The Syrian refugees: Lebanon’s mortal sin
Blaming others, particularly foreign elements, for Lebanon’s mishaps can be considered a Lebanese national sport. Conveniently, the Syrian refugee crisis has provided both the political class and the Lebanese population at large with avenues to pursue this blame game.
As if determined to highlight this singular shortcoming, Lebanese Minister of Energy and Water Cesar Abi Khalil blamed Lebanon’s electricity crisis on the 1.2 million refugees, who, despite their burdensome toll on Lebanon’s economy, are certainly not the prime reason the ruling elite is incapable of addressing issues of basic utilities.
However, the phantom chimaera of the strains placed on the Lebanese infrastructure by the refugees is one that has consistently mired efforts of the international community to address the crisis. Time and time again the Lebanese government has failed to rise to the challenges, proving itself an inadequate partner to receive the much-needed funds to develop its own infrastructure and meet the increasing medical and educational demands of the growing refugee population.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s unimaginative plea to the donor countries at a Brussels conference in April framed the refugee crisis as a ticking time bomb, threatening the international community with repercussions of their continued failure to dispense the much-needed funds. This scare tactic failed to win considerable support, as the crux of the problem is far removed from a lack of funding and instead stems from the Lebanese government’s structural shortcomings.
From the first influx of refugees, most of the factions inside the government failed to formulate a clear response that showed some form of long-term thinking. Instead, they chose projects that openly aspired to capitalise on the international community’s largesse.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the internal bickering of the various government agencies over jurisdiction derailed the refugee relief process. As a consequence, much of the funds lie trapped within a sea of red tape, most of it created for the sole purpose of imploding the process and diverting the funds to various factions’ coffers.
Before the start of the Syrian crisis, the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) was neither a coveted nor prestigious post in the eyes of the political elite, who preferred to compete for the more prominent security or service-oriented government portfolios.
However, this governmental ugly duckling, which typically dealt with society’s least popular issues, has become the hub for the different efforts to address the overwhelming influx of refugees. Concurrently, the government formed a subcommittee of the government ministries including almost the entire cabinet, rendering regular meetings logistically impossible and the outcome catastrophic.
The Hariri government created the position of State Minister for Refugee Affairs and appointed Mouin Merhebi, a member of the Hariri Sunni majority parliamentary bloc, to run it. While this move was perhaps intended to make things better, it introduced further obstacles to the issue. Primarily, this ad hoc ministry had no legal charter or mandate and, more importantly, it duplicated the work of MOSA and its minister and a member of the Lebanese Forces (LF), Pierre Abi Assi.
The challenges of Lebanon’s response to the refugee crises go deeper than questions over the jurisdictional overlap. They cut to the very heart of Lebanon’s sectarian divide. On the one hand, Abi Assi, whose party is answerable to its Christian constituency, has had to tread lightly when dispensing funds to refugees. Much of Abi Assi’s electorate tends to view the predominantly Muslim refugee population as essentially an invasion by stealth and is inclined to see any humanitarian act as tacit encouragement.
Merhebi, whose Future Movement leads Lebanon’s Sunnis, fares little better. Most of Lebanon’s refugees are in eastern parts of the country, particularly in the Beqaa Valley, a predominately Sunni area. The economic strains the refugees placed on these regions has done little but provoke resentment within a host population that many see as bordering upon revolt, unwilling to allow aid to trickle past them without first receiving some slice of the international pie.
The sectarian reality of Lebanon’s politics, as well as the structural chaos of its response, has led to international agencies bypassing the government and delivering aid directly to the refugees. This might seem a practical response; however, the outcome is muddying the water. One immediate effect of this is that, without local accountability, some refugees are seeking to exploit the system. For instance, with financial aid distributed per person, an additional child is a source of potential income.
Regardless of who is to blame for Lebanon’s failure to respond to the refugee crisis, what is certain is that given the Lebanese government’s record, to continue on the current path can only yield further disasters.
Irrespective of jurisdictional and sectarian tussles, Lebanon’s refugees are fleeing some of the most extreme horror of the modern age. They have gone to Lebanon for the simplest of things: Help. Lebanon’s appalling record in responding to that is a mortal sin that cannot be passed on to others.