Lebanon fails again to address refugee crisis

What most Lebanese politicians seem to agree upon is to continue to allow refugee challenge to float in limbo and to keep crying wolf.

2016/09/25 Issue: 74 Page: 10

The Arab Weekly
Makram Rabah

Leaders from around the world assemble in New York every September for the UN General Assembly. This event is yet another occasion to show the world the abysmal failure of the interna­tional system that the United Nations has come to embody.

The UN pulpit featured many leaders who spoke about the plight of the Syrian people and the ever-growing challenge to end a war that has left a county in ruins with more than 11 million of its people either internally displaced or refugees. However, none of the speeches went beyond the expected parameters of such occasions or presented any real plan of action.

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s speech was a case in point, as the Lebanese state fails to deal with the Syrian refugees, perhaps one of its most serious challenges. Salam merely urged the international community to immediately come to the aid of Lebanon, which hosts about 1.2 million registered refugees.

The crux of Salam’s plea was to demand that the international community “devise a detailed road map for the safe and honourable return of the Syrian refugees who are present in Lebanon to their country”. While Salam’s demand might essentially come off as sound, it reflects how the Lebanese state, which has been without a president since April 2014, has failed to use the international support at its disposal to transform the refugee crisis to its own benefit.

Recently, the ambassadors of France, China, Russia, Britain and the United States and the UN special coordinator for Lebanon visited Salam to show support for his country and urge the squabbling political elite to expedite the election of a president. They further “encouraged the government of Lebanon to show global leadership and put forward constructive proposals in this connection [refugees]”.

Salam’s proposal at the United Nations was, unfortunately, neither constructive nor did it exhibit global leadership. Rather it dealt with the refugee crisis as a hot potato that the Lebanese simply wanted to toss away.

Making matters worse were comments by Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who said in a speech to a Lebanese diaspora group in New York that he supports a change in the law to allow Lebanese women married to foreigners to pass on their nationality on to their offspring.

But, he said, the children of Lebanese women married to Palestinians or Syrians should not be granted Lebanese citizenship. Those who back such a change argue that many of the men among the estimated 450,000 Palestinian refugees and 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon would marry Lebanese women and never return to their homelands.

That, they argue, would also upset the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon and greatly increase the number of Sunni citizens.

Some civil society and human rights activists branded Bassil’s remarks as racist.

The xenophobia that Bassil and other Lebanese factions have been peddling is not new. It is a rehashing of the discriminatory tactics that have been used against the Palestinian refugees since the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. The insistence of comparing the case of the Palestinians to the Syrian refugees is deceptive and extremely counterproductive to the Lebanese state.

While the danger of Palestinian naturalisation was indeed imminent during the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s armed presence in Lebanon, Syrian refugees have no similar armed structure to achieve this or the intention to declare Lebanon a surrogate homeland. Giving Lebanese women the right to pass on their nationality will never apply to all the refugees but rather to a very small minority who are eligible by law to receive it.

Lebanon stands to benefit from the international moral and financial support it could potentially receive provided a sober and inclusive refugee policy is devised. However, what most Lebanese politicians seem to agree upon is to continue to allow the refugee challenge to float in limbo and to keep crying wolf.

This tactic in addition to the lack of strategic vision to deal with the refugees and other key regional issues if allowed to persist will only make Lebanon more irrelevant and thus not worthy of saving from the wolf or even from the Lebanese themselves.

Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975.

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