The Lebanese have shown a humanity the West could learn from
When war broke out in Syria in 2011 no country appeared as vulnerable to contagion as Lebanon. The assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 had removed the figure with the widest national appeal and clearest strategy, and tensions between Lebanon’s two main political blocs were rising with the regional divide between Shias and Sunnis, and between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The main Sunni group, al- Mustaqbal, supported the Saudi and US line that Syrian President Bashar Assad should leave power while Hezbollah, the main Shia party, committed fighters alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to defend Assad. As the first war refugees arrived in Lebanon, Hezbollah opposed establishing camps out of fear they would become rebel bases and there was a wider Lebanese wariness due to the experience of Palestinian camps, set up impromptu in 1947.
As the war progressed — the number of refugees entering Lebanon passed 1 million in 2014 — the Lebanese began to contemplate the effects of the arrival of so many Sunnis upsetting the country’s precarious sectarian balance and making the Sunnis a majority.
Aside from politics, the refugee presence has added to the pressures of daily life. Electricity and water supplies were already woeful. Cynicism of politicians and corruption grew in 2015 as piles of rubbish built up when the collection system broke down. Political wrangling centred on a new electoral law, with no parliamentary elections since 2009 and parliament’s mandate extended twice.
And yet, somehow, Lebanon has held together. The country has absorbed at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees, about 30% of the estimated total and equal to one-third of its own population. During 2016, there were more Syrian babies born in Lebanon than Lebanese ones.
To grasp the scale, just imagine 110 million Mexicans arriving in the United States over four years — but remember that Lebanon’s population density has reached 600 people per sq. km compared to just 35 in the United States.
In Europe and the United States, the refugee crisis has prompted a wave of racism and right-wing populism that saw Britain vote in June to leave the European Union and spurred November’s election of Donald Trump as US president. Yet the United States has taken only about 15,000 Syrian refugees, 0.005% of its population and 0.3% of the total number of refugees. Britain has taken 10,000, 0.015% of its population and 0.2% of refugees.
Of course there are signs of resentment in Lebanon, where the refugees’ presence has pushed up rent and lowered wages. In a country with 20% unemployment, Syrians work for as little as 30% of the rate a Lebanese worker expects. Some towns have signs warning “foreigners” not to be in the streets after 8pm.
Few areas are unaffected, as Syrians are throughout Lebanon. Expensive cars with Syrian plates are easily spotted in better-off parts of Beirut such as Hamra or outside nightclubs in Manara. At the other end of the social scale, the population of the Beirut Palestinian camp Shatila, established for 3,000 people on 1 sq. km of land in 1949 — has been swollen by Syrians to perhaps 40,000 people.
Yet, overall, civil peace has been maintained. “I haven’t heard of any increases in crime,” one writer told me. “The Syrians have behaved very correctly.”
Unlike Europe, Lebanon has not been swept by malicious social-media rumours over rapes and thefts.
It is too easy to say this is due simply to the Lebanese believing the Syrians have no chance of acquiring nationality and therefore see their presence as temporary. In fact, this is far from clear: There is every chance that many Syrians will not return home, certainly not with Assad still in power.
No, the Lebanese have shown a humanity the purportedly civilised West might learn from. Perhaps this comes from the Lebanese own experience of war and why people flee. Perhaps they emerged more tolerant from their own crises.
Lebanon’s failures are real enough but its successes should be recognised and applauded. The Lebanese should be supported more effectively by the international community. Existing intelligence and military cooperation could be extended, existing pledges of billions in aid should be honoured. If Lebanon falters, many refugees will take a boat west and that would really be a crisis.