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Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the British role

If Lebanon is to survive as a viable state, non-neighbor states may have to start taking Syrian refugees

Chris Doyle

Published: Updated:

As British politicians debated the relative merits of taking in Syrian refugees, I was accompanying two members of Parliament around Syrian refugee communities in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. It was an agonising exposure to the Syrian disaster, to why international aid is so vital but also raised questions about how sustainable this is. The mistaken assumption is that as refugee numbers go up, you just increase aid to Lebanon in order to cope. But what is the maximum number a polarised and fractious Lebanon can take? What will be the tipping point? As ever with these regional crises one asks in vain, is there a Plan B, or C?

One in four people in Lebanon, perhaps more, are Syrian. Could any country in the “West” accept that? As the head of UNHCR in Lebanon told me, 11,000 extra refugees are being registered with the U.N. every week, roughly the equivalent of 170,000 arriving every week in Britain. Most Lebanese politicians are reluctant to accept their semi-permanent presence. Indeed, not that long ago it was taboo in Lebanon to even refer to them as refugees. There are no formal refugee camps but this may change as the Lebanese government has identified 32 possible sites. The trouble is that nobody wants them in their back yard. The situation is so severe that many Syrians go back to the hell that is Syria.

Burgeoning population

The town of Bar Elias in the Bekaa valley has seen its population doubled. Over half of the incoming refugees are children. All have grim tales to tell. Across the town, available spaces have been taken up by wooden framed tents with canvas coverings. Ramshackle barely describes it. Despite the considerable efforts of humanitarian agencies, sewage, clean water, garbage, heating and food were all lacking. Some children had places at schools but others were missing out totally. These scenes are replicated at 1,400 sites across Lebanon.

But these refugee communities are under constant threat. Tensions with the host community are increasing. The land often does not come for free. The rent is considerable for the refugees who cannot find jobs to pay around $30-50 a month for a tiny spot for a tent. In some Lebanese villages refugees have been evicted for not paying for their rent. Refugees are angry at aid shortages but also, in some areas, at Lebanese middlemen profiting hugely from their plight. It has been over two years since the first refugees arrived and clearly they were there to stay, perhaps for years.

The British role

Whilst Britain has been generous with aid, it will be less so in taking Syrians in. Many politicians argue that letting in a few hundred refugees is just tokenism, and that Britain should focus its support on those on the ground. This was the government’s position until Jan. 29 when it announced a limited program of taking in the most vulnerable of refugees, maybe up to 500. For these few who will get a chance to restart their lives, it will never feel tokenism. Inexplicably Britain still refuses to join the U.N. resettlement program, but at least it has taken this baby step forward.

There is no shortage of acutely vulnerable refugees in Lebanon and neighboring states

Chris Doyle

There is no shortage of acutely vulnerable refugees in Lebanon and neighboring states. Looking at refugees in the Bekaa Valley, one asks which ones were not vulnerable. Opponents of Bashar al-Assad fear persecution, and are aware that crossing the border into Lebanon does not bring safety. Many women and even children fled as a result of sexual assault and do not feel safe. Child labor is on the up. Others suffer from acute trauma or disabilities that would benefit from some of the more developed care available in European states. According to the UNHCR, there are 2,440 unaccompanied or separated children in Lebanon and 1,320 in Jordan. Ten-year-old Walid from Bab Amr in Homs lost his entire family in the destruction of that urban neighborhood by the Syrian army. All he wanted was to leave Lebanon.

Britain has taken a strong stance on Syrian aid, pledging £600 million so far, second behind the United States. Having agreed to take in refugees, it can claim the moral high ground and point fingers at those states that claim to be supportive of the Syrian people but have been slow to contribute. France and Russia grandstand their connections to Syria but lag behind.

It is only as matter of time before a third of Lebanon’s population will be Syrian. A peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria is the only solution but given that the Geneva talks are more marathon than sprint, with a high chance of breakdown, where does this leave Lebanon? The country has to survive all the strains and stresses Syria’s crisis is creating. Syria-related violence is a daily event. For the refugees, partially funding an emergency aid program will not be enough and their developmental needs have to be met. The sufficient infrastructure needs to be put in place, including proper camps. Even this will not be enough and if Lebanon is to survive as a viable state, non-neighbor states may have to start taking tens of thousands, not just hundreds.

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Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in in April, November, December and January 2013 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.