Thursday, October 3, 2013

Lebanon’s refugee problem from hell

President Michel Sleiman has recently placed the fate of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon at the top of his list of priorities when meeting with foreign officials. This comes after a meeting in September that brought together the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the governments of Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. At the meeting, they promised to work together to expand international assistance to the region as it struggles with the ongoing influx of refugees.

Lebanon, which hosts more than 1 million refugees, between those officially registered and those who are not, is especially vulnerable. Some 20 percent of the total population in the country is now made up of Syrians, many of them poor and competing for low-paying jobs and resources at a time of severe economic crisis.

At a meeting in Geneva earlier this week, participants, including Syria’s neighbors, the United States and European states, appeared to shift the focus of refugee assistance from emergency aid to what the head of the UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, described as a more comprehensive and longer-term social and economic intervention.

“Everything is being put in place for effective development-related programs,” Guterres said, adding that the next step would be presenting appeals to finance the programs. The shift in the nature of assistance stems from a realization that the Syrian refugee problem will not soon end. Regardless of Guterres’ optimism about the Geneva gathering, it will resolve none of Lebanon’s immediate problems.

The caretaker social affairs minister, Wael Abu Faour, suggested as much Tuesday, when he complained that the international community had done little to alleviate Lebanon’s refugee problem. He was angry that countries were not providing direct assistance to the state and suggested that Hezbollah’s participation in the government was an obstacle. “Continuing to block international support to the Lebanese government and the local Lebanese communities under the pretext of discouraging past experiences is not valid,” he said in Geneva.

Abu Faour is right that not enough outside assistance has come through, but he failed to mention that the nature of the refugee problem in Lebanon, the fact that refugees are not housed in camps, has made international donors resistant to feeding money into a country where no mechanisms of oversight are in place. There are many downsides to refugee camps, but they do allow for a more coordinated and transparent method of distributing aid, as compared to simply pouring money into the black hole of a corrupt Lebanese state in which there is no accountability.

Sleiman’s recent proposal that Syrian refugees be placed in “safe zones” inside Syria territory showed the president’s legitimate worries of the long-term implications of their presence in Lebanon. Though his proposal is unrealistic without assurances that the safe zones can be protected, a condition that would require international guarantees, the president was really saying something else: Lebanon’s stability is threatened by the possibility of a permanent settlement of the refugees, and the president underscored this when he said the crisis was beginning to take on an “existential” dimension.

But the Syrians are not Palestinians, some may protest, and will eventually go home. Perhaps, but the bulk of the refugees in Lebanon have come from the areas of Homs and Damascus, which are of strategic importance to the Syrian regime. Homs is a vital link between Alawite areas along the Syrian coast and Shiite districts in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. If any settlement consolidates the existence of religious or ethnic enclaves, the refugees, most of whom are Sunni, may not have a place to which to return, or may not be allowed to return.

No one likes to use terms such as ethnic cleansing when it comes to Syria. On both sides of the political divide there, the narrative is bathed in nationalistic language. And yet the impetus for carving out and protecting sectarian enclaves is high in a war that has taken on a religious-communal coloring, much as the war in the former Yugoslavia did during the 1990s. Sleiman is right to be concerned about this, and it’s time for the international community to do the same.

One of the ironies of Lebanon’s situation is that any decision by the Syrian regime to prevent the return of Sunni refugees to areas of strategic importance may harm its allies in Lebanon. A significant de facto enlargement of the Sunni population in Lebanon, thanks to the refugees, would only threaten Hezbollah and Shiite interests. If this were to become a long-term phenomenon, the negative repercussions for Shiites could be multiplied not only demographically but also economically and geographically. That is why everyone in Lebanon has a stake in a resolution of the Syrian conflict that is fair, comprehensive and does not congeal wartime facts on the ground.

Syrian villages have been destroyed, Syria’s infrastructure is in a shambles, and its economic situation is catastrophic. All these factors are obstacles to a return of the refugees. The international community knows this, which is why it is looking for solutions that can alleviate refugee hardship into the medium term. But the challenge will be avoiding new forms of dependency that only end up imposing on Lebanon another refugee crisis that may take decades to resolve, and that may carry the country into new cycles of infernal conflict.

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