Brussels donor conference for Syria’s refugees proves a disappointment

Of the $2.7 billion requested by Lebanon, how much it will receive remains uncertain.
Sunday 06/05/2018
A man walks by a set designed to look like a bombed out Syrian classroom in front of EU headquarters in Brussels, on April 23.  (AP)
In vivid detail. A man walks by a set designed to look like a bombed out Syrian classroom in front of EU headquarters in Brussels, on April 23. (AP)

BRUSSELS- An uncertain future awaits Syrian refugees after the Brussels II Conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region,” with the plight of Syrian refugees to worsen in Lebanon.

The conference, which raised some $4.4 billion for Syria’s refugees — far below its $9 billion target — failed to address the underlying cause of Syria’s humanitarian disaster, one that remains an inherently political problem and, as such, requires a political solution.

Brussels’ streets buzzed with Lebanese, Syrian and international NGOs attending conference events. Despite the excitement, the result disappointed.

Of the $2.7 billion requested by Lebanon, how much it will receive remains uncertain. “It’s unclear at this point how much will be allocated to Lebanon but, given the initial pledges, I am not sure the amount would be sufficient,” said George Ghali from the watchdog ALEF.

An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since civil war broke out in March 2011. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said approximately 5 million Syrians — an estimated 20% of the population — fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Some 6 million are internally displaced within the country.

Of these, Lebanon is home to 1.5 million Syrian refugees, increasing the local population by about 25% and bringing all the attendant strains that accompany such a surge.

Living conditions for Syria’s refugees in Lebanon are worsening by the day. An overwhelming fatigue prevails over host communities in Lebanon as the failures of the country’s declining resources begin to bite. Fundamentals, such as access to water, electricity distribution and waste treatment have become sources of competition between communities.

Besides limited access to basic services, refugees compete with Lebanese in the job market. Nasser Yassin, director of research at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, said more than 20,000 Syrians enter the employment market every year in Lebanon, all in immediate competition with their Lebanese counterparts.

The outcome of this rivalry has led to discrimination. A Human Rights Watch report noted that, within at least 13 municipalities across Lebanon, more than 3,664 Syrian refugees had been forcibly evicted from their homes, apparently because of their nationality or religion. Another 42,000 refugees remain at risk of eviction.

In addition, the economic situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is also deteriorating. Yassin said more than 76% of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line and more than 87% live in the poorest Lebanese regions, of whom 53% are residing in substandard conditions.

The result has been an overwhelming sense of marginalisation and desperation among Lebanon’s Syrian refugees.

The marginalisation of Lebanon’s refugee population, its loss of empowerment and dignity have all affected the country’s security. Last year, an official in the Interior Ministry said many of the people arrested for terrorist activity in Lebanon were Syrian refugees. The official warned that, while the situation remained manageable, an open-ended commitment to Syria’s refugees risked exacerbating a perilous situation.

Despite the strains on Lebanon’s security networks and creaking infrastructure, Syria’s refugees are unlikely to go anywhere soon. “More than 30% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon will never return home,” Yassin said.

Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, said whether Syrians return home depends on several conditions, including safety, security and access to justice in their home.

Yahya stressed that the Syrian refugee crisis was not a humanitarian emergency linked to a natural disaster. Rather, it was a political emergency, something that international efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict have largely ignored.

Activists and experts agreed that, without a political solution, tackling the refugee crisis from a humanitarian and developmental point of view would remain fruitless. Donations and aid programmes, no matter how well intended, would not end the plight of refugees. However, a fair political solution that allows them to return home would.