Can Lebanon Handle 3,000 Syrian Refugees a Day?

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A Syrian refugee woman holding her child as they doze off on the sidewalk of a street in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon July 18, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Mahmoud Zayyat).

Published Friday, January 31, 2014

Everyone agrees that the refugee problem in Lebanon could lead to real dangers. However, the absence of a government authority capable of addressing such dangers is the true source of concern. How can the Lebanese trust a government to deal with a million refugees when it can’t even manage household waste?

"The humanitarian and economic burden of Syrian refugees is much bigger than what Lebanon can handle, while international assistance is still below what is required." So concluded Lebanese government representatives, the UNHCR, and the World Bank in a symposium held January 30 at Beirut’s Issam Fares Center for Lebanon. However, none of these organizations and figures mentioned that the main responsibility falls on the Lebanese state, for its inability to deal with an issue of such complexity and risk.

The state treated the average daily influx of 3,000 Syrian refugees as tourists staying for a few days, according to cabinet consultant Samir al-Daher. "The displaced and refugees were expected to remain for a limited time," he said in his speech. Or maybe he meant that no one in the state decision-making circles was competent enough to expect a prolonged crisis in Syria. Thus, they dropped from their calculations all the pressures that could result from a prolonged refugee situation.

This might have been the reason why ambassador Abdallah Bou Habib opened the session by indicating that "the course of negotiations from the Geneva II conference revealed that a solution to the Syrian crisis remains elusive. We might remain in a state of war for a long time, with all that it entails.” Bou Habib called for "a series of international measures to ease this burden on Lebanon."

Exorbitant Costs

UNHCR representative Nanette Kelly said, "Humanitarian assistance efforts for Syrian refugees in Lebanon require $1.8 billion this year alone, with $165 million paid by the Lebanese treasury." Daher estimated the cost on the public treasury related to the refugee crisis to be $5 billion.

Hanin al-Sayed, coordinator of the World Bank Human Development Program in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, spoke about World Bank estimates of the economic and social impact of the Syrian war in relation to Lebanon. "It denied the Lebanese economy 3 percent of growth yearly [since 2012], which the Lebanese treasury spent an additional billion dollars in the same period due to the war and lost $1.5 billion in revenues." She indicated that Lebanon needed "$2.5 billion in investment in the infrastructure, to return to its pre-2011 state.”

"Lebanon cannot bear the cost of returning to stability on its own and the international community should help through grants. However, the Lebanese state should accompany this with reforms in the sectors profiting from these investments," said Sayed.

Refugee Counter

Kelly said 897,000 refugees have registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon, while 50,000 are still awaiting registration. There are a further 50,000 refugees counted by UNRWA, who moved to Lebanon from Palestinian camps in Syria. These figures mean there are nearly a million refugees in Lebanon who are known by name, 75 percent of whom are women and children.

Twenty percent of those living in Lebanon today are refugees due to the war in Syria, representing around 25 percent of Lebanon's residents before the Syrian revolution. This creates tremendous pressures.

In an earlier report, the World Bank indicated that the number of refugees in Lebanon, if compared to a country the size of the United States, for example, would represent almost 70 million people, or the population of Canada. The World Bank predicted the worst: The number of refugees could reach 1.6 million in 2014 if the war in Syria continues. Sayed noted in her speech that 51 percent of all Syrian refugees are currently living in Lebanon and the rest are distributed in neighboring countries like Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan.

Social Impacts

Kelly believes that the humanitarian aid provided by the UNHCR, such as food, clothes, and medical and cash assistance, "has positive impacts on the Lebanese economy, since they are spent by the refugees on on local products. The biggest challenge to refugee assistance is housing, especially since 70 percent of them live in rented apartments with more than one family in each apartment. The remaining 30 percent are living in tents or buildings under construction."

Kelly indicated that the continuing influx of refugees poses a big challenge to the housing program of the UNHCR and providing education to youth. "Despite the cooperation of the Lebanese Education Ministry to provide education for refugee children in Lebanese public schools, 200,000 refugees remain without access to education."

Daher disagreed with Kelly, indicating that "the number of Syrian students in schools is around 480,000, and their percentage of the total number of Syrian children in Lebanon is higher than the rate of children receiving education in Syria, according to the known numbers."

"There are two impacts of the Syrian war on the the national economy. The first is related to what the war caused in halting transit, disruption of investment, stagnation in consumption, and reduction of the size of the economy as a whole, among other things," Daher explained. "The second impact is directly related to refugees and leads to a high cost falling on the public budget and the economy."

Sayed said that due to the Syrian war, 170,000 additional Lebanese have fallen below the poverty line and the unemployment rate among Lebanese rose from 10 to 20 percent.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

So sad. :(

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