The Syrian refugees: Lebanon’s mortal sin

The challenges of Lebanon’s response to the refugee crises cut to the very heart of the sectarian divide.


2017/07/02 Issue: 113 Page: 14


The Arab Weekly
Makram Rabah



Blaming others, particularly foreign elements, for Leba­non’s mishaps can be considered a Lebanese national sport. Conveniently, the Syrian refugee crisis has provided both the political class and the Lebanese population at large with avenues to pursue this blame game.

As if determined to highlight this singular shortcoming, Leba­nese Minister of Energy and Water Cesar Abi Khalil blamed Lebanon’s electricity crisis on the 1.2 mil­lion refugees, who, despite their burdensome toll on Lebanon’s economy, are certainly not the prime reason the ruling elite is incapable of addressing issues of basic utilities.

However, the phantom chimaera of the strains placed on the Leba­nese infrastructure by the refu­gees is one that has consistently mired efforts of the international community to address the crisis. Time and time again the Lebanese government has failed to rise to the challenges, proving itself an inadequate partner to receive the much-needed funds to develop its own infrastructure and meet the increasing medical and education­al demands of the growing refugee population.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s unimaginative plea to the donor countries at a Brussels conference in April framed the refugee crisis as a ticking time bomb, threatening the interna­tional community with repercus­sions of their continued failure to dispense the much-needed funds. This scare tactic failed to win con­siderable support, as the crux of the problem is far removed from a lack of funding and instead stems from the Lebanese government’s structural shortcomings.

From the first influx of refugees, most of the factions inside the gov­ernment failed to formulate a clear response that showed some form of long-term thinking. Instead, they chose projects that openly aspired to capitalise on the interna­tional community’s largesse.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the internal bicker­ing of the various government agencies over jurisdiction derailed the refugee relief process. As a consequence, much of the funds lie trapped within a sea of red tape, most of it created for the sole purpose of imploding the process and diverting the funds to various factions’ coffers.

Before the start of the Syrian crisis, the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) was neither a coveted nor prestigious post in the eyes of the political elite, who preferred to compete for the more prominent security or service-ori­ented government portfolios.

However, this governmental ugly duckling, which typically dealt with society’s least popular issues, has become the hub for the differ­ent efforts to address the over­whelming influx of refugees. Con­currently, the government formed a subcommittee of the government ministries including almost the entire cabinet, rendering regular meetings logistically impossible and the outcome catastrophic.

The Hariri government created the position of State Minister for Refugee Affairs and appointed Mouin Merhebi, a member of the Hariri Sunni majority parliamen­tary bloc, to run it. While this move was perhaps intended to make things better, it introduced further obstacles to the issue. Primarily, this ad hoc ministry had no legal charter or mandate and, more importantly, it duplicated the work of MOSA and its minister and a member of the Lebanese Forces (LF), Pierre Abi Assi.

The challenges of Lebanon’s response to the refugee crises go deeper than questions over the jurisdictional overlap. They cut to the very heart of Lebanon’s sectar­ian divide. On the one hand, Abi Assi, whose party is answerable to its Christian constituency, has had to tread lightly when dispens­ing funds to refugees. Much of Abi Assi’s electorate tends to view the predominantly Muslim refugee population as essentially an inva­sion by stealth and is inclined to see any humanitarian act as tacit encouragement.

Merhebi, whose Future Move­ment leads Lebanon’s Sunnis, fares little better. Most of Lebanon’s refugees are in eastern parts of the country, particularly in the Beqaa Valley, a predominately Sunni area. The economic strains the refugees placed on these regions has done little but provoke resentment with­in a host population that many see as bordering upon revolt, unwill­ing to allow aid to trickle past them without first receiving some slice of the international pie.

The sectarian reality of Leba­non’s politics, as well as the struc­tural chaos of its response, has led to international agencies bypassing the government and delivering aid directly to the refugees. This might seem a practical response; how­ever, the outcome is muddying the water. One immediate effect of this is that, without local account­ability, some refugees are seeking to exploit the system. For instance, with financial aid distributed per person, an additional child is a source of potential income.

Regardless of who is to blame for Lebanon’s failure to respond to the refugee crisis, what is certain is that given the Lebanese govern­ment’s record, to continue on the current path can only yield further disasters.

Irrespective of jurisdictional and sectarian tussles, Lebanon’s refu­gees are fleeing some of the most extreme horror of the modern age. They have gone to Lebanon for the simplest of things: Help. Lebanon’s appalling record in responding to that is a mortal sin that cannot be passed on to others.


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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