Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Left with nothing

Syrians often played host to refugees fleeing violence and persecution. Today, they are the ones displaced as war wages in their country, writes Andrew Bossone

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Syrian refugee crisis that has grown considerably in the last year is testing Lebanon’s ability to absorb thousands of displaced persons.

One year ago about 3,600 Syrian refugees resided in Lebanon and some were even returning back to their country. The situation is completely different now, as their numbers have grown 36 times to about 130,000 people, at an average growth rate of 36 per cent per month since November 2011. Roughly 100,000 have come since July, when a bombing in Damascus killed several members of the Syrian president’s inner circle.

The 130,000 registered Syrian refugees is roughly the size of Lebanon’s fourth largest city, Tyre, and if 25,000 refugees per month continue to flee to Lebanon, the total will be larger in number than Lebanon’s third biggest city, Sidon, in less than two months.

“We are at the beginning of the winter season and there is every likelihood that even more refugees will be arriving over the coming months,” said UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Lebanon Robert Watkins in a recent public statement.

Numbers never paint a full picture of life, but they can reveal — in some quantifiable way — the toll a conflict exacts on a population. Numbers are often misleading when it comes to refugees, though, because many who flee never register with the UN. Some activists estimate as many as 200,000 Syrian refugees reside in Lebanon.

Many Syrians are living in Lebanon without the harsh conditions that poor refugees face. They can live off their savings. But like the poorest, they fled because the violence around them was too much to bear, and they often have nothing left.

“We decided that if things calmed down in our town we would return, but we found out our house was destroyed,” said Nour, 21, who was studying at Aleppo University until the conflict spread into Aleppo earlier this year. “All my uncles and relatives stayed in our house because theirs were destroyed, and now ours is too,” she added.

It’s a tragic story of lost homes and property, repeated by many Syrians these days, as estimates to rebuild the country after the war are as much as $60 billion. Many Lebanese have opened their homes to Syrians during this time, showing the same hospitality Syrians have shown for years.

Populations of Armenians, Palestinians and Iraqis have all found a home in Syria in the last 100 years. Even the Jews of Aleppo were said to light an extra candle during Hanukkah in gratitude for the welcome they received after being expelled from Spain in 1492.

Most recently Syria was the largest host to Iraqi refugees following the US-led invasion. In 2006, some 450,000 Iraqi refugees resided there, about the same number as total Syrian refugees today, although in twice the amount of time. Back then, Syria was credited for its “tolerance and generosity” towards refugees in a report by the World Food Programme and UN, which added that “the good conditions offered to Iraqis in Syria were most likely the reason for the lack of international interest in regard to the refugee-like situation in Syria.”

The opposite is true now. The Syrian refugee crisis has gained considerable international attention, generating from the UN one of the most comprehensive endeavours to assist a large refugee population. The UN has more than 50 international, regional and local partner agencies and NGOs working with it to assist Syrian refugees. Of its budget target of $487.9 million, donors have provided about $170 million of the requested amount so far. Additionally, the UN Development Programme has allocated more than $250,000 for 16 development projects in the border region of Akkar, focussed on areas where Lebanese and Syrians live together.

If the rate of Syrians fleeing to Lebanon continues at its current pace, however, it will not only stretch the resources of the UN and other organisations, but will add to already tense relations between different groups in Lebanon. Before the recent religious celebration of Ashura, five Syrians were arrested in the predominantly Shia city of Nabatieh with a large amount of explosives and a mortar with Hebrew writing on it, according to the Lebanese army. That the army caught five men allegedly so well armed is not a positive sign. It signals that violence can occur at any time, and take on a sectarian element that has long plagued Lebanon. While many Lebanese have so far accepted the influx of Syrians, they are only mildly tolerated by security forces, which could become less tolerant if Syrians begin openly fighting on Lebanon’s side of the border.

“The accumulation of refugees on the Lebanese border confirms that they are not all refugees and this poses a threat, especially if they are fighters taking part in the war in Syria,” Michel Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement leader, recently said.

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