Ignoring Syrian Refugees in Lebanon May One Day Come to Haunt Us

In the year up to June 2017, the UK received a paltry 27,316 asylum applications from refugees seeking sanctuary amongst its population of 64 million people. Lebanon has a population of 7.7 million. It currently hosts 1.5 million Syrian exiles, to add to the 500,000 Palestinians who have been there for much longer. To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, “that’s not a refugee crisis, that’s a refugee crisis”.

Lebanon is now close to breaking point. If people in the UK complain about the supposed impact of just a few incomers on housing, employment and public services such as health and education, imagine the strain created by a sudden influx equating to one-fifth of the total population. In the case of Lebanon, this pressure is being placed on a small country with far weaker and less well-established public institutions than Britain.

Housing for the Syrian refugees is often appalling. Many are living in abandoned and semi-derelict buildings. Employment opportunities, when they exist at all, are largely restricted to low-paid labouring jobs and other informal unskilled occupations. Some NGOs are doing sterling work to provide “double-shift” schooling for children by using school buildings after the regular pupils have gone home. But many kids are still being raised with little formal education.

The employment and education problems overlap for some families, who have no choice but to let their children beg or sell small items on the street instead of going to school.

The risk that some of these vulnerable youngsters growing up in hopeless circumstances will fall prey to extremist groups is obvious. Such groups, of course, cause security problems far beyond Lebanon and the Middle East.

Lebanese society is an inter-communal mosaic

Even before the impact of the Syrian war, Lebanon had plenty of challenges with which to contend. The human cost of its own 1975-1990 Civil War and subsequent conflicts, such as the Hizbollah militia’s 2006 battle with Israel, was horrific. The enormous damage done to the nation’s physical infrastructure has yet to be fully repaired.

Lebanese society is an inter-communal mosaic of Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze, amongst other peoples. The country’s delicate constitutional and political framework is designed to support this melting pot by giving every community a stake in it. But this fractious system has been semi-functional, at best, since it was rapidly reassembled after the war years.

For all that many Lebanese have been welcoming, or at least tolerant, of the refugees so far, there are widespread fears that the mostly Sunni Syrians will further upset the communal balance. Such fears are enhanced because their country of origin has its own dark history in Lebanon.

Of the many outside powers who have interfered in Lebanon over the years, Syria has perhaps been the most pernicious. It was the undeclared occupier of the country for thirty years and only left in 2005 after Lebanese President Rafik Hariri was assassinated. The massive protests that followed made the overt Syrian presence untenable. As many of the protestors suspected at the time, a painstaking UN investigation eventually implicated the Syrian regime in the assassination plot.

the presence of large numbers of Syrians in Lebanon is freighted with unhappy memories and suspicions

Despite most of the refugees being escapees from the same hated Assad regime in Damascus, this episode means that the presence of large numbers of Syrians in Lebanon is freighted with unhappy memories and suspicions.

This background and the tense present-day environment are ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous politicians. The Foreign Minister, Gebran Bassil, is one of the leading culprits. Bassil is the son-in-law of the ageing Lebanese President, right-wing former army general and civil war era militia leader, Michel Aoun. He is openly xenophobic and stoking fears about the refugees whilst pressing for their expulsion. His aim is to generate political support in advance of this year’s scheduled general election. Bassil’s scapegoating of the Syrian refugees is part of a pattern of rising crimes and hate speech directed against them.

Irresponsible behaviour such as Bassil’s can be added to other tensions swirling around the Syrian refugees trapped in the middle. Battles have spilled over from the conflict in Syria, with varying constellations of anti-Asad, Saudi-backed Lebanese Sunni groups and Islamist militants taking on pro-Assad Alawite forces and the powerful Iranian-backed Hizbollah (which has fought heavily for Assad in Syria). These fights are becoming increasingly vicious and frequent, particularly in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli.

The cocktail of Syrian war overspill and Lebanon’s own issues is now perilously close to boiling over into more widespread violence.

In more sensible times, outside countries like Britain would do more to help relieve the pressure on Lebanon by taking in a fairer share of the Syrian refugees. Britain’s own political chaos and fit of xenophobia make that very unlikely to happen now. But the long-term consequences of leaving Lebanon and the refugees there to struggle may eventually make us regret not doing more to help.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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