Lebanon: Straining to Cope with the Syrian Refugee Crisis

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European Union ambassador to Lebanon Angelina Eichhorst (3rd-R), sits with a Syrian family that fled the violence in Idlib, in their house in a refugee camp in the town of Alman, northeast of the southern city Sidon, on 20 June 2013 upon her visit to the camp. (Photo: AFP - Mahmoud Zayyat)

By: Ahmed Mohsen, Amal Khalil

Published Thursday, June 20, 2013

Most studies show that the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is nearing the 1.5 million mark. The influx of such a large number of refugees is putting a strain on Lebanese society as the government pleads for international support.

Imagine a small country with few resources and a crisis-ridden political system like Lebanon having to absorb over a million refugees, a number equal to a quarter of the country’s population.

Not only are the refugees themselves impacted by this dire situation – with many resorting to roaming the streets in search of a meager livelihood – but they are impacting wider Lebanese society socially and economically.

The Lebanese state is barely able to keep up with the country’s modest population increase, unable to provide the most basic services, such as electricity and health care – not to mention a heavily indebted rentier economy that can only provide employment for a third of its young men and women.

Scourge of Racism

Such a situation can only lead to animosity and racism toward Syrians among the Lebanese, even in areas that claim to support the “Syrian people’s” uprising against the regime in Damascus. The Lebanese government’s impotence in dealing with the crisis has prompted many localities to come up with their own, often unsavory, solutions.

A number of municipalities where there is a large concentration of refugees have taken to imposing curfews on Syrian nationals, in some cases putting up large public banners that ask them “not to gather and walk around in public after 9 pm.”

Those Lebanese who fear the growing number of Syrian refugees come in two types: those racist against Syrians and foreigners in general and those afraid of the possible negative repercussions.

Such fears are only reinforced by the growing number of refugees who have turned to petty crime in order to make ends meet. While some have resorted to begging or selling trinkets on street corners, others have turned to crime out of desperation. Recent reports from the Internal Security Forces show that they have detained just under 5,500 Syrians since the beginning of the uprising, 17 percent of the total number in Lebanon’s jails today.

It is worth noting that Syrian workers have been present in Lebanon in large numbers for decades now – becoming an indispensable source of labor in all sectors of the economy – with many of those already present in the country included in the overall number of displaced.

Meager International Assistance

Given that the UN and an army of international NGOs have all turned their attention to the Syrian refugee crisis – holding conferences and raising funds for the effort – one would expect that Lebanon is receiving the necessary support from these powerful institutions.

But, according to Lebanon’s Minister of Social Affairs Wael Abu Faour, his government has received a mere 19 percent of the support it was promised. This is while Syrian refugees complain that the UN Refugee Council’s procedures take too long and are often complicated.

Abu Faour made this statement before UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who recently completed his third visit to Lebanon since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. He visited UNHRC centers that have opened up in different parts of the country to appraise the work of the agency, and met with a number of heads of municipalities in the South where many of the displaced are increasingly heading.

Guterres promised them that more help is on the way and thanked them for receiving the refugees despite their meager resources.

In a joint declaration with Guterres, Prime Minister Najib Mikati appealed to the international community to provide Lebanon with more assistance in dealing with the growing number of refugees, particularly in the fields of healthcare and education. Ominously, he recommended that new regulations be set that would only allow the entry of those who can be considered refugees, as a way to slow down the influx.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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