The Lebanese government is continuing its policy of warnings and intimidation about the repercussions of Syrian refugees on Lebanon by announcing figures about the extent of the economic and social ramifications. The refugee burden has increased the country’s economic hardship, but this does not justify many individuals in power and in the media escalating racist rhetoric.
Officially, most of the apprehension over refugees comes in the context of seeking international assistance for Lebanon as a host country that bears a burden beyond its capabilities.
Even if this contains some truth, it does not justify exaggerating the cost of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, especially as this affects the relationship between the refugee community and the host community, and fuels a potential explosion that could be catastrophic to Lebanese and Syrians alike.
Lebanon is adopting a two-sided stance. It is being rejectionist about refugees out of fear that their presence will become permanent, yet it is seeking international assistance to enable it to host refugees, while unofficially working to be a center for post-war reconstruction in Syria.
Speculation about the future of the Syrian tragedy necessitates Lebanon adopting a clear message that first recognizes the role the state is supposed to play in absorbing these refugees, then asks for assistance to achieve this. Lebanon’s losses over the past six years have been caused by the Syrian crisis in general, not by the refugee crisis in particular, yet there are those in Lebanon who insist on conflating the two.
Beirut must deal realistically and honestly with the issue of Syrian refugees, in a manner that does not exacerbate Lebanese crises, conflicts or racism.
The American University in Beirut (AUB) prepared a study of the positives economic aspects of the refugee crisis, which was confirmed by UN figures. For example, in 2016 Syrian refugees paid about $378 million in housing rent, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More than 12,000 temporary jobs were created in Lebanon to deal with the crisis. Of the new businesses established around Syrian refugee camps, 84 percent were Lebanese.
It does not seem that the war in Syria will end in the near future, yet Lebanon has begun trying to strengthen its position as a center for post-war reconstruction. Due to its strategic location between the Mediterranean and Syria’s most damaged cities such as Homs and Damascus, Lebanon could become one of the most important avenues for reconstruction efforts.
According to the World Bank, reconstructing Syria will cost more than $200 billion. This figure has prompted Lebanese businessmen and economists to hope that this will revive the Lebanese economy, which has been stagnant in recent years. For Lebanon to play a role in post-war reconstruction, it must deal realistically and honestly with the issue of Syrian refugees, in a manner that does not exacerbate Lebanese crises, conflicts or racism.
• Diana Moukalled is a veteran journalist with extensive experience in both traditional and new media. She is also a columnist and freelance documentary producer. She can be reached on Twitter @dianamoukalled.