Lebanon's "policy of no policy" towards Syrian refugees

Lebanon's "policy of no policy" towards Syrian refugees
Comment: If the Lebanese government truly wants to mitigate the consequences of an influx of Syrian refugees, it's about time they committed to a sustainable approach, writes Mat Nashed
6 min read
08 Aug, 2016
Lebanon doesn't have the political will to adopt a long-term solution for Syrian refugees [Getty]

Whether in parliament or on television, Lebanon's political class are blaming Syrian refugees for just about every issue in the country. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has gone so far as to frame Syrians as an existential threat to the Lebanese state. Other ministers have propagated their own bigoted views, adding to a climate of impunity for xenophobic attacks.

Hate crimes are consequently on the rise. After multiple suicide bombers killed five people in the predominately Christian village of al-Qaa more than a month ago, authorities said that insurgents could be hiding in informal refugee settlements.

While that's impossible to know for sure, one thing is certain: Scapegoating Syrians isn't mitigating the impact of the refugee crisis. The government has merely diverted attention away from their incompetency to stabilise the country while further exposing refugees to greater risks.

No support and no policy

Nearly 1.5 million Syrians have sought asylum in Lebanon, making it the country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. A report released by Oxfam and the American University of Beirut (AUB) this year warned that the current situation is completely unsustainable.

That said, the crisis must be understood in the context of the international community's unwillingness to resettle more refugees. The world's wealthiest nations have so far pledged to resettle 1.39 per cent of Syrians languishing in nearby countries. Their failure to act in the face of catastrophe has given the Lebanese government an excuse to prohibit any more Syrians from entering the country since January 2015.

Not surprisingly, curfews have only increased tensions between refugees and host communities

While others have escaped to Lebanon since then, not everyone has survived the increasingly dangerous routes. If they do, they mostly settle in urban ghettoes or in Lebanon's poorest villages. These areas have long been neglected by the government. They suffered from poor service provision and a dire lack of resources long before Syria's uprising was brutally repressed.

To compound the hardship, political paralysis at the central level - Lebanon still hasn't elected a president for over two years - has forced municipalities to deal with the crisis alone. Many have taken the law into their own hands, imposing arbitrary measures which have done more damage than good for everyone in the community.  

Curfews, raids and collective punishment

In August 2014, local councils took firm action after the Lebanese army clashed with extremist groups in the northern village of Arsal. At least 45 of them imposed curfews on Syrian refugees, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). More curfews were enforced following the al-Qaa attacks, even though municipalities don't actually have any legal powers to employ such measures.

That hasn't mattered, however, since nobody is holding municipal leaders accountable. Not surprisingly, curfews have only increased tensions between refugees and host communities.

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Syrians have expressed resentment for being collectively punished for other people's crimes. Meanwhile, Lebanese nationals are being told that refugees are responsible for security issues in the area, leading some to think that they can attack them with complete impunity.

Municipalities have even reached out to Interior Minister, Nohad Machnouk, requesting more security personnel to monitor Syrian refugees, who many residents claim are responsible for a perceived increase in crime. Although municipalities are supposed to have their own local police force, most are unequipped to protect their community from insurgent attacks.

Many villages have consequently set up their own informal police networks, which are usually made up of young unemployed men who are often charged with the task of identifying suspicious activity, enforcing curfews and manning informal checkpoints at night.  

Mayor Hessin Lakkis of Baalbek, a town in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, told The New Arab that he has requested the central government to increase security in the area on multiple occasions. 

Syrian refugees have been in Lebanon for nearly five years, yet politicians refuse to acknowledge the protracted nature of the crisis

"The Internal Security Forces [Lebanon's national police force] are very absent here. If they don't increase security than we will have to take matters into our own hands," he said over the phone.

The climate of fear has only compounded the suffering of Syrian refugees. Over the last month, Syrians have said that their camps have been raided in the middle of the night. Municipalities have said that only those without legal documents are detained and questioned.

What they fail to realise is that at least two thirds of Syrian refugees are living without any legal status due to complicated and expensive procedures.

A protracted approach to a protracted crisis  

Syrian refugees have been in Lebanon for nearly five years, yet politicians refuse to acknowledge the protracted nature of the crisis. But if they truly want to mitigate the consequences for their own people, then it's about time they committed to a sustainable approach.

That means first removing barriers to Syrians obtaining residency. Driving thousands of people to the fringes of society doesn't bode well for the state, its citizens, or for refugees. Syrians should also have legal access to the job market. This would limit an oversaturated black market which is plunging already poor, Lebanese nationals into further poverty. Such a measure however, wouldn't accomplish anything, of course, unless the government also tries to regulate the labour market.

There also needs to be a functioning state security presence across the country in order to dissuade citizens from taking the law into their own hands. If Lebanese laws are not being followed, this only damages the legitimacy of the central government.

Corruption seems inevitable considering the Lebanese government has no political will to adopt a long term solution

The international community must support the government in providing better infrastructure for electricity and fresh water. Once Syrians return to their homes, the villages that hosted them will surely benefit from any projects that improve provisions. Yet supporting Lebanon financially won't be enough if the world's wealthiest nations refuse to resettle a far higher quota of Syrian refugees.  

Unfortunately, the international community seems more invested in erecting barbed wire fences to keep refugees at bay. Then again, even when they do pledge financial support, political corruption in Lebanon risks squandering much of the money they receive.

Corruption seems inevitable considering the Lebanese government has no political will to adopt a long term solution. Every single minister agrees that Syrians cannot settle for a protracted period of time since it could encourage their naturalisation, which politicians say would tip Lebanon's fragile confessional balance in favor of Sunni Muslims.

There are no illusions when it comes to talking about Lebanon. Politicians like Bassil are more inclined to maintain the country's confessional balance in order to preserve their seat in power. For them, that will always take precedence over building a more dignified life for those most neglected in the country.

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.