Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Syrian refugees in Lebanon: Permanent?

Described by the foreign minister as a “nightmare” scenario, fears of the resettlement of Syrians in Lebanon are causing ripples in the country’s fragile political and sectarian balance, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Lebanon in late March brought with it accusations from Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil that the UN seeks to resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The statement sparked a debate about whether this was a serious danger — a “nightmare”, as Bassil said — or simply provocation for media consumption and part of the country’s normal political and sectarian skirmishes.

The UN has announced no intent to resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but Bassil cited the prospect as grounds for his refusal to meet Ban in Beirut.

Bassil’s political foes believe that his failure to meet with the UN secretary general, seen as a major breach of protocol, was motivated by the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) desire to have Ban treat him as the representative of Lebanese Christians in the absence of a president. Ban visited Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi and Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Samir Moqbel, also a Christian, as well as Lebanese parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, the most senior Shia officeholder, and Prime Minister Tammam Salam, the senior Sunni officeholder.

Offering a defence for his position, Bassil suggested that the UN wanted to resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He said Syrian refugees are the cause of terrorism in the country and that resettlement would be a nightmare for Lebanese and was prohibited under the Lebanese constitution. He added that Lebanon does not want a repeat of the tragedy of Palestinian refugees.

Several Lebanese politicians responded. Speaking on behalf of Prime Minister Salam, Interior Minister Nehad Al-Mashnouq said that the issue of resettlement had not been raised with any Lebanese official and that all Lebanese without exception rejected the idea. Urging an end to political grandstanding, he said, “It’s like we’re in a permanent election campaign.”

Bassil’s accusations are a staple in the discourse of the FPM, founded and led by Bassil’s father-in-law, General Michel Aoun, the head of the largest Christian bloc in the Lebanese parliament, which is politically allied with Hizbullah and supports the Syrian regime. FPM rhetoric often warns Lebanese Christians of the danger of Syrian refugees and at times intimates that Sunnis, led by the Future Movement, tolerate the idea because it would shift the sectarian balance in the country in their favour, since most refugees are Sunni Muslims.

Significantly, the previous government headed by Najib Mikati, in which the FPM was dominant and which contained no Future Movement representatives, showed broad tolerance to the entry of Syrian refugees. In contrast, the current government of Salam, who is close to the Future Movement and in which the Future Movement plays a major role, particularly through Al-Mashnouq, is the one that stopped Syrian refugees from entering Lebanon.

But are the fears of Syrian refugees justified?

The answer lies in Europe more than in Lebanon. Europe, with a population of hundreds of millions, has barely accepted one million Syrian refugees in its territory, while Lebanon is hosting some 1.5 million refugees, as well as another 600,000 Syrian workers, both illegal and legal, along with some 400,000 Palestinian refugees. And this in a country with a population of no more than four million.

Refugees in Lebanon live in an environment similar to their homeland; in a country that they were taught to believe was part of their own. Most Syrians, regardless of political or sectarian affiliation, believe Lebanon was historically part of Syria — something many Lebanese themselves continue to believe. In fact, some Lebanese politicians see Syrian intervention in Lebanon as normal and inevitable given history and geography.

Thus far, despite the influx of Syrians, the problems arising from it have been few compared to their numbers and the Syrian human tragedy. While a few Syrians have been involved in terrorism and collaborated with terrorist groups, it is not widespread, except in the border town of Arsal, where Syrians outnumber Lebanese two to one. It is estimated that 35,000 Lebanese live in the town, compared to some 70,000 Syrians. The Syrian population previously reached 120,000 before declining after military operations in the town.

In the Syrian refugee camps in the town, as among part of the wider Lebanese population, there is some sympathy with Syrian opposition factions, especially Al-Nusra Front. The families of many opposition fighters live in these camps.

In general, however, Lebanese security and the army have managed to preserve calm and stop the wave of suicide attacks that targeted Shia areas in past years. Armed fighters with Al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS) are holed up in the mountains on Lebanon’s eastern border, which are difficult to breach.

This is attributable to a number of seemingly contradictory factors, most importantly due to the activities of Lebanese intelligence and security agencies and their diverse relations. They may be the only party in the world that has ties with Iran and Hizbullah and also Gulf and other Arab states, the West and Russia. These warring parties all agree on protecting and isolating Lebanon from the Syrian conflagration, a consensus demonstrated in the composition of Salam’s government and the agreement between the Future Movement and Hizbullah, long-time bitter foes, to cooperate on security matters.

The success is also due to Lebanon’s status as a relatively free quasi-democracy, media openness, a weak central authority, and the Lebanese security establishment’s experience in dealing with sectarian and regional tensions in the country and with a fluid security situation. These factors have prevented a broad crackdown on refugees in the context of counterterrorism efforts.

Significant as well is that Syrian refugees largely belong to the country’s single biggest sect, the Sunni sect, and any harsh approach to refugees could precipitate a crisis with Sunnis. The way the refugee issue has been handled has prevented the eruption of major resentment and anger among refugees, who are already angry due to events in their country and their poor socioeconomic conditions in exile.

The calm could last for years, but not for decades. If the Syrian crisis endures, things may change.

Right now, Syrian refugees still feel like guests, but as younger generations are raised or born in Lebanon, they may not accept the perpetuation of the status quo. The Palestinians are a case in point. Starting out as poor refugees in Lebanon, thanks to political and military shifts and simple human nature, Palestinians became dominant for a significant period.

More importantly, Lebanon’s demographic makeup already poses a problem even before refugees are considered. The country has one of the lowest rates of population growth in the Arab world (the actual size of the population is unknown, since no recent census has been conducted due to political and sectarian sensitivities).

But due to relatively high income and education levels compared to other Arab countries, women’s labour force participation, and the high cost of living, natural growth is much lower than in other Arab states, especially compared to neighbouring Syria, which is famous for its high fertility. Indicators suggest that fertility will remain high, and perhaps even increase, among Syrian refugees.

Most importantly, Lebanon may have the highest rate of emigration per capita in the world. Young and old alike in Lebanon dream of emigrating. They are helped in this by quality education, scarce jobs and previous waves of emigrants who can support many other Lebanese who wish to leave.

Moreover, the nature of Lebanese education and its standard of living means that Lebanese are resistant to manual labour, which is left to Syrians and other migrant workers. Thus, despite most Lebanese people’s critical view of the Syrian presence, in practice they cannot do without them. Syrians fill the overwhelming majority of menial positions in the country. “We built this country,” a Syrian watchman says to a Lebanese who jokes with him about the number of Syrians in the country.

In Christian areas, residents talk about the dangers of the Syrian presence and accuse Sunnis of conspiring to increase it. Yet in these crowded towns, the streets seem empty of all but Syrians, who do most of the manual labour while Lebanese are property owners and businessmen. Much of the Lebanese workforce in these areas has either gone to Beirut or the Lebanese coast, or emigrated altogether.

All of these social factors give rise to a sensitive situation. Although Syrians are generally treated well compared to elsewhere, the gap between Syrians and Lebanese is large. It is the gap between a large conservative country that sees itself as a bastion of Arab identity and an Arab country that acts as a bridge between the Arab world and the West. Syrians and Lebanese share the same origins, speak the same dialect, and show an affinity for commerce, but the social divide is significant: the most Westernised people in the Arab world versus the most staunchly Arab in their culture and nature.

Where Lebanon has been enriched by openness, emigration and tourism, despite poor production and an inflated public debt, Syria’s policy of closure and self-sufficiency has brought only poverty, despite plentiful, cheap local products.

Most Syrians in Lebanon are blue-collar workers and the poor, which exacerbates the social gaps between the two peoples, who were once one. The divide generates a silent coldness between the two sides, a coldness fed by years of political and cultural separation before 1975 and then the Syrian regime’s control over Lebanon after 1976, which saw crimes and abuses that neither the allies nor opponents of the Al-Assad family have forgotten.

The relationship between Syrians and their Lebanese hosts seems more fraught than between Palestinians and Lebanese. History has shown how similar circumstances led to a crisis of Palestinian-Lebanese relations, when such socio-political gaps gave rise to a Palestinian state within a state in Lebanon, an expression of a social more than political division.

The Ain Al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp offers a stark example. Lebanese authorities are still barred entry to the camp, described as the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, even as traditional Palestinian forces like Fateh and the rest of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have failed to exercise control over it. The strongest force in the camp today is constituted by groups of Salafi Islamists, some of whom are affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

The camp has become a refuge for many political fugitives sought by the Lebanese state, such as Salafi leader Ahmed Al-Assir, who fled to the camp after clashes with the Lebanese army before he was arrested. It is thought that retired Lebanese singer Fadl Shaker, a companion of Al-Assir, is (or was) in the camp as well.

The Lebanese authorities have avoided establishing large Syrian camps similar to Ain Al-Hilweh. In contrast to Palestinian camps, Lebanese intelligence and security forces are able to enter most Syrian camps and places of assembly at any time.

But the problem persists. If the whole world is feeling the weight and gravity of the Syrian crisis, how can a country of Lebanon’s size, hosting refugees nearly equivalent to half its population, protect itself from the fallout?

There can be no resolution to the Lebanese crisis without resolving the Syrian crisis, even if so far the cedar state has managed to preserve its stability in the face of the Syrian war, in a true Lebanese miracle.

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