Lebanon in crisis

With refugees once again spilling into Lebanon the country must decide how to deal with them, and quickly.

Syrian children at refugee camp in Tyre, southern Lebanon 37 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ali Hashisho)
Syrian children at refugee camp in Tyre, southern Lebanon 37
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ali Hashisho)
Damascus is a half hour drive from the Lebanese border, and refugees from the civil war currently raging in Syria are flooding over that border in ever-increasing numbers.  An authoritative estimate is that asylum-seekers from Syria have reached 400,000, which, if true, would mean a 10 percent increase in Lebanon’s population of 4 million.  If the influx of homeless people into a small--and not particularly prosperous--country continues on this scale, it will quickly turn from being a humanitarian crisis into a large scale disaster.
The number of refugees is only one aspect of the problem for Lebanon.  Just as important is the sectarian allegiance of the majority of those pouring into the country.  For the most part, they are Sunni Muslims fleeing from Syrian President Bashar Assad and his ruthless Shi’ite-affiliated regime, supported by Iran and its protege, the Islamist terrorist organization, Hezbollah.  But Hezbollah has managed to infiltrate itself into Lebanon’s body politic and is an integral element in the government. Sunni refugees are perforce flying into the arms of a country where a government minister is a member of Hezbollah, and the terrorist organization controls eleven of the thirty seats in the cabinet.  In such circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the Lebanese government has done little to aid their hapless visitors, who are being left to fend for themselves.
The civil war in Syria − which to a large extent involves a Sunni-backed attempt to oust the Alawite, Shi’ite-affiliated Assad regime − is a deeply divisive issue in Lebanon, and its sectarian issues are preventing the government from taking decisive action to relieve the humanitarian crisis on its doorstep.  Lebanon’s political constitution is a complex mechanism, aimed at achieving a delicate balance of power between Christians, Sunnis and Shi’ites.  The composition of the government and many public institutions are shared between these three elements.   
This explains Lebanon’s reluctance to take action that might just tip the balance of the country’s already fragile body politic, and also why reporter Anne Barnard, writing in the New York Times, notes that Lebanon’s refugee crisis does not match the familiar image of vast, centralized tent camps and armies of foreign aid organizations. The crisis, she says, is at once “nowhere, and everywhere. Displaced Syrians seem to fill every nook and cranny: half-finished cinder block houses, stables, crowded apartments… Drying laundry peeks from construction sites. Bed sheets hang in shop windows, concealing stark living spaces. Daffodil sellers, shoeshine men, women and children begging in Beirut − all incant, 'Min Suria’ - From Syria.”
One other factor may be deterring the Lebanese authorities from taking action. The nation has been overwhelmed by two previous refugee crises, both in 1948 and again in 1967, when Palestinians poured over the border during Israel-Arab wars. .  The consequences of these wars remain present until today.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has bestowed the status of “refugee” on all the descendants of those who originally fled their homes, generation after generation, regardless of how much time has elapsed, and thus the number of Palestinian “refugees” has mushroomed. In Lebanon there are over 400,000 UNRWA defined Palestinian refugees, with about half of them living in the official 12 refugee camps.  The Lebanese are only too aware of the delicate system of checks and balances that keeps their state afloat, and as such the refugees have consistently been denied the right to settle and adopt Lebanese citizenship.  A sudden influx of Sunni Muslims into the body politic would totally unbalance the constitutional basis of the state.
Locked into the national collective memory are the possible consequences of leaving refugee issues unresolved, as demonstrated in the 1970s.  The Lebanese well remember the shameful episode in 1976 when Christian Phalangist militias overran and destroyed three Palestinian refugee camps in East Beirut (Tel-El-Zaater, Jisr-El-Basha and Dbayeh). Tel-El-Zaater was besieged for 51 days and, when it surrendered, an estimated 3,000 of its inhabitants were massacred.
So, in an attempt to preserve the national status quo and avoid providing citizenship to some 400,000 foreigners, the Lebanese government has maintained the practice of depriving Palestinian refugees of their basic rights. Most of them are barred from 73 job categories, including professions such as medicine, law and engineering. They are not allowed to own property, and those in refugee camps need a special permit to travel. Unlike other foreigners in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are denied access to the Lebanese health care system. A 2007 study by Amnesty International denounced the "appalling social and economic condition" of Palestinian Arabs in Lebanon.
With this as the backdrop, it is scarcely surprising that a further 400,000 Syrian Sunni Muslims flooding into the country are not being welcomed with open arms by the Lebanese authorities in general and by Hezbollah-affiliated officials in particular.  Until recently, no camps had been provided for Syrians, and even international relief agencies had been given very limited access.
There is, however, one move that the Lebanese government made in an attempt to ease the crisis, namely to cooperate with the UN. The UN is now awaiting funds and permission to build two transit camps for the influx of Syrian refugees. Albeit each camp can only house a total of 5,000 refugees which is a drop in the ocean, but at least it indicates a move in the right direction.
The writer is the author of “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com)