Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Syrian question in Lebanon

Lebanon’s prime minister warns of dire consequences on social peace if the issue of Syrian refugees is not addressed. But is the warning fair

The Syrian question in Lebanon
The Syrian question in Lebanon

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri recently issued an urgent and alarming appeal in connection with the impact of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He warned that his country was approaching the “point of collapse” due to the pressures of hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees and that tensions between them and Lebanese could erupt into turmoil.

In a press conference with foreign journalists in Beirut, the Lebanese prime minister said that the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon had reached “the peak” and that “tensions” between Lebanese and Syrians could escalate to “civil unrest”. He added, in what appeared a veiled ultimatum, “we do not want to pursue actions taken by other countries that opened their borders to let the Syrians into Europe.” This was a reference to Turkey that now hosts some three million Syrian refugees.

The significance of this message does not only stem from the fact that it was delivered by the prime minister. Al-Hariri is also the president of the Future Movement, the largest Sunni political current which, by virtue of its religious and ideological make up, is the Lebanese political grouping that most sympathises with the refugees and the least likely to use them as a card in domestic squabbles.

The UN High Commission for Refugees lists one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which is equivalent to 20 per cent of the Lebanese population. It estimates that the actual number of refugees in the country (including unregistered ones and those who resided in the country before the Syrian crisis erupted) now stands at 1.5 million.

The map of Syrian refugees in the region in 2017 bears out a number of observations. Most notably, there has been a marked decline in the numbers of new refugees, the numbers of registrations and the numbers of registered marriages and births. These are among the major changes that have resulted from the resettlement processes in three countries, according to the “Regional Refugee & Resilience Plan 2017-2018” devised by UN organisations and NGOs operating in the region.

The organisations participating in this plan have launched an appeal for $4.69 billion for 2017. Of this, $2.62 billion would be allocated to the care and assistance of refugees and the remaining $2.07 billion would be allocated to support host countries.

The hoped for funding target is seen as “optimistic”. By 30 November 2016, organisers succeeded in obtaining $2.54 billion, or only 56 per cent of the projected funding requirement for that year. The plan, which covers five countries (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey), engages the efforts of more than 240 governmental organisations, UN agencies, NGOs, donor agencies and private sector organisations. Of the five countries, Lebanon is earmarked for the largest amount of funding: About $2 billion, of which $131 million is to be allocated for humanitarian assistance for refugees and $903,000 to enhancing the resilience of host communities. The funding targets a number of needs, such as protection, food security, education, health and nutrition, basic needs, shelter, water and wastewater disposal.

UN High Commission for Refugees statistics indicate that Syrian refugees from the war have exceeded five million. Most of these currently reside in Syria’s neighbouring countries and they make up the single largest group of the world’s 21 million refugees. These alarming figures have spurred the UNHCR to renew its call to international agencies to augment their efforts to assist the refugees and their host countries.

The UN report on the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan lists Turkey as the largest refugee host country, with 2.9 million registered Syrian refugees. Less than 10 per cent of these live in camps while the remainder are distributed among Turkish cities. Jordan has 657,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UN, but the Jordanian government maintains that there are actually around 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, residing in either in the Zaatari and Al-Azraq camps or in private homes.

In Lebanon, the situation is far from easy. This tiny country hosts by far the largest number of refugees in terms of their ratio to the host population. Now that the number of refugees has climbed to 1.5 million, there is one refugee to every four Lebanese citizens. According to official estimates, the Syrian refugees cost the government between $15-18 billion from the outset of the Syrian civil war to the end of 2015. The repercussions of the refugee crisis affect every aspect of life from the economy, education, security, to healthcare, communal relations and social relations.

Before setting off to take part in a conference on Syria that was held in Brussels on 5 April, Al-Hariri said that he would ask the international community to augment its financial support for Lebanon in order to prevent it from reaching the precipice. He indicated that he would present the Brussels summit with a seven-year programme according to which the international community would commit to paying $10,000 to $12,000 dollars for every refugee through investment in infrastructure in Lebanon.

The Lebanese government has stated that Lebanon needed eight to 10 billion dollars of investment over the next three years in order to maintain and upgrade currently existing infrastructure and to invest in new projects to compensate for the attrition caused by the heavy influx of Syrian refugees. According to the most recent figures in this regard, Energy and Water Minister Cesar Abi Khalil said in his latest press conference that Syrian refugees consume 490 megawatts of electricity, “thus depriving the Lebanese from a five-hour feed, which is costing the state treasury $330 million”.

In like manner, the Ministry of Labour revealed that one of the consequences of the Syrian refugee crisis was that Lebanese workers were being replaced by Syrians which, in turn, has caused unemployment to skyrocket to 25 per cent of which 36 per cent were young people and 47 per cent university graduates.

On the other hand, Lebanese sources generally tend to overlook the positive role played by Syrian refugees. Syrian manpower helps turn the cogs of the Lebanese economy and the Syrians generally work in jobs that the Lebanese do not. As Liza Abu Khaled of UNHCR put it, “the Lebanese government allows Syrians to work in three sectors: Environment, construction and agriculture. In these sectors there is no direct competition with Lebanese labour. At least, the refugees have been able to find work in these sectors in order to ensure an income for their families.”

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