award in 2014 for outstanding scientific achievements for her book Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unwilling and Unable States, UNHCR and International Responsibility (2014).