If the international community is able to agree on one thing regarding the Syrian crisis right now, it is that it is a mess. No side is winning in what has become an outright civil war, and those who seem to have the least to gain are the Syrian people themselves once the fighting stops. This blog examines the Syrian refugee crisis through the eyes of its closest neighbour, Lebanon. What is revealed is that at the local level, is that collective historical memory of the events of the civil war is what informs Lebanese beliefs about how to manage the influx of Syrian refugees.
The total number of persons of concern to the UNHCR in the Syrian crisis has reached 1,615,137 of which 1,416,277 are registered refugees. On average 8,000 Syrians are crossing into Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey daily. In Lebanon, the number of Syrian persons of concern has reached 513,560 of which 440,427 are registered refugees.
Whilst local integration for Syrians in Lebanon is considered easier owing to the similarity in language and culture between the two states, the situation there is highly problematic for two reasons: the lack of camps, and local prejudice towards Syrians in general whom the Lebanese are easily able to identify from subtle differences in their physical appearance.
The first issue, that of the camps, is deeply problematic but can be understood if analysed at the local political level. From the point of view of the international humanitarian community, the lack of camp facilities makes it far harder for the UNHCR to ensure refugee protection and general well being. Currently makeshift tents and housing speckle the Beq’aa valley, where in many cases Syrian refugees are having to pay extortionate rents from land owners to merely erect a tent on a tiny square of land. Basic facilities such as toilets and kitchens are unavailable and as the area backs onto areas of intense fighting it is insecure as missiles and other ordinance regularly land on the Lebanese side of the border.
The Lebanese government refuses to allow the construction of refugee camps for Syrians. A quick reflection on the not-so-distant past reveals the rationale for their position. Lebanon has housed numerous Palestinian refugee camps since 1948 and currently there are between 400,000 to 600,000 Palestinians residing in the country. In 1970, when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was expelled from Jordan, they moved to Lebanon and swiftly took over many areas in the south of Lebanon, but also the camps. As a result, the camps themselves became places of resistance to certain factions in the Lebanese Government during the civil war, and many battles were waged within the camps and launched from them. Indeed, the presence of Palestinians was the trigger for the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions of Lebanon during which hundreds of Lebanese were killed and wounded. Post-civil war the problem of radicalisation within the camps remains a significant issue. The southern camp of Ayn Al-Hilweh in Sidon, known to be the home of the radical Sunni Islamic group – Fatah Al-Islam, is so insecure that even the Lebanese Army do not dare to enter it. In the North, close to Tripoli is the camp of Nahr Al-Bared where in 2007 several Lebanese Internal security officers were murdered by Fatah al-Islam militants triggering an all out war in the camp which led to its destruction by the Lebanese Army, but the camp remains a site of significant tension.
This history means the Lebanese state is unwilling to create any new camps for Syrians, fearing, not unjustifiably, that they will become spaces for insurgent activity which threatens the security of Lebanon itself. As the official policy towards Syria remains one of disassociation (although this view is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain), they do not want the camps to become places where attacks against Syria, or Lebanese political groups can be planned and executed. The weakness of the Lebanese state currently means it is in no position to ensure that any camps constructed would not fall prey to Syrian opposition factions. Especially as the majority of Syrians fleeing the violence are Sunni Muslims who dominate the armed factions on the ground in Syria.
Furthermore, just as the Palestinian camps have become permanent fixtures on the Lebanese landscape, the government here fears the same will happen all over again. If they build a camp, will the residents ever leave? One of the main reasons that Palestinians cannot be naturalised in Lebanon is because they are considered to be predominantly Sunni. Lebanon has a population of around 4.5 million, if the half a million or so Palestinians currently residing in Lebanon were to become part of the Lebanese population, they would alter the delicate sectarian balance that exists today. This is not a prospect the other sects within Lebanon savour. The same is true for the Syrian refugees: the Lebanese are wary of an influx of Sunnis who might decide to stay. As Syrians are permitted to remain indefinitely in Lebanon without requiring a visa, there is nothing to prevent them from choosing to remain and building a life for themselves here and although this is different to formally recognising them as part of the Lebanese population (with the right to vote), they might present a threat in other ways. Firstly by encouraging greater interference in Lebanese affairs on behalf of the Syrian population, should it continue to grow; and secondly intermarriage with Lebanese would enable Syrian women to take Lebanese nationality. Irrational though these fears may sound, as a small state the Lebanese are highly sensitive to demographic changes for the reasons noted above.
For those Syrians fortunate enough to make it past the Beq’aa and into Beirut, the situation they face is one of hardship. Rents are incredibly high compared with Syria, and there is insufficient space. But it is prejudice against Syrians that probably causes the most difficulty for Syrian refugees on a day-to-day basis. Syrian forces occupied Lebanon for thirty years (from 1975 – until 2005). As a result of the human rights abuses that occurred under their watch, many Lebanese view Syrians with resentment. This has not always been the case, but the situation has not been helped by the sudden influx of Syrians who are prepared to accept low wages for menial work. The declining Lebanese economy makes work hard to find for young men from the lower socio-economic strata of the population and they are now having to compete even harder for the most basic of work, compounding the resentment within those sectors of the Lebanese population. The same applies to cheap accommodation; Syrians are regarded as taking up rental properties in low income areas at the expense of Lebanese.
On the whole Lebanese are sympathetic to the plight of the Syrian people but prejudice is reflected in the daily actions of every day Lebanese, from rude comments to episodes of actual physical violence. Taxis refuse to stop for them, and in one case witnessed by the author, two Lebanese on a scooter actually deliberately hit a man as he was trying to cross, when they recognised he was Syrian. Resentment is compounded by reports of Syrian refugee sympathy for movements like Jabat Al-Nusra, a Salafist group currently fighting Assad’s regime in Syria. Nowhere is the tension between these groups higher than in Tripoli, where the population is deeply polarised between those who support Assad and those who oppose him; and the Shi’a dominated Southern Suburbs (Dahiyeh) where in recent days the Lebanese Military had to intervene to break up a fight between Syrians and the local Lebanese population.
Progress on addressing the issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is doubtless not helped by the lack of cohesion amongst the political parties in Lebanon, who to this day, have been unable to agree on an electoral law that would have enabled them to hold the planned General Election on 16 June. To date, a one and a half year extension has in principle been agreed to, but it is currently being challenged by the President Michel Suleiman and one of the Christian parties led by Michel Aoun. Meanwhile the pressure on this small state to house the flows of refugees from Syria continues with no solution in sight.
Vanessa Newby, PhD Student, Griffith Asia Institute. Currently on a visiting fellowship at American University of Beirut.