Lebanon reaches the limit

The country will no doubt be used as an object lesson by governments, political parties and organizations across the world with their own agendas for limiting immigration.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon  (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian refugees in Lebanon
(photo credit: Reuters)
There must be a limit to the number of immigrants, whatever their status, that any sovereign state can accommodate before its social cohesion and infrastructure begin to collapse under the strain. Acknowledgement of this political reality has been slow to develop within Western governments, largely because it runs counter to the generally liberal approach that most adopt towards legal immigration. There has also been some reluctance to take action because of the gray area that exists between immigrants and genuine refugees, to whom governments have humanitarian obligations under international law.
There is another reason why most governments have been reluctant to recognize the political hazards of unrestricted immigration – the fact that it is an issue taken up with enthusiasm by parties of the Right, often of the extreme Right. Such parties have enjoyed an upsurge in popularity in the past decade.  Many frame their appeal by emphasizing illegal immigration, which has soared to unprecedented levels. Sometimes they use other arguments. Just before Christmas a German group calling itself Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) drew a crowd of 17,500 people to a demonstration in Dresden. Claiming to be neither racist nor xenophobic, Pegida says it is simply calling for the preservation of the country’s Judeo-Christian culture. It advocates a tightening of the immigration laws, not only within Germany but in the EU generally.
In the US, the Tea Party regards illegal immigrants, vast numbers of whom continue to infiltrate into the country from Mexico, as “a direct to threat to ... the rule of law, free markets, private property, individual freedom, and fiscal responsibility.” Estimates vary, but some 15 to 20 million illegal immigrants are thought to be living in the States, while the annual influx is about a million. In Britain, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has sprung to prominence in recent years. Its leader, Nigel Farage, has said that the party is likely to go into the upcoming general election promising a five-year ban on people coming to settle in Britain while immigration policy is sorted out.
In France the National Front’s policy is to reduce annual immigration from 200,000 to 10,000, to ban all illegal immigration and to end the current right of illegal immigrants to remain in France if they have been in the country for a certain time. No doubt the National Front will ensure that the Islamist attack in Paris on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 feeds into the forthcoming elections. In Norway there is the Progress Party; in Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party. In Austria the Austrian Freedom Party has had representatives in parliament since 1999. Similar examples can be found in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Holland, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece, all of which have extreme right parties that hold parliamentary representation.
In Australia it was the right-wing government that took the initiative early in December to deal with a backlog of 30,000 illegal “boat people.” For them it tightened the immigration laws, while for genuine refugees it introduced temporary visas which grant protection for up to three years but do not give them the right to settle in Australia for good. New Zealand follows Australia’s tough approach to illegal immigration. But none of the countries combatting uncontrolled or illegal immigration had so far declared that saturation point had been reached – until the announcement early in January from Lebanon’s Interior Minister, Nohad Machnouk: “There’s no capacity any more.”
Lebanon is hosting what is now the highest per capita number of refugees anywhere in the world. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict more than 1.5 million refugees have taken shelter in a country with a population of 4.5 million. On January 5 Lebanon imposed new restrictions to stem the flood of refugees pouring in from war-torn Syria. Travellers from Damascus will now need to make a formal application to enter the country, and will have to apply for one of six types of entry permit -- tourist, business, student, transit, medical or short stay. Each permit requires specific documentation, such as hotel bookings, and for tourists possession of $1,000, or for business people an invitation from a Lebanese company. There is no provision for those seeking asylum, but according to Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon: "The government says that it will allow those extreme humanitarian cases access."
The unprecedented influx of homeless, desperate people has overwhelmed Lebanon's water and electricity supplies, pushed up rent and depressed the economy. Host communities across the country have been stretched to breaking point. Villagers say they have been forced out of their jobs by Syrians willing to work for lower wages. An increasing number of attacks on the informal refugee settlements have been recorded. More than 45 Lebanese towns and villages have imposed curfews, enforced by local, often violent vigilantes, banning Syrian refugees from moving after dark.
In addition to the disruption of ordinary life caused by accommodating hundreds of thousands of incomers, Lebanon faces a social problem all its own. The Lebanese social order has traditionally been a careful balance between the Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim and Christian elements in its society. Seats in the parliament are allocated 50-50 as between Muslims and Christians, while the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker a Shia Muslim. The Syrians fleeing into Lebanon are almost all Sunni Muslims, and there are fears – not least among Hezbollah and its supporters, who are of the Shi’te tradition – that if they were settled permanently, they would destabilize the country's delicate sectarian balance.
Lebanon has been pushed to the very limit of viability in absorbing incomers. It will no doubt be used as an object lesson by governments, political parties and organizations across the world with their own agendas for limiting immigration – and indeed there are lessons to be learned from Lebanon’s experience. Although it has been the victim of events largely beyond its control, its ordeal does demonstrate just how disruptive to a society an uncontrolled and unplanned influx of newcomers can be. The answer surely lies in government policies that encourage controlled and planned immigration likely to benefit a society, offer humanitarian shelter to refugees fleeing from their home countries in fear of their lives, and have zero tolerance for those seeking to enter a state illegally, and for those profiting from this form of human trafficking.
The writer’s new book is titled: The Search for Détente: Israel and Palestine 2012-2014.  He writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com).