Lebanon fields ‘patchwork plan’ to address plight of Syrian refugees

The greatest injury to the refugees is the persistence of Lebanese political factions to blame the country’s economic hardship on them.
Sunday 17/02/2019
A Lebanese security official holds Syrian  refugee children, who fled to Lebanon, as they wait for buses to go back to Syria from the southern village of Shebaa, last April. (Reuters)
Paying the cost of reactive measures. A Lebanese security official holds Syrian refugee children, who fled to Lebanon, as they wait for buses to go back to Syria from the southern village of Shebaa, last April. (Reuters)

All cultures have an array of bedtime stories, ones to coax children to drift off to sleep. For Arabs, “The Story of the Oil Bottle” is one such tale that has no real beginning or end but repeats the same story until the frustrated listener finally dozes off.

This is more or less the case of the Syrian refugees in general but more so in Lebanon, where successive cabinets, including the newly formed body, have failed to address this growing humanitarian crisis.

Anyone slightly familiar with the Lebanese political structure knows the refugee crisis and the government’s lack of a clear, effective policy go beyond mere incompetence or corruption.

Simply, the Lebanese government has no policy to handle the 1.5 million refugees who are burdening the country’s economy and crumbling infrastructure.

The ministerial statement recently presented in parliament did not greatly depart from earlier government approaches, what Nasser Yassin, director of research at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, called an “ad-hoc patchwork plan.”

Yassin said the major shift in the government track was “the abandonment of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his political bloc of the concept of the voluntary nature of the refugees’ return and the respect of all provisions connected to preventing forced return.”

While Hariri ostensibly stressed the voluntary and safe return of refugees, he gave the portfolio of minister of state for refugee affairs to the pro-Syrian and Iranian political group keen on Lebanon’s normalisation with the Assad regime.

More troubling is that Hariri’s compromise over the voluntary clause is coupled with his cabinet’s adoption of the Russian repartition plan, which proposes an immediate return of the Syrian refugees to areas Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies deem safe.

While many elements in the Lebanese government place great weight on this “Russian initiative” most experts and activists in the field see no real potential for this wishful plan, which is a fundraising gimmick to convince the Europeans to provide money for this somewhat impossible feat.

Rouba Mhaissen, founding director at Sawa for Development and Aid, a civil society organisation that works closely with the Syrian refugees, said this direction is perilous for both the government and its guests.

Mhaissen warned: “It will be problematic for the government of Lebanon to send refugees back en masse as the Russian initiative is calling for the conditions for safe, dignified and voluntary return are still not in place.”

She added that, above all, “Lebanon has to abide by the unified position of Arab countries and the international community and against the principle of non-refoulement. So we are yet to see the channels through which the government statement will be applied when it comes to return.”

While some experts might have divergent views on how to handle the refugee crisis, Yassin and Mhaissen stressed the cabinet’s urgency to provide the refugees with the much-needed humanitarian protection allotted to them by human rights convention and above all human decency.

Most of the refugees across Lebanon lack legal protection because government regulations complicated residency requirements, leaving them as illegal aliens who face huge fines and deportation. This unfortunate reality has transformed the refugees into easy targets for host communities that use the lack of documentation to abuse and intimidate refugees.

The greatest injury to the refugees, however, is the persistence of Lebanese political factions to blame the country’s economic hardship on them and spearhead a xenophobic campaign to scare the Lebanese populace into confronting the so-called threat of naturalisation.

These same populist voices refuse to acknowledge that it is their own corruption and clientelist networks that overburden the economy and that the funds for refugees’ aid over the last few years have, in more than one way, benefited the Lebanese and delayed the inevitable economic collapse.

Patchwork reactive measures can no longer pass as policies and the Hariri cabinet can no longer expect the weary public to listen to a senseless never-ending tale of intentions to make things right.

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