Lebanese soldier in Beirut

Lebanon’s Refugee Crisis Reaches A Tipping Point Reply

Lebanon’s collective identity and divided loyalties stall proper action

By: Henry Anreder

Lebanon is feeling smaller than ever. The country has absorbed over 250,000 of Syrian refugees since 2011 and the inflow shows no sign of wavering.  This development presents a number of concerns for the stability of an already severely fractured political ecosystem.  Internal political pressure and the specter of the Lebanese Civil War threaten to stall cooperation between the United Nations and the Lebanese government on the issue.

One of the major complications is the mixed nationality of the refugees. 20,000 of these refugees are Palestinians, which for many politicians, evokes painful memories of the Palestinian role in the Lebanese Civil War. Thus, the Lebanese government and many local NGOs have sought to minimize conflict with Damascus by ignoring the crisis, and in some cases, actively threatening to repatriate Syrian refugees.  As Syrian refugee populations swell in Lebanese cities and impromptu tent camps in the Beqa Valley, it is increasingly clear that inaction is not an option.

There is a wide spectrum of options under consideration, from implementing full-fledged refugee camps to maintaining the current disorganized approach.  Human rights agencies and organizations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Human Rights Watch, are advocating for short-term transit camps to find adequate shelter for refugees with host families with a few days of arrival. The aforementioned critics of transit camps are skeptical of the UNHCR’s ability to avoid the camps transitioning from temporary to permanent.  These critics have maintained a preference for informal, community-based refugee assistance to integrate refugees.

Given the pro-Hezbollah orientation of his cabinet, it is understandable that Prime Minister Najib Mikati wants to avoid replicating the country’s experience with the large-scale construction of refugee camps. The potential for refugee camps to turn into well-armed, anti-government strongholds is present, although it is also in Mikati’s best interest to hype such an outcome. Government consent is crucial, however, because it would have to approve a UNHCR decision to implement formal transit camps. Leading academics and local NGOs share the government sentiment and feel confident that local charities can work with local communities to empower refugees in ways that refugee camps often constrain.  One potential impetus could be the Gulf states.  These countries have allocated $1.5 billion in charity funds for the refugees in Lebanon and have the political and economic influence to sway the government’s actions.  Still, a mixture of external support and pressure cannot erase the prevailing anti-refugee sentiment, especially against the country’s 53,000 new Palestinian refugees.

Whatever options are adopted are going to need to address the issue of transit coordination, medical assistance, shelter, education for children and the more intangible political implications of the plan.  And, even more important than the plan’s details, is that there is a plan.  The current stasis will only introduce yet another explosive fracture into the uncertain political future of the shrinking country.

Henry Anreder is the Communications Director at The Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs. 

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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