Most of the concern about “spillover” from the Syrian conflict in Lebanon has tended to focus on political destabilisation, sectarian conflict in the north and the impact of both violence and its own political viability from Hizbollah’s reckless intervention on behalf of the Damascus dictatorship. But this week Lebanon reached a sobering milestone: when a 19-year-old known only as Yahya signed up for UN aid as a Syrian refugee, the official number in Lebanon hit the one million mark.
This is the highest per capita concentration of refugees recorded anywhere in the world in recent history. Simply put, the population of Lebanon has increased by at least 25 per cent, and probably more, in the past three years.
Lebanon is a country of only about four million citizens, with a long-standing refugee population of more than 300,000 Palestinians as well. Political relations between those four million Lebanese have always been balanced in an uneasy accommodation between sectarian and ideological forces that often agree on very little. Indeed, one of the few things most Lebanese factions really seem to agree on is the systematic and shameful exclusion from most elements of public life of the Palestinian refugees, who are officially seen as temporary guests but are understood as a semi-permanent presence that nonetheless cannot be incorporated into the country’s socio-political mix.
When the first waves of Syrian refugees began to hit Lebanon, alarm was not immediate. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have been going back and forth between Syria and Lebanon for decades. It was assumed that these Syrian refugees, too, were genuinely temporary guests, and that, whatever the outcome, the war would end fairly quickly and they would return home.
It’s only in the past year or so that the Lebanese have begun to realise that the reality is entirely different. The war in Syria shows no sign of ending, and may well drag on longer than Lebanon’s own 15-year civil conflict. So it’s now very difficult to avoid concluding that these refugees, plus many other Syrians in Lebanon who have not registered with anyone but who also aren’t going anywhere, any time soon, have drastically altered the demographic make-up of the country for the foreseeable future, if not permanently.
Several neighbouring states have major refugee populations from the Syrian conflict, including Jordan. But Lebanon is particularly ill-equipped to deal with this scale of sudden influx, both socially and politically.
Many Syrians in Lebanon cannot afford to pay the $250 (Dh918) per head required for every year of lawful residency, and therefore many are becoming “illegal.” Without this residency, refugees are faced with the constant threat of arrest, and are ineligible for health and other social services, or legal processes such as marriage and divorce or the registering of newborns. So they live in a shadow world, hiding beneath the surface of the law.
Their desperation was recently highlighted when, on April 2, Mariam Al Khawli immolated herself in protest at the cut in aid she was receiving from refugee agencies. It should be a wake-up call to all parties, but there’s little sign of any action. Many refugees continue to live on approximately $1 a day, and more than half are estimated to be children. The refugees are also facing a rising tide of anger and discrimination, with numerous reports of intolerance and even “racism” against them growing in some segments of the Lebanese population.
Lebanon’s already beleaguered and fractious governance system is struggling to provide everyone with social services, especially education. Many Lebanese, including government officials, openly and bitterly complain that in numerous public schools Syrian students now outnumber Lebanese ones. Water and electricity services, which were already barely adequate, are now on the verge of collapse. The World Bank has estimated the financial costs of the refugee crisis to Lebanon at $2.5 billion in 2013, and that number can only grow this year and beyond.
Over time, the question of the political status and impact of the Syrian refugees, who appear to be mostly Sunnis, on Lebanon’s delicate social and sectarian equilibrium may be even more damaging. There is no doubt most of the Syrians want to go home, and they would if they could. But they can’t, and there’s no indication that they will in the foreseeable future either. If anything, there will be more refugees coming into Lebanon rather than returning to Syria.
This sudden and unexpected population explosion has brought new competition over jobs and services, new social tensions and, perhaps even more worryingly, a new political demographic, for which Lebanon is entirely unprepared.
So in addition to the spillover of fighting in the north, and the war that is trailing Hizbollah back into Lebanon following their major intervention in Syria, Lebanon now has a vast new population that is not accounted for by its social and political systems. This reality is untenable. Such a huge number can neither be fully incorporated nor excluded by Lebanon.
Neither the international community nor Lebanon have any credible answer or plausible plan on what is to be done about the calamity that has befallen each individual refugee and the entire country of Lebanon, all of which are reeling after an unparalleled human tsunami that’s far from over.