The question of Syrian refugees highlights political callousness in Lebanon

There is in Lebanon a populist and sectarian approach to the question of the refugees.
Friday 22/06/2018
Populist approach. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, escorted by Lebanese soldiers, visits a Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, on June 13. (AP)
Populist approach. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, escorted by Lebanese soldiers, visits a Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, on June 13. (AP)

There are European fears that the million-plus Syrian refugees in Lebanon might be forced to migrate to Europe or do it by their own choosing through illegal ways. This is why the international community, in general, and the European Union, in particular, are closely monitoring the situation and diligently collaborating with the Lebanese government.

Rula Amin, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in the Middle East and North Africa, said the Lebanese government receives 40% of the international financial aid earmarked for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The refugees also receive direct aid from other sources.

The presence of a Syrian population in Lebanon has turned into a political crisis, especially between Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Gebran Bassil and the UN agency’s representation in Beirut.

Bassil accused the United Nations of stopping refugees from returning to Syria. The UN refugee agency said it cannot stop any refugee from returning home if he or she wished to do so and that it cannot guarantee the refugees’ safe return to Syria.

There is no doubt that the issue of the refugees is a burden for the Lebanese government. On many occasions, however, the issue has looked like an opportunity for political investment in internal politics. Officials who have complained about the economic, financial and administrative drain caused by the refugees’ file are those who care not less about taking measures to stop the systematic looting and draining of Lebanon’s treasury through quota-based policies and clientelism.

So far, authorities in Lebanon have not indicated they are interested in doing the minimum to stop the downward economic spiral in the country, let alone that they have serious plans for kick-starting development, attracting investors and reducing unemployment.

The refugees’ question in Lebanon is thus not just a demographic and economic issue; it is for many politicians the perfect alibi to run from facing the fundamental challenges to Lebanon: those provisions and practices that prevent the state from being the sole party in charge of running the affairs of the country’s constitutional and legal institutions.

For some politicians and for some Lebanese, the refugees have become Lebanon’s central problem while other issues, such as becoming militarily involved in the Syrian conflict, are irrelevant and with minor consequences for the whole state and its institutions.

The Syrian refugees are the least of Lebanon’s problems. One should instead look at the issue of seizing control of the justice system and preventing it from dealing with the rampant mismanagement in institutions and society at large.

What about the scandal related to the suspicious naturalisation of about 400 individuals?

Let’s not even bring up the subject or details of corruption in the electricity and oil sectors, nor talk about the systematic destruction of the communications sector. It might be the last competitive public sector bringing important revenues to public finances. Yet, it is systematically weakened through cronyism, corruption and carelessness.

There is in Lebanon a populist and sectarian approach to the question of the refugees. The real danger lies in the risk of allowing the return of Syrian influence in Lebanese affairs through the pernicious use of the issue.

The Syrian regime has always had a tremendous appetite for power and influence. Only an international and Arab umbrella can protect Lebanon from the regime’s greed. Lebanon cannot afford the luxury of gambling with its international relations, especially given its economic situation. Not long ago, international donor conferences in Paris and in Rome promised Lebanon $11 billion in financial and military aid.

Not only does the framing of the question of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon open breaches for the Syrian regime to exploit, it highlights Lebanese authorities’ reluctance to deal with their internal weaknesses. As long as officials hide behind the slogan of economic and financial burdens, corruption and mismanagement will thrive.

This is the real issue in Lebanon today or else how can it be explained that the country lacks a serious development plan and cannot control its borders with Syria?

Unfortunately, the question of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon remains for some in power the easiest way to cover their failure to ensure conditions for a strong state or their own involvement in cases of corruption. By pegging all of the Lebanese citizens’ problems and frustrations on the question of the refugees, these dishonest politicians deepen the wounds between Lebanon and Syria rather than heal them.

The irony is that both the Syrian people and Lebanese people are victims of evil powers ready to sacrifice them for personal, partisan or sectarian gains.