Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Lebanon pays a heavy price for the continuing Syrian crisis

With Syrian refugees in Lebanon estimated at around 1.1 million, if not higher, there is growing fear among Lebanese that their country will pay a long-term price for this presence, similar to the one Lebanon paid for the Palestinian refugees who arrived after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

The problems are two-fold: how to address the short-term needs of the refugees and how to regulate their presence until they can return to Syria, if they return. On the first, international aid to Lebanon has been woefully inadequate, given that the refugee population is now equivalent to 20 per cent of Lebanon’s entire population.

The United Nations asked for $1.89 billion for the refugees in 2014, but only around 22 per cent of that sum has been paid. The refugee presence has put further pressure on Lebanon’s already highly inadequate infrastructure: electricity rationing has increased dramatically this summer, while Lebanon is suffering from a serious water crisis exacerbated by a dry winter.

Moreover, the World Bank has estimated that the Syrian conflict cost Lebanon $2.5 billion in lost economic activity in 2013 alone. A downwards trend has been recorded since the Syrian conflict started in 2011. With Lebanon’s national debt rising, and the debt to GDP ratio at well over 150 per cent, there are genuine worries about national bankruptcy.

Even more disturbing are the lasting dangers of the refugee presence and the demographic imbalance this may create in Lebanon. A majority of the refugees are Sunnis who oppose president Bashar Al Assad and come from regions the regime is not eager to repopulate while the conflict continues.

That is not to say that the Syrians will settle in Lebanon, but the prospects of their return within the coming three to five years seems doubtful given that Syria will doubtless remain unstable. And yet so sensitive is the issue of the permanent settlement of non-Lebanese that Lebanon’s constitution specifically bars it.

Even if Syria’s regime recaptures Aleppo and holds the major cities between Damascus and the north, it may prevent the refugees from returning. There have been unconfirmed reports of regime efforts to change sectarian demographics in Homs. Even if this is untrue, Mr Al Assad’s intelligence services will not give rebels an opportunity to redeploy along the Damascus-Aleppo axis by infiltrating a population of returning refugees.

In an effort to address the refugee crisis, Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, has suggested that refugee camps be built inside Syrian territory to house those who fled to Lebanon. This would require the approval of the Syrian government, however, and Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon recently shot down the idea publicly, even if Mr Bassil suggested he had heard something different when the two met.

Yet the reality is that Syria’s regime is in no hurry to lessen the hardship in Lebanon, since its survival strategy is to export instability to its neighbours, forcing the international community to deal with it. Nor do Mr Al Assad and his acolytes relish becoming responsible for hundreds of thousands of refugees when they are engaged in an existential battle.

Another problem with Mr Bassil’s proposal is that international law prohibits placing refugees near the border of the country from where they have fled, as this may put them at risk of retaliation. At the same time, the minister opposes the establishment of refugee camps deeper inside Lebanon, fearing this would only make their presence in Lebanon permanent.

Refugee camps can also become islands of insecurity when dominated by factions pursuing a political agenda. That is precisely what happened with the Palestinians, and it proved disastrous for Lebanon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

There is as well a rising fear in Lebanon that more extremist Islamist groups may exploit the Syrian refugee population. Given the recent spate of bomb attacks and security incidents in the country, few officials will willingly advocate the creation of areas that may slip out of the state’s authority.

But there are also problems with not building camps. For one thing, it makes it more difficult to obtain international aid. A structured environment facilitates the organisation of assistance, reassuring international donors who fear corruption and waste when help is distributed haphazardly.

A camp, if properly secured and managed, can also be a means of better controlling security. The problem is that the Lebanese are not particularly adept in this regard. There are doubts that the Lebanese Army and security agencies are properly trained to watch the camps while also respecting the refugees’ rights.

With many Syrians wary of the army’s ties with Hizbollah, the refugee population may also actively oppose efforts by the Lebanese state to control their environment. This is harmful when a successful refugee programme must involve trust and collaboration between a refugee population and a host country.

The head of Lebanon’s General Security agency, Abbas Ibrahim, was recently quoted as saying that Lebanon would probably be obliged to set up refugee camps, despite opposition inside Lebanon. Mr Ibrahim may be right: as the war in Syria drags on and international aid agencies plan for the long haul, Beirut may have to end the chaotic way refugees live in Lebanon.

Mr Ibrahim also may mean that as the political hazards associated with the refugees increase, with Sunni-Shia tensions in the region at an all-time high, it would be best to concentrate Syrians in locations where such problems can be contained. There are definite downsides, but the reality is that there are no good options for Lebanon today. The country usually pays heavily for reflecting the region’s contradictions.

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