Lebanon’s ability to deal with refugee crisis ‘wearing thin’

Friday 05/02/2016

Beirut - Lebanon has devel­oped what Minister of Social Affairs Rashid Derbas likes to call the “art of survival”, having coped with a destructive 15-year civil war and years of security and economic instability.
Such a capacity to adapt to difficult situations was undoubtedly a major factor that helped Lebanon absorb more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees despite limited resources and international assistance.
However, Lebanon’s resilience is wearing alarmingly thin, with no sign for an end of Syria’s war, now in its fifth year. Now, Beirut hopes to collect $2.4 billion from the Syria Donors Conference in London in early February to assist 2.9 million vulnerable individuals in its territory.
The large influx of Syrian refugees had put tremendous pressure on the capacity of the small country, worsening economic and social woes caused by years of political instability and volatile security.
Competition over scarce resources and poor employment opportunities has increased tensions between the overstaying “guests” and their Lebanese hosts. The effects are mostly felt by the poorest of the Lebanese population, especially in rural areas where poverty levels are the highest and the majority of refugees are concentrated.
“The Lebanese society is deeply affected by the deterioration of the economic situation, negative growth, lack of job opportunities, lack of political and security stability, the loss in tourism and the inability to export through the land borders (with Syria)… It is a miracle that the country can still put up with all that,” Derbas said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
With Lebanon playing host to 1.1 million refugees registered by the United Nations in addition to an estimated 500,000 non-registered Syrians, it is the Lebanese poor who are bearing the brunt of the crisis.
“Of course the impact is flagrant, when you have 1.5 million incomers, which we did not expect. It is like having 20 million Mexicans arriving in the US. Even a big country would be jolted if it had such an influx,” Derbas said.
With a population of 4.1 million, Lebanon has a ratio of one refugee for every five Lebanese. It is the highest such figure on the world.
The minister put Lebanese resilience down to their capacity to adapt to difficult situations, an “art of survival” they have mastered over the 1975-90 civil war, including a devastating Israeli invasion.
“Lebanon is just a strange country. During the (civil) war, there were several rounds of fighting but, whenever there was a truce, you would see people coming out and returning to normal life. We have an extraordinary capacity of adaptation that is unique and we even do capitalise on crises to our benefit,” Derbas said.
Finding opportunities to invest in the Syrian refugee crisis is high on the Lebanese agenda for the London conference on global assistance to Syrian refugees and their host communities in Lebanon and Jordan.
“We can definitely benefit from the money that is being spent in Lebanon by donor countries assisting the refugees to improve our economy. The international community has finally realised that it needs to help stabilise communities hosting refugees before the situation explodes,” Derbas said.
The Lebanese Crisis Response Plan (LCRP), a document prepared with the United Nations to be presented at the London conference, requests $2.4 billion for the benefit of nearly 3 million vulnerable individuals in Lebanon.
“Taking into account that 83% of the refugees are living among the poorest local communities, the plan stipulates that 37% of the fund would be spent on stabilising the host communities and 63% on humanitarian assistance targeting 2 million people, including 1 million Lebanese poor and 1 million non-Lebanese,” Derbas said.
The LCRP is viewed as a crucial channel through which the international community can support Lebanon as it addresses the needs of both its own people and the displaced from Syria. It will focus particularly on localities where Lebanese are feeling the greatest effects of the crisis and long-term poverty.
“It represents an opportunity to invest in national capacities, Lebanese services and the economy to help stabilise the country,” Derbas said.
The minister played down concerns that Syrian refugees who have established small businesses in Lebanon might be reluctant to return home once the conflict is over.
“Those who have established some kind of business here are very few, whereas the vast majority is barely surviving from donations and that is why they will all return to their home,” he said.
“Those who want to stay and do business in Lebanon afterward, they are welcome to do so under local rules and regulations… But I am sure that once the situation in Syria is normalised not a single Syrian will remain in Lebanon and even the Lebanese would follow them [to help rebuild] Syria.”
By investing in the refugees’ host countries, the international community hopes to strengthen their ability to cope with the millions of displaced and refugees who remained among them for nearly five years, and might stay on for a good while longer, as the conflict in Syria shows no sign of ending.
Derbas pointed out that proposals could be raised at the London conference to relax restrictions on the employment of Syrian refugees, a matter that Lebanon is not set to accept.
Syrian refugees are banned from working in Lebanon unless they are sponsored by a Lebanese national and “Lebanon is not willing to change that”, according to Derbas.
Though there is no official figure, at least one-third of the refugees are believed to be working clandestinely and competing with the Lebanese over various unskilled jobs. They are mostly engaged as cheap day labour in the agriculture and construction sectors.
Lebanon, which also hosts an estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees whose families fled to the country when Israel was created in 1948, is wary of allowing any move that could encourage the resettlement of Syrian refugees.