Monday, 4 March 2013

Lebanon in crisis

Damascus is half-an-hour’s drive from the Lebanese border, and refugees from the civil war currently raging in Syria are flooding over that border in ever-increasing numbers. An authoritative estimate is that asylum-seekers from Syria have reached 400,000 – which, if true, would represent a 10 per cent increase in Lebanon’s population of 4 million. If this influx of homeless people into a small, and not particularly prosperous, country continues on this scale, it will speedily turn a humanitarian crisis into a disaster.

The number of refugees involved is, moreover, only one aspect of the problem for Lebanon. Just as important is the sectarian allegiance of the majority of those pouring into the country. For they are mainly Sunni Muslims fleeing from President Bashar Assad and his ruthless Shi’ite-affiliated régime, supported as it is by Iran and its protégé, the Islamist terrorist organization Hezbollah. But Hezbollah has managed to infiltrate itself into Lebanon’s body politic, and is an integral element in the government. So the Sunni refugees are perforce flying into the arms of a country where a government minister is a member of Hezbollah, and the terrorist organization controls eleven of the thirty seats in the cabinet. In the circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the Lebanese government has done little for their hapless visitors, who have largely been left to fend for themselves.

The civil war in Syria − which to a large extent involves a Sunni-backed attempt to oust the Shi’ite-affiliated Assad régime − is a deeply divisive issue in Lebanon, and its sectarian issues are inhibiting the government from taking decisive action to relieve the humanitarian crisis on its doorstep. Lebanon’s political constitution is a complex mechanism, aimed at achieving a delicate balance of power between Christians, Sunnis and Sh’ites. By design the composition of the government, together with that of many public institutions, is shared between these three elements.

Which explains Lebanon’s reluctance to unbalance the country’s fragile stability, and also why reporter Anne Barnard, writing in the New York Times, notes that Lebanon’s refugee crisis does not match the familiar image of vast, centralized tent camps and armies of foreign aid organizations. The crisis, she says, “is nowhere, and everywhere. Displaced Syrians seem to fill every nook and cranny: half-finished cinder block houses, stables, crowded apartments… Drying laundry peeks from construction sites. Bedsheets hang in shop windows, concealing stark living spaces. Daffodil sellers, shoeshine men, women and children begging in Beirut − all incant, “Min Suria.” From Syria.”

One other factor may be deterring the Lebanese authorities from acting more positively. The nation has been overwhelmed by at least two previous refugee crises − in 1948 and again in 1967, when Palestinians poured over the border during two of Israel’s conflicts with Arab forces that had combined against it. The consequences are ever-present. Because the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has bestowed the status of “refugee” on all the descendants of those who originally fled their homes, generation after generation, regardless of how much time has elapsed, the number of so-called Palestinian “refugees” has mushroomed. As regards Lebanon, over 400,000 Palestine refugees, as defined by UNWRA, live in the country, half of them in 12 official refugees camps. But the Lebanese, only too aware of the delicate system of checks and balances that keeps their state afloat, have consistently denied them the right to settle and adopt Lebanese citizenship. A sudden influx of Muslims into the body politic would totally unbalance the constitutional basis of the state.

Locked into the collective national memory, also, is what can happen when refugee issues remain unresolved and passions become inflamed. The Lebanese remember the shameful episode in 1976, when Christian Phalangist militias overran and destroyed three Palestinian refugee camps in East Beirut (Tel-El-Zaater, Jisr-El-Basha and Dbayeh). Tel-El-Zaater was besieged for 51 days and, when it surrendered, an estimated 3,000 of its inhabitants were massacred.

So, in an attempt to preserve the national status quo and avoid providing citizenship to some 400,000 foreigners, the Lebanese government has consistently deprived Palestinian refugees of basic rights – for example, the government bars most of them from 73 job categories including professions such as medicine, law and engineering. They are not allowed to own property, and those in refugee camps need a special permit to travel. Unlike other foreigners in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are denied access to the Lebanese health care system. A 2007 study by Amnesty International denounced the "appalling social and economic condition" of Palestinian Arabs in Lebanon.

With all this as the background, it is scarcely surprising that a further 400,000 Syrian Sunni Muslims flooding into the country are not being welcomed with open arms by the Lebanese authorities in general, and Hezbollah-affiliated officials in particular. Until quite recently no camps had been provided for Syrians, and international agencies had been given only limited access.

Lebanon has, however, recently made a move to ease its hard line on the issue. With no end to the problem in sight, and the Assad government hanging on to power, the Lebanese government recently approved plans to co-operate with the United Nations in managing the crisis. The UN now awaits funds and permission to build two transit camps, each housing 5,000 refugees − a drop in the ocean, perhaps but, to change metaphors, also a move in the right direction.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 10 March 2013:

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