The issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is a pressing issue for the economy and public institutions that provide services. Furthermore, the presence of more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon causes apprehensions among Europeans about these refugees on whether they may end up in Europe either through coercion or illegally. Therefore, the international community and especially the European Union are concerned about this issue in terms of providing financial aid or coordinating with the Lebanese state which receives 40% directly from international financial aid allocated for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according to UNHCR’s MENA region spokesperson Rula Amin.
Bassil and the UNHCR
The issue of the Syrian demographic presence in Lebanon has become a political issue par excellence, especially with the eruption of the recent dispute between the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, specifically Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and the UNHCR office in Beirut because the former believes that the UNHCR is preventing the refugees from returning home. The UNHCR denied these allegations saying that it is only fulfilling its responsibilities and cannot stop any refugee from returning if he decides so. At the same time, the UNHCR cannot provide guarantees that they will be safe in Syria.
In spite of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ measures not to renew the residence permits for UNHCR staff, communications did not stop when a clear disagreement between the positions of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Minister of Foreign Affairs appeared. Hariri’s sources considered that what Bassil did does not represent the government’s point of view. However, this did not stop Bassil from standing by his position and expressing himself in many ways, including making a visit to some refugee camps in the border town of Arsal next to Syria in an effort to show that some Syrians want to go back home but there are obstacles set by the UNHCR.
The issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon remains a tool that some members of the government exploit to hide their inability to meet the people's demandsAli Al-Amin
A false excuse
The presence of more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon is an issue that heavily weighs on the Lebanese state in general. However, when it comes to several political positions, this presence is exploited and invested in. Lebanese officials who grumble about economic and financial burdens caused by the refugees on the state do not bother taking any economic, financial or administrative measures to put a stop to the systematic plunder of the state treasury caused by the quotas and clientelism policy that is festering in the state. In addition, the authority in general is not taking the necessary measures that show the Lebanese people that they have any interest to provide the minimum to curb the financial and economic deterioration.
As such, we cannot look at the issue of refugees as an issue that only causes demographic imbalance or weighs on state budget, but rather as a peg for some politicians to make positions to avoid confronting the substantial challenges which prevent the rise of the state. The refugee issue in Lebanon is projected as the core problem that the country is suffering from. To some Lebanese parties, however, many issues such as the involvement in the Syrian war are significant in terms of their consequences on the state and on their effects that sabotage state institutions.
The most important factor behind the crises faced by Lebanon is now the Syrian refugees’ issue and not confiscating the judiciary and obstructing it to maintain the imbalance in managing the affairs of state institutions and the society and it’s not in the recent decree that granted citizenship to more than 400 individuals and which reeks of suspicions. This is all in addition to the corruption pertaining to power and oil contracts and the systematic destruction of the telecommunications sector which is almost the only productive sector that continues to make money to the state treasury and which has suffered several scandals lately due to clientelism, corruption and the state’s negligence.
Nevertheless, the issue of refugees today is being tackled in a populist and sectarian manner, and most importantly through an approach that exploits this issue to open the door for the return of Syrian influence to Lebanon. The political, national and humanitarian logic poses the least risks for Lebanon if we are to compare it with the policy of the Syrian regime in this regard.
Lebanon’s international ties
Thus, Lebanon’s eagerness to keep the international cover and enhance relations with its institutions is the least damaging way for the state compared to any other option. Lebanon cannot put its relations with the UNHCR at risk for the sake of the Syrian regime which (it) Lebanon has suffered from.
It cannot curb the Syrian regime’s appetite for control and influence except by fortifying itself with international legitimacy and the Arab umbrella. Furthermore, Lebanon doesn’t have the luxury of risking its international relations at a time when it is seeking external help for the state which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Lebanon calls for supporting its economy at international conferences of which the most recent ones are the Cedar Conference in Paris, which approved $ 11 billion in aid, and the Rome conference that approved military aid to the Lebanese army.
Presenting the refugees’ issue the way it’s being presented today in Lebanon implies opening a window for the Syrian regime towards Lebanon and reflects a policy of escaping forward by avoiding the main challenges which the state must confront. Since the economic and financial burden is being used as an excuse to justify this approach, we must note that the inability of the authority to confront the corruption and mismanagement of the citizens’ affairs is the real problem which has left Lebanon without any real development plan or any serious policy to exclusively control state facilities. The state is rather absent from completely controlling its land border with Syria.
In the wake of this evasion, the issue of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon remains a tool that some members of the government exploit to hide their inability to meet the demands of building the state or to hide their involvement in corruption issues. They thus take advantage of the agonies of citizens and their urgent needs and attribute them to the problem of refugees. This does not pave way for solutions but it actually deepens wounds between the two countries and between the Syrian people and the Lebanese people who are now victims of evil powers which are ready to risk the future of the two countries for personal or partisan ends.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Ali Al-Amin is a journalist based in Lebanon and is the Editor of news site Janoubia.com.