1. Abstract. Syria’s extended conflict can have untold consequences on Lebanon’s security, society and economy. While the “International Community” asserts its commitment to Lebanon’s stability,its actual policies regarding the massive Syrian refugee presence are driving Lebanon closer to the edge of the precipice. Lebanon bears the brunt of an unparalleled, possibly irreversible migration in an overcrowded and divided nation. Its salvation rests on influential countries moving to establish safe havens in Syria, and sharing through a quota system the responsibility of harboring refugees. Lebanon will need to reassess its policies, and institutional and logistical arrangements pertaining to the refugee presence.
  2. Is Lebanon’s fate ever to be the Middle East’s refugee camp? Shouldering a load of unprecedented magnitude and unevenly shared,Lebanon is the first among host nations for refugees possibly in absolute numbers, and definitely relative to its small land area and population. Syria’s global war has so far displaced half of its people – seven million within, and five million outside the country. Lebanonshelters 1.2 million registered refugees, in addition to Syrians present in Lebanon prior to the war, and sixty thousand births hitherto recorded to refugees – a total exceeding one-third of resident Lebanese citizens. The abrupt 30% increase in demand for services with no matching growth in supply creates an “economic shock” eroding productive capacity and welfare levels, especially in Lebanon, yet to recover from its own civil strife (1975-90) and rehabilitate its infrastructure.
  3. Syria’s war spillovershave hurt Lebanon’s security-sensitive, service economy, with falling investment and employment, disruption of trade, and decline in tourism.The war and strain of refugee presence exact a heavy tollonboth national economy and state budget, testing Lebanon’s forbearancewith, yearly: (i) US$2.5 billionin foregone – equivalent to 5% of – gross domestic product; and (ii) US$1.7 billion in– equivalent to 12% of total – budgetary expenditures to provide refugees with medical care and schooling (200,000 Syrians for 280,000 Lebanese in public schools), in addition to utilities subsidies and law enforcement outlays. Thesocial costs on Lebanon’s poorare forbidding, as the inordinate refugee stream increased labor supply and depressed wage levels, stressing living standards. The effect was to: (i) drive up unemployment rates to double their pre-war levels, particularly among the unskilled in the poorest border regions, home to the largest contingent of refugees; and (ii) add 170,000 to the one million Lebanese living in poverty.
  4. Syria’s protracted, devastating conflict augurs a long, possibly permanent refugee presence in Lebanon. “Not all refugees were created equal”. Assume refugees had fled as a result of flooding of the Euphrates river. A reliable needs assessment would outline the parameters, costs and duration of recovery and resettlement, on the basis of which the “global community” would work hard to make for a swift return of those displaced. Quite dissimilar is Lebanon refugees’ case, where forecasting the conflict’s outcome and duration is mere conjecture. What is sure however is that the extent of the wreckagewrought by the merciless conflict means that a lengthy period will be required to mend at least marginally Syria’s infrastructure, housing stock, productive facilities and livelihoods, once, and if, peace is restored.The fact also that this very “global community” is party to the conflict, will not make it a guaranteed partner in the reconstruction efforts in all peace settlement scenarios. The ethnic cleansing resulting from various groups vying for expanded territory adds to fears that many displaced Syrians will not be allowed back in their homes – History is rife with similar tragedies. All this portends an extended, possibly permanent, presence for many Syrians in Lebanon. An inauspicious sign are UN Security Council statements on “voluntary” return of refugees to Syria once peace prevails.
  5. The spreading fire ignited in Syria could well engulf Lebanon, boding further ill for the region. Some of the war’s repercussions on Lebanon may have become beyond remedy.The prolonged refugee presence, crowding and pricing natives out of labor and housing markets at their very doorsteps, has fueled social conflicts and created a gulf of enmity and distrust with host communities. Containing this facet of the crisis is critical to preserving Lebanon’s demographic, regional, urban, environmental, economic and social equilibria. Further, latent Lebanese-Syrian-regional contentious issues carry the potential of violent eruptions on Lebanese soil, as witnessed in “Arsal-Hills” where, entrenched in nearly 10% of the national territory, ISIS and al-Nosra are waging war against the Lebanese army, and each other. The danger is heightened by the chasm splitting the Lebanese themselves regarding Syria’s war which has straddled the national frontiers in both directions. Insecurity and instability must be feared from the inevitable infiltration of radical criminal elements who have ridden the tidal wave of refugee inflows. Risks also arise from migrants living in desperate economic conditions breaching the law, or in insalubrious surroundings increasing the incidence and spread of disease.
  6. Lebanon will uphold its humanitarian responsibilitiesashost nation, yet distinguish between those running for their life or after their livelihood. Lebanon’s policy based on a uniform level of service (in education, health, infrastructure,..) to citizens and refugees alike, has been nothing short of encouraging an economic-based, not only security-driven,exodus to neighboringLebanon where standards of living, measured by per-capita income, are now nearly ten times higher than Syria’s.This is evidenced by the steady pace of refugee entryregardless of field realities in Syria. Raging battles or fighting lulls, inflows went on unaltered and unabated, including from areas not the closest to Lebanon’s border, or outside battle zones. As is the norm worldwide, Lebanon’s moral duty as host nation is to provide refugees with vital services – unrelated to its citizens’ entitlements – on the premise that their sojourn is temporary, awaiting the first opportunity to return home.
  7. 7. Lebanonmust retain exclusive leadership of the refugee file, through state institutions in coordination with the donor community.To help refugees and host communities alike, the Lebanese government in consultation with donors had defined a “Road Map for Priority Interventions”which would be funded by donors, and carried out under guidance of national institutions, with joint donor supervision. This has not been always the case. Further, to respond to donors’ governance-related concerns as to the transparent use of their resources, the government proposed that these be channeled through a “Trust Fund for Syria” that the World Bank would administer along its prudential rules. The effort was to no avail as, set up two years ago to be a conduct for assistance, commitments to the Trust amount to a paltry US$75 million, compared with US$4 billion in needs.
  8. 8. Lebanon has been calling forburden sharing in hosting refugees, whereas the international community seeks to anchor refugees in the “neighborhood”. The magnitude of the refugee problem calls fora global response to a tragedy that should cease to be viewed as a mere predicament of geographic proximity. Countriesthat have a stake in Syria’s future,and joined the war – directly or indirectly in funding, arming or assisting warring camps – must share responsibility in offering asylum to displaced Syrians. (This is especially true for thebroader Arab world whose response in admitting refugees has been disheartening.) Allotmentswould be under a quota system based on host country’s inhabitable area, population, density, and economy. Where numbers exceed country limit, refugees would be relocated to others with available headroom. This proposal has been rejected by the influential states which consistently opposed any policy of conditional entry of refugees to third countries, while restricting accessto theirs. In fact, the international community views Syria’s adjoining states as the main retaining wall to stem the flood of those seeking sanctuary westwards. Thus bent on keeping refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, with no concern to the burden, cost and other implications of such presence, it seeks to meld Syrians into the economic, social and urban fabric of host countries, so they become an integral part of the domestic labor force – hence the push for donor-funded programs dedicated to creating employment for Syrian refugees, which Lebanon firmly rejects.
  9. For Lebanon, the problem is one of headcount, not merely dollar count. Tragic and abysmal as Syria’s war may be, Lebanon has a finite capacity as to the number of refugees it can host and provide with minimum care, while maintaining its security and fragile political and demographic equilibria. Lebanon can shoulder no more than its part of the refugee burden under a fair quota system – already exceeded by any norm, as Syrian migration has raised Lebanon’s population density by 1/3rdto over 600 persons/Km2, the world’s fifth highest when excluding city-states. (A comparison would be a sudden inflow of 110 million refugees in the USA…which still would keep population density below 45 persons/Km2.) Lebanon needs to reconsider its policies with appropriate logistical arrangements including the establishment of settlement centers to optimize aid delivery and allow effective coordination of eventual relocation of refugees. (Possibly, these settlements, and these settlements alone, could be home to donor-financed, work-generating activities.) In Lebanon, this option deserves to be considered on its own merit despite the weariness to the very notion of “camps”, which many Lebanese, reminiscent of the Palestinian experience, fear could in time turn into entrenched islands of destitution and militancy eluding and undermining the authority of the state.
  10. Time is ripe forsafe havensin Syria. The evolving field positions of warring factions over the five-year conflict have yielded undisputed, relatively secure zones in Syria. No easy undertaking undoubtedly, establishing “safe havens” for refugees in such areas is a promising, effective and only humanitarian solution. Opposition to this proposal was based on the argument that without enforceable UN Security Council resolution allowing use of force, its application would require assent of all parties to the conflict to protect the settlements. That condition was beyond reach, as there is little faith in the regime and other feuding groups’ ability or desire to guarantee the settlements safety. Now that foreign powers (even lesser powers) conduct airstrikes at will in Syria’s hence “open skies” with no mandate beyond their own “raison d’état”, they should be equally capable (if not morally expected) to delineate secure areas which they protect from the air, while selected international troops keep peace on the ground. Therein, Syrians who left forcibly the conflict zones could receive assistance in a cost-effective way, and be shielded from the indignity of exile. In parallel, neighboring countries, chiefly Lebanon, would be spared the untold stability fallouts of an unsustainable refugee burden.
  11. Lebanon needs a broad-based national consensus policysupported by the international communityto contain the refugee problem while still possible. Arudderless ship in stormy waters, sailing aimlessly through Syria’s thick fog of war, Lebanon needs to reconsider its response to this existential problem before it is too late. Gone is the time when the Syrian exodus was viewed as a passing cloud that would clear with the blossoming of Syria’s “Arab Spring”. While the international community is “virtually” committed to the stability and security of Lebanon, its actual stance – part policy of the ostrich, part self-servingactions to keep would be migrants at bay – is fatefully overlooking the potential dislocations and upheavals that the major, possibly irreversible Syrian influx could thrust upon Lebanon, undermining its stability, economy and social peace and cohesion.



Samir El Daher

February 2016