Syrian refugees: Lebanon’s dilemma

Samir El-Daher, former World Bank senior official and now economics advisor to Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, is exasperated. “This is a recipe for economic collapse, social struggle and civil war in Lebanon,” he pointed out. “It’s a threat to our existence. We simply cannot continue to bear the brunt as Lebanon is already a sinking ship.” El-Daher is rare in speaking so bluntly about the crisis facing Lebanon, even if in a personal capacity.

However, the situation is indeed grave. The five-year war in Syria has killed at least 250,000 people and displaced 12 million. Of the five -million who have left the country, at least 1.7 million are in Lebanon, whose own population is barely over four million.

In the summer of 2015, Europe awoke to the scale of the human disaster as refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. In November of that year, Syria’s violence first hit Europe as Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS) massacred 132 people in Paris. In the worst terrorist attack this year, at least 84 people died in July as a truck ploughed into people on the corniche in Nice.

“After the Paris attacks, Brussels was closed for three days: they were looking for one bad guy, so imagine the -security concerns in Lebanon,” El-Daher told ­Arabies, a sister publication of TRENDS. “If, out of the 1.7 million -Syrians here, 99 percent are Mother Teresa and Pope Francis, then the remaining one percent is still 15,000 people.”

Different positions

The Lebanese army and security are trying to face the practicalities. The army has committed a good part of its 15,000 strength to the Arsal region in north-east Lebanon, an area with many Syrian refugees and where the army has clashed intermittently with rebel Syrian groups who have crossed the border.

“The Arsal region is ten percent of Lebanon,” said El-Daher. “There, you saw Jabhat Al-Nusra [the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda] and even Daesh come out in the open with the exchange of Lebanese prisoners [Lebanon in December swapped 13 prisoners for 16 Lebanese security officers].”

Lebanon’s own parties take different sides in Syria. The main Sunni group, Al-Mustaqbal, supports the Saudi and US line that President Bashar Al-Assad must leave power, while Hezbollah, the main Shia party, has committed fighters alongside Iranian Revolutionary Guards to defend Al-Assad, losing more than 1,000, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Lebanon’s Christians seem bemused, with one faction led by -Michel Aoun allied with Hezbollah. All -contemplate the uncertain effects of an extra 1.7 million mainly Sunni Muslims upsetting Lebanon’s fragile sectarian balance and making the Sunnis a majority.

An inability to agree on basic steps paralyzed Lebanon’s initial political response to the Syria crisis in 2012. “Everybody thought the revolution was the blossoming of the Arab Spring and that, within three to six months, the dictator would go,” said El-Daher. “So, for a short period we would host our brother Syrians and then they would go home.”

Hezbollah was against establishing camps for fear that they would become centers for anti-Al-Assad rebels. There was wider wariness due to experience of Lebanon’s Palestinian camps, set up impromptu in 1947 and still extant.

El-Daher argues this was a mistake: “It’s hypocrisy to say there are no camps. There are informal camps, but instead of being run by the UN and protected by the Lebanese army, you don’t know what kind of mafia is running them and heaven knows what’s happening to the disenfranchised – the elderly, women, children.”

Plight of refugees

While Syrians are present throughout Lebanon, there are concentrations. Expensive cars with Syrian plates are easily spotted in affluent parts of Beirut, such as Hamra or outside the nightclubs in Manara, but they are few and far.

At the other end, the population of the Palestinian camp Shatilla – established for 3,000 people on a square kilometer of land in 1949 – has been swollen by Syrians to perhaps 40,000 people.

In Tanayal, in the Beqaa valley of eastern Lebanon, refugees live in half-finished buildings. Moumina, a woman in her 30s, fled with her husband and two sons, aged five and seven, after her village near Damascus was bombarded by regime forces and her brother was killed.

They pay $300 per month for a room with a kitchen, sharing a bathroom with other families. Moumina is more fortunate than some, as she teaches at a school financed by European donors and takes her children along. She told Arabies her family missed life in Syria: “We had a house with a garden, our own car and a washing machine. We grew our own vegetables.”

She is also worried her children are not gaining school certificates. “When we go back, they won’t be able to attend the -classes appropriate for their ages,” she said. The $80 a month the family -receives from the UN doesn’t go far and her husband rarely finds work, a blow to his pride after working successfully as a painter in Syria.

Employment issues

The question of Syrian employment is sensitive. Last year, the Lebanese government introduced new regulations offering refugees two options: either to register as a refugee and give up any right to work, or to find a Lebanese sponsor. The United Nations criticized this move in a report in November, saying it had driven more Syrian workers into the black economy and forced down wages. Further, the UN said, it had increased “child labor, begging, thefts and submission to -exploitation – including sexual exploitation and survival sex”. According to a report from Save the Children and UNICEF, 36 percent of working children in the Bekaa, where the going rate is $8 a day, are illiterate. The UN says 70 percent of refugees are below the poverty line.

The UN argued that Lebanon should encourage Syrians to work, since “economically active refugees are in a better position to voluntarily repatriate in safety and dignity once the war in Syria ends”. But El-Daher said the report reflected the fears of European governments about refugees arriving on their shores.

“The Europeans want to keep them [refugees] in the neighboring countries and the most effective way is to integrate them into the economy,” he said. “When not lecturing us on human rights, the Europeans are considering a naval blockade. The real solution is for all countries – both the Europeans and the Arab countries – to take a fair quota of refugees.”

The unpalatable truth is that the better the services that refugees can access in Lebanon, the likelier it is that more of them will come. “Even in areas of Syria where there is no war, there is no work, so people come,” said El-Daher.

“Before the war, per capita income in Syria was one third of Lebanon’s, $3,000 compared to $10,000 – now it is $1,000, one tenth of Lebanon’s,” he added. “If you announce that you are going to give work here to Syrians, it’s not only a disincentive for those here to go back, it’s an invitation to those still there.”

No solution in sight

Another unpalatable truth is that, with the Geneva peace process dragging on since 2012 without any parties to the war showing real commitment to reach a solution, there is no end in sight for the Syrian conflict.

“If you tell me it will be resolved tomorrow, or in two years, or in five years, then we can plan, but this is open-
ended,” said El-Daher. “Do you think the ethnic cleansing will be reversed, that people [Sunnis] expelled from the Alawite region [by pro-regime forces] and from Homs and Hama, are going to be allowed back?”

Having 1.7 million Syrians in Lebanon is on a similar scale to 110 million Mexicans arriving in the United States. “But it’s still not the same,” said El-Daher. “Firstly, there isn’t a war in Mexico. Secondly, population density is not comparable: Lebanon has 600 people per square kilometer, the fifth highest in the world when you take out the city states.” The World Bank puts US population density at 35 per square kilometer.

Those who suffer most are those least able to cope. An extra 200,000 Lebanese have been added to the one million already in poverty. Unemployment among Lebanese has risen from 11 percent to 20 percent. The less educated and poorer cannot take the option of emigration increasingly favored by those better off.

None of this makes the situation of Syrian refugees anything less than grim. South of Beirut, near Sibline, in the foothills of the Chouf mountains, is a small camp established by a local man, Ali Tafesh, as a humanitarian project with some aid from Kuwaitis. Many of the Syrians are from Aleppo, one of the war’s most violent areas, and many of the children are orphans.

Najmeh, 13, decided to take charge. “Many of the children who lost fathers and mothers were sad, just playing with mud and empty tins,” she told Arabies. “I thought why not gather them and teach them what I learned [at school] in -Aleppo? Education is light. They will forget their sadness about their parents.”

Najmeh began under a juniper tree, enrolling Baraa, aged ten, as her assistant, and has taught other children the English she knows and given Quranic lessons. The sponsor of the settlement has brought a tent to serve as a classroom.

“I love education,” said Najmeh. “In the morning I teach and in the afternoon I go to a village where there is a school, where I can have lessons myself. Everyone here would love to go back to Syria, but if they could go to Europe, they would also love to do that because they would be offered education and a better life.”