Lebanon at ‘breaking point’ over Syrian war refugees
Beirut - Lebanon, which has the largest per person refugee population in the world, has reached “breaking point” and can no longer continue to shoulder the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis without significant international support, Prime Minister Saad Hariri said.
At a recent conference on Lebanon in Brussels, Hariri, like many in Lebanon, said he feared the growing tensions between host communities and Syrian refugees could lead to civil unrest, with dire consequences for the country’s shaky political and economic stability.
“The international community can’t put this burden on us,” he told a small group of foreign correspondents in Beirut. “The failure of the international community to find a solution in Syria should not be the responsibility of Lebanon in taking care of these refugees.
“Everyone talks about how Lebanon is resilient, how Lebanon is beautiful, how the Lebanese can take it. Well, you know, the Lebanese… have reached a point where they can’t take it anymore.”
After six years of war in Syria, there are an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a figure equal to one-third of the overall population. That is the equivalent of the combined populations of Belgium and Greece moving into the United Kingdom over a 6-year period.
This is a potentially explosive demographic time bomb and Lebanon has been there before. The country also hosts a large number of Palestinian refugees — 400,000 by official count but probably at least double that number — who started descending on Lebanon in the late 1940s.
The destabilising presence of so many Palestinian Sunnis was perceived as a threat to Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance and was widely seen as one of the elements that triggered the country’s ruinous 1975-90 civil war.
World Bank figures indicate that Lebanon’s economy lost an estimated $18 billion from 2011-15 because of the Syrian war. This has greatly strained Lebanon’s frail and inadequate infrastructure, swamped schools and aggravated tensions between overwhelmed host communities and the refugees.
Several dozen villages and towns have imposed night-time curfews on “foreigners”, specifically targeting Syrians.
In March, residents of Ali al-Nasri, a Shia village in the eastern Bekaa Valley, had three days of protests against local refugees, calling on the government to make “decisive decisions” to control the number of Syrians taking jobs and starting small businesses.
Even Sunni-populated areas of the country, which generally support the cause of the rebels seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, are showing signs of rising tensions.
“At the beginning of the crisis we were happy to receive the refugees from a humanitarian and religious perspective,” said Hussein Shoubassi, a member of the municipality of Saadnayel, a Sunni town in the Bekaa Valley. “We gave them everything we own but they’ve bled us to death. We have nothing left to give.”
Marwan Traboulsi, another member of the municipality, said the Beirut government allocated the municipality $333,300 a year for infrastructure needs.
“We’re still getting the same amount of money but our population has increased by three times because of the refugees,” Traboulsi said.
The government recently came up with a crisis response plan to help alleviate the refugee burden. It has two main pillars: Seeking international investment to help improve Lebanon’s rickety infrastructure and meeting the educational needs of Syrian children through vocational training and accelerated learning programmes.
“This allows them to find jobs [in Lebanon] and allows them to go back to Syria when conditions permit where they can work in the [country’s] reconstruction,” said Nadim Mounla, Hariri’s adviser on refugee affairs.
Government officials said that EU countries receive $25,000- $30,000 to look after the needs of every Syrian refugee but Lebanon gets $1,000-$2,000 per head. Hariri said that he was seeking to attract $10,000-$12,000 per refugee over a 7-year period, a total of approximately $1.65 billion.
“How do I make sure that the international community… understands that Lebanon has a crisis?” he asked.
“The only way I see it is for the international community to invest in Lebanon, put some money into Lebanon, to invest in schools, highways, universities, the infrastructure that we have.”
In January 2015, the Beirut government tightened restrictions on Syrians entering the country, requiring them for the first time to obtain residency visas renewable every six months at a cost of $200.
That sum is beyond the means of most refugees, who fail to renew their residencies on expiry. But the flow of refugees into Lebanon continues, albeit at a much slower rate than five years ago.
The ferocious battle for eastern Aleppo in late 2016 saw large numbers of Syrians fleeing to Lebanon — about 47,000 by one UN estimate.
Lebanon’s frontier with Syria is more tightly secured now than it was six years ago since the army formed three additional regiments for border control.
Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia Party of God, the most powerful military force in Lebanon, has deployed along much of the Syrian frontier to prevent infiltration by Sunni jihadist militants.
But the refugees keep coming.