I bounce cheerful nine month old Hasan on my lap briefly before he starts to cry. His mother informs me he takes time to get to know strangers and then she tells me that he is unregistered. Legally the little person that I hold in my arms does not exist; and this is just one of the difficulties Syrian refugees in Lebanon are facing.
The situation of the Syrian refugees is steadily deteriorating. A joint report on the vulnerability of Syrian refugees in Lebanon issued on 16 December by the WFP, UNICEF, UNHCR is clear on this. Key areas of risk are in the areas of schooling, food and job security, personal safety and inadequate nutrition for children. The official number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is 1,017,433 but these may not accurately reflect reality. Recently a Palestinian friend in the camp of Burj al-Barajneh informed me that the number of people in the camp (both Syrian and Palestinian) has doubled from around 17,000 to 40,000 since the war began and tensions between new and old residents are high.
I have spent considerable time in Lebanon since 2011 when the Syrian war began and I didn’t need a report to show me how the situation is worsening. But in my view it is important to look at both sides of the coin. Lebanon is a small state still in the process of recovering from a protracted civil war, occupation by Syria and Israel, and it remains vulnerable to security threats from non-state actors. I have both Syrian and Lebanese friends and I have deep sympathy for both sides.
Alerting the international community to the situation is useful and important. But to the Lebanese any critique of the current situation comes across as hypocritical when most wealthy states are not accommodating the refugees in anything like the numbers that Lebanon is. As an observer of how this situation is playing out on the ground in Lebanon, I believe the way forward in this crisis is to establish collaborative projects that work to ameliorate the worst of the fears of the Lebanese which are: that their job opportunities are undermined by the presence of the refugees; that the Syrians will never leave Lebanon thus altering the sectarian and cultural balance of the country; and that the Syrian community represents a security threat to the local population.
This last perception is largely born of a suicide bomb attack that took place in the tiny village of Al Qaa in northern Lebanon whereby eight suicide bombers attacked a Christian village in the space of one day. This has led to the imposition of curfews on Syrian movement in many villages across Lebanon with most curfews being from 8pm to 8am each day. One of the major challenges therefore for any grassroots peacebuilding organisations is to work with the communities to alleviate threat perceptions on both sides.
Finding sustainable ways to assist Syrians in finding employment that does not threaten Lebanese job opportunities is possibly a more challenging task as many Lebanese are hiring Syrians in the knowledge that they will work for less money thereby cutting business costs and cutting out Lebanese who also need the work. A useful task would be to try to develop local projects that will assist in generating an income for Syrians but will also benefit the local community.
The fear that the Syrians will never leave is more challenging to address because this depends on circumstances beyond the control of the Lebanese Government. Whilst all Syrian refugees I have ever met in Lebanon are adamant they want to return home and do not wish to remain in Lebanon; the situation in Syria has the potential to go in one of two ways that could well prevent Syrian refugees from returning home.
Firstly, there is a risk of an increase in the sectarian nature of the conflict. Currently most refugees I speak to don’t speak of the war in sectarian terms, rather they talk of ‘al-Hukumah’ (the government) versus ‘al-Madineen’ (the civilians). But were a protracted conflict to develop, it would most likely be comprised of pro-Assad and Shi’a (possibly also Christian) militia versus Sunni-backed forces. In this scenario it is unlikely the majority of refugees will feel the country is safe enough to return to. The insecurity of living under those conditions is well known to the Lebanese who suffered through regular checkpoint killings based on religious status during the civil war.
The second risk relates to the increasing possibility that Assad will win the war but regard those who left the country as being de facto enemies of the state. His internal security mechanisms remain strong and this may also prevent Syrians from returning for fear of persecution. This is reminiscent of the Vietnamese camps in Hong Kong in the early 1990s which remained long after the Vietnam War had ended due to fears of persecution. There is another path for Syria however. After the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 Hizbullah were quick to establish an edict ordering non-recrimination or persecution of Lebanese who had worked with the Israelis in the occupied zone. This edict was respected by the local population and the government and proved extremely helpful in maintaining peace and security in the south. A similar pledge would be required for post-war Syria.
The recent joint report is important because the toll that the Syrian war is taking on both Lebanon and the Syrian refugees is getting worse and the need to find sustainable solutions is imperative. All sides need to respect the point of view of the other and the international community needs to work with the Lebanese Government and offer assistance at the local level in ways that can help alleviate the stress of the situation. Grassroots peacebuilding is what is needed to ensure that tensions do not reach a point where conflict erupts between groups which would further threaten the stability of Lebanon and the security of the refugees.
Dr. Vanessa Newby
Research Fellow & Teaching Coordinator
Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs,ANU College of Asia and the Pacific ,The Australian National University