Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Lebanon’s Syrian-refugee time bomb

Ineffective aid programmes, the bitterness of winter and sheer numbers make Syrian refugees in Lebanon a potential existential threat to an already fragile country, writes Hassan Al-Qashawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

As though they had not suffered enough from machine gun and missile fire, one of the coldest and bitterest blizzards in living memory has turned the lives of displaced persons in Syria and neighbouring states into an unmitigated hell.

In Lebanon, conditions for the more than 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees and untold thousands of unregistered ones are harsher than ever. Most of these people, who now number almost a third of the Lebanese population, live in makeshift camps or shantytowns situated in the north of the country. This higher elevation receives the harshest snowstorms and freezing temperatures.

Although no official figures are available from the Lebanese government or UN organisations, there have been reports in the press of numerous deaths, mostly children.

Lebanese Minister of Health Wael Abu Faour acknowledged the lack of any official statistics regarding the number of victims of the storm, whether among Syrian refugees or Lebanese citizens. He said that information on the subject was being gathered.

The health minister said that the performance of national and international organisations in coming to the aid of Syrian refugees was unsatisfactory. He said that he had issued a decree that anyone residing in Lebanon, whether Lebanese, Syrian refugee or other foreigner, should be treated for the effects of the harsh weather conditions in government hospitals free of charge. The process would be coordinated with the minister of social affairs.

He added that the NGOs that responded at the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis were ineffective during the recent blizzard because of a lack of coordination with the government.

Abu Faour’s remarks reflect the general view of Lebanese officials and public opinion on the negligent response of the international community towards the refugee crisis in Lebanon, which has come to pose an existential threat to the country.

They hold that the international community is cutting back its aid, not only jeopardising the lives of the refugees, especially under brutal weather conditions, but also driving them into the arms of terrorist organisations such as Daesh (the Arabic name for the Islamic State group).

A municipal official from the northeast village of Arsal told Al-Ahram Weekly that Daesh is, indeed, taking advantage of the reductions in international assistance, in order to lure and recruit Syrian refugees. There are around 120,000 refugees in and around that village with a Lebanese population of 35,000.

At the same time, the measures Lebanon has taken to control the influx of Syrians into the country have triggered international criticism, from Washington and Damascus in particular. They have also stirred criticisms at home, among allies of the Syrian regime, although not from that regime’s closest ally in Lebanon, Hizbullah.

It is also noteworthy that one of the most enthusiastic supporters of these measures is Lebanese Minister of Interior Nehad Al-Mashnouq, a member of the Future Movement, which ardently supported the Syrian revolution and welcomed the Syrian refugees.

Lebanese Public Security Director General Abbas Ibrahim, known to be close to the Shia duo, Hizbullah and the Amal Movement, said that restrictive measures will remain in effect despite criticisms.

One of the most vehement critics of the measures is Walid Jumblatt, who has adopted a position that deviates sharply from other Lebanese political forces. The Druze leader has opted to flatter Al-Nusra Front and Daesh, banking on the possibility that they will win in Syria. He has said that Al-Nusra Front is not a terrorist organisation and, on another occasion, said, “May Al-Nusra and Daesh forgive me.”

Some Lebanese Arab nationalists are critical of measures intended to restrict the influx of Syrian refugees. They describe them as an expression of Lebanese chauvinism, adding the reminder that Syria hosted Lebanese refugees from all of Lebanon’s civil wars.

Despite the complaint about chauvinism, and grievances that some Syrian refugees have voiced regarding poor treatment, Lebanese anxiety over the Syrian influx seems understandable.

It is estimated that the overall Syrian refugee population in Lebanon is nearing the two million mark. There are also several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees. Meanwhile, Lebanon is ranked as one of the world’s largest emigrant nations, as measured by population ratios. There are villages that are almost entirely uninhabited, especially in Christian areas, while Syrian refugee camps are overflowing. Most of these are located in rural and primarily Sunni areas.

The agricultural sector has come to rely on Syrian labour. According to the Lebanese minister of labour, there are approximately 600,000 Syrian farm workers.

With no solution to the Syrian crisis on the horizon, the refugee population will grow and become more settled, especially with the rise of a new generation of Lebanon-born Syrians. It will be the experience of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon revisited, but on a much larger scale and with the added complication of perceived historical rights. All Syrians, regardless of their particular affiliations, believe that Lebanon is a region that was stripped from their country.

More immediately, there is the pressing problem of the refugees’ humanitarian plight. The more dire the conditions in the camps become, and the more that feelings of alienation and despair spread among the refugee population, most of whom come from poor and conservative rural areas, the more they will become vulnerable to the wiles of terrorist organisations.

Al-Nusra and Daesh have already begun to move in, now that it has become clear that there are limits to the ability of Lebanon’s Sunni forces to exploit the refugees’ bitterness.

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