Lebanon’s already catastrophic refugee situation could be made worse

Lebanon’s already catastrophic refugee situation could be made worse

Lebanon’s already catastrophic refugee situation could be made worse
Syrian refugee children at a camp in Qab Elias, Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Oct. 18, 2022. (Reuters)
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“I knew you would come back,” said the little boy, a Syrian refugee who had intercepted me in Ras Beirut after I had lied to him saying “Inshallah on the way back,” which is when he caught me. While shining my shoes he shamed me even more with the words “I can tell you are a good man.” The boy said: “A man of his word; you said you will come back and you did come back. A good man keeps his word, even with someone like me. Your word is your word, whoever you give it to.” 

Then the young philosopher told me a story, in a serious tone, about a doctor who gave him 1,000 lira (at the time 66 cents). What is 1,000 lira to him? It is normal to give 2,000, which is fair. “It is not what I am worth, it reflects on him. When you give, you give your own worth.” He did more than talk me into getting my shoes shined; since I am a good man the boy said he knew I would give him 5,000. He was sure I would; after all I had kept my word and had come back. I left him thinking “wow, imagine someone like him with a law degree.” 

That was at the end of October 2012. He would now be older than 21 and probably still in Lebanon, where his future hangs in the balance of so many decisions taken by others, not only in Beirut but also as far away as Washington D.C, New York City, Brussels, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. At the time, there were 50,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. People now believe there are closer to 2 million. This young man is now considered part of the greatest existential threat in the country’s history. 

UN bureaucrats use the term “protracted” to describe the Syrian refugee crisis. This translates to “we have no solution and they are here to stay.” It is by all measures catastrophic, especially for Lebanon, and if handled badly it can become much worse. 

The recent flare-up of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon was triggered by a public school teachers’ strike which found Lebanese students staying at home while Syrian refugee students traveled to school. It started with a call to stop all students from attending classes and then spiraled out of control with a combination of false information and exaggeration about abuses by some refugees, which was amplified by social media, further poisoning the atmosphere. 

The scale of the problem cannot be underestimated. In the last decade some 14 million Syrians were forced from their homes, with about half outside the country. The international community failed to protect the Syrian people and bears much of the responsibility for creating the problem. 

To put things in perspective, refugees from Syria hosted in Europe amount to less than half of one percent (0.5 percent) of the population. Even this tiny proportion has created a crisis, with far-right parties gaining ground and several EU member states considering leaving the union mainly because of the impact of refugees. Turkey has 10 times that proportion with a far greater crisis from Syria affecting relations with its large Kurdish population. Lebanon’s share is 60 times that of Europe, with refugees from Syria amounting to more than one-third of its population, equivalent to fifteen million Russians moving into Ukraine. 

The economic burden is believed to have contributed to the collapse of the country and there is justified anxiety about the long-term demographic effects. Since the First World War, people have questioned whether Lebanon is an independent sovereign nation or if it was carved out of greater Syria by colonial powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Most of the refugees are Sunni Muslims and in a country whose political system is based on communal power sharing, this is bound to upset the balance between communities. 

Perhaps because of the enormity of the issue, it has been handled incompetently by all concerned. The Lebanese government has no strategy and reacted with unsustainable knee-jerk measures. International organizations and NGOs are acting irresponsibly, putting themselves in confrontations with the host communities. Instead of finding solutions, they make the situation worse by virtue signaling and accusing the country of racism and xenophobia. 

A combination of false information and exaggeration about abuses by some are amplified by social media, poisoning the atmosphere. So much so that, in reaction to the bad behavior of some, there are calls to deny refugees access to education and for the mass deportation of those who cannot justify that they would face danger if returned to Syria. There were also calls to stop giving aid to the refugees on the basis that some of them were only there because of the subsidies. 

At the current rate of third country resettlement by the UN, it would take more than 100 years for registered refugee cases to be dealt with, and they constitute less than half of the total number. The regime that drove them out is now using them as bargaining chips, limiting their entry. This means four or five generations causing irreversible demographic and cultural changes that often precede political transformations. 

At the current rate of third country resettlement by the UN, it would take more than 100 years for registered refugee cases to be dealt with.

Nadim Shehadi

Population movements are rarely reversible; this has been so since the beginning of time. People can move on but they mostly do not move back and the more time passes the less likely they are to return, especially to places they left out of fear. At the same time, Lebanese, especially the young ones, are leaving the country. Some areas of the country are unrecognizable and other parts of Beirut are full of old people and half-empty buildings, giving the feeling of a dying city. This could mean that the vast majority of young people in the country will be Syrian refugees in a couple of decades. 

In the meantime, there are already people calling for cooperation with refugee activists and lobbying vigorously for the principle of “burden and responsibility sharing” as promoted by the UN to get support from the international community and other Arab countries. 

What is to be avoided at all costs is an increase in tension between host and refugee communities. In the best case scenario and for the foreseeable future, about half of the refugees are here to stay. It takes a lot of courage and wisdom to admit this and whatever the Lebanese do, they have to take this into account. The scenario of creating a generation of alienated, angry and frustrated young people, born in the country through no fault of their own, can be exploited by all sorts of bad actors. 

  • Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist. Twitter: @Confusezeus 
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