Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Honest debate about Syrian refugees in Lebanon is vital

Recently at a conference in Beirut, discussion turned to the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. An audience member said that one had to consider their situation in light of what the Syrian regime had done to Lebanon. Reading this as a racist justification for the refugees’ ill-treatment, the chairman silenced the audience member.

Such a view is indeed disturbing when considering the near-biblical proportions of the refugees’ suffering, in Lebanon and elsewhere. And yet it is far more widespread than politically correct Lebanese care to admit. Sometimes it’s best to address controversial topics head on rather than sweep them under the rug.

It’s difficult to generalise when looking at how the Lebanese have dealt with Syrian refugees. The government has refused to build refugee camps, fearing that it would re-create the example of the Palestinians who fled to Lebanon in 1948. They never left, and over the decades became a destabilising presence, playing a key role in the Lebanese civil war.

The absence of refugee camps has both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, camps often become almost independent entities, controlled by political factions and criminal gangs, competing over a captive population. As such, they tend to be uncontrollable and lie outside the authority of the state. So avoiding camps can, to an extent, reduce such risks.

On the negative side, without camps it becomes more difficult for the host state to obtain funds to assist refugees. Because the refugees are scattered all over a country, foreign donors hesitate to give aid money to national and local governments, fearing corruption. Concerted aid programmes are also difficult to enact if refugees are not concentrated in specific locations.

Lebanon’s reluctance to organise for the arrival of refugees – over one million are in the country, registered and unregistered, equivalent to a quarter of the population – has not prevented many communities from welcoming them. There have been limited drives by associations and non-governmental organisations on behalf of the refugees, but history has intervened to prevent broader campaigns of solidarity.

There are Lebanese who will admit that the 29-year Syrian military presence in their country has shaped their perception of the refugees. This admission is based on the fact that Syrian political, military and intelligence officials were responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during their time in Lebanon – bombarding civilian areas and abducting men and imprisoning them in Syria, with many never returning – and plundered the nation’s coffers.

Lebanon under Syria became a protectorate and much more. Rare were the senior government, civil service, military and security appointments the Syrians did not have to approve, generating great bitterness in the country. Lebanese presidents, prime ministers and speakers of parliament were given very little latitude to behave independently, and the penalty if they tried could be severe.

In their collective memory, the Lebanese are equally wary of the Palestinian example. While, politically, there are many who sympathise profoundly with the Palestinian cause, just as there are many Lebanese politically aligned with the Syrian regime, there is a general acceptance that the Palestinian refugee experience harmed Lebanon – and there is anxiety that the Syrian refugee crisis will do the same.

Nor is this fear unfounded. Many of the Syrian refugees are Sunnis from areas considered strategically important by the Assad regime, such as Homs. The regime has no intention of allowing them back soon, even as statistics from other refugee crises suggest that, on average, it can take several years for refugees to return to their places of origin even after a conflict has ended.

It’s easy – and true – to say that the past should have nothing to do with the way in which Syrians are treated today in Lebanon. But unless the government addresses Lebanese resentment now, this may develop into something more dangerous later. Already there has been an increase in attacks against Syrians, in part because many groups, for different reasons, view them with hostility.

Many Shia worry that Syrians may act as a fifth column on behalf of the Syrian rebels, planting bombs in Shia neighbourhoods as payback for Hizbollah’s involvement in Syria’s war. Christians are worried that the demographic weight of the mostly Sunni Syrians is only further transforming them into a minority.

Lebanese labourers regard the Syrians, who accept far lower wages, as unfair competitors for limited jobs in an already troubled economy. And everyone is unhappy that the presence of a large refugee population is putting an intolerable burden on the inadequate national infrastructure, negatively affecting services for everyone.

But the Syrians are not about to depart, and more must be done by the state and NGOs to facilitate their presence in their surroundings. Efforts are already visible in some places, with NGOs organising forums for refugees to interact with local communities in order to lower potential tensions. But informal channels of mediation between locals and refugees are needed in other places.

The state may also consider setting up hotlines to allow Syrians to report abuse directed against them, and in that way ensure that Lebanese will not feel they have a licence to mistreat refugees. And much more can be done to highlight and address the plight of the Syrians, and make this known to a Lebanese public that is likely to be more generous once it truly realises the magnitude of their predicament.

The Lebanese are not inherently unwelcoming or racist, as some have claimed. But they have paid a heavy price for regional misfortunes. They must accept that the Syrian refugees had nothing to do with this, even as they are suffering and facing monumental challenges. Grasping this simple fact can only benefit civil peace in the future.

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