Lebanon’s problems cannot be blamed on Syrian refugees
As the world grapples with how to finally put an end to the Syrian conflict, no one has paid more dearly than the innocent citizens of Syria, whose government’s punishing bombardments have pushed them into exile.
More than half of Syria’s pre-war population — an estimated 12 million people — have fled villages, towns and cities that came under systematic bombardment by their own government, Russia, and Iran-allied militias. The uprising against Assad family rule was punished by air power, barrel bombs and even chemical weapons, while the world stood watching and only focused on Daesh, which had emerged from the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts.
I am not here to write about the plight of the Syrians and who caused the war or how it will end as it enters its ninth year, but I am writing to express shame at the failure of the world — including the UN — to find ways to resettle those Syrians and ensure their safety once back in their homes.
Nothing is more difficult to stomach than some Lebanese members of government blaming Syrian refugees for all the ills that have befallen their nation.
At the height of the crisis across the border, Lebanon had welcomed more than 1.5 million Syrians, most of whom were registered with international, regional and even local aid agencies. Those agencies have spent millions housing, feeding and educating those powerless refugees. Surely an economic case could be made, as Lebanon received millions in return for their hospitality.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, on a trip to Moscow last week, asked President Vladimir Putin to help focus international efforts to encourage the return of Syrian refugees to their country. Meanwhile, at a meeting with Russian lawmakers, Aoun said that Lebanon faces “a terrible economic fallout” from the Syrian crisis and expressed hope that Russia would help his country repatriate the refugees. A familiar-sounding communique after the meeting called on the international community to help create favorable socioeconomic conditions for the refugees’ return by helping Syria’s post-war reconstruction.
This is the crux of the matter — Russia and all the allies of Assad’s government want the international community to foot the bill and endorse the current status quo. They want to hand over reconstruction money to the Assad government to be funneled to various cronies without guarantees that all Syrians will be able to return to their homes without fear of punishment or retribution. And, of course, there has been no mention of the UN resolution that called for an internationally-backed transition process, where the various protagonists of the Syrian war find peace and share power.
One can only interpret the Lebanese position in the context of Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran, and their failure to find the funds required for reconstruction due to their struggles with international sanctions. Some of these sanctions relate to the war in Syria, while others include the nuclear sanctions reimposed on Tehran, the sanctions on Russia after its annexation of Crimea, and sanctions against the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, which has meddled in neighboring countries and played a huge role in fighting alongside Assad’s forces in a bid to prop up the regime.
Instead of serving the interests of regional or international powers that have become stuck in the Syrian mud and failed themselves and the Syrian people, the Lebanese leadership ought to focus on domestic matters
Over the past few years, some Lebanese municipalities have interned refugees and issued curfews. Others have blamed them for the country’s employment shortage and even accused Syrians of stealing the menial construction, agricultural and manual labor jobs that were traditionally done by other refugees, such as Palestinians, or workers from the Indian subcontinent and Africa.
As if to add insult to injury, Aoun’s son-in-law and Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, announced while on a visit to Europe that his country wanted to follow the example of eastern EU states that have largely rejected refugees as a way of solving Lebanon’s Syrian refugee crisis. Bassil sympathized with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia’s refusal to accept refugee distribution quotas proposed by the EU in the wake of the 2015-16 migrant crisis, when more than 1 million people streamed into Europe, mostly from war-torn Syria.
He claims that the Syrian refugees’ presence has put Lebanon’s economy under duress, even though most of them depend on international aid, which in economic terms could be translated as inward investment in a country that is on the brink of economic failure due to internal discord, corruption and the misuse of generous international funds.
The International Monetary Fund has said recently that the Syrian refugees’ presence may have had an impact on rising unemployment rates and an increase in poverty due to a greater job competition, but that this is also an innate Lebanese problem as its citizens have traditionally shied away from low-paid manual jobs.
Instead of serving the interests of regional or international powers that have become stuck in the Syrian mud and failed themselves and the Syrian people, especially those who have been displaced by the war, the Lebanese leadership ought to focus on domestic matters. They need to focus on how to reform the country’s balance of accounts and its money-making utility companies, which have been held hostage by mafia-like political leaders, uphold the rule of law, and reopen its doors for inward investment. The international community has earmarked billions to help Lebanon, but only if the country and its politicians clean up their act and show a bit of transparency.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.