As of January 4th, 2013, the total number of refugees that have fled to Lebanon from Syrian territories is 190,000 split amongst 175,000 Syrians and 15,000 Palestinians. To put that into perspective, that’s almost a 4.5% increase in Lebanon’s total population in the last few month. This puts Lebanon as the country hosting the most refugees, followed by Turkey with approximately 148,000, Jordan with 120,000 and Iraq with 62,000.
Turkey, Iraq and Jordan have somewhat obstructed the flow of refugees across their borders. Iraq has practically sealed off its border completely and Turkey and Jordan have set up refugee camps close to the border and are regulating the influx.
Lebanon Refugee Stats
Our border with Syria is virtually nonexistent. It’s not even demarcated. Individuals and groups can come and go as they please across the 375 kilometer stretch of mountains and fields we share with our neighbor to the north and east.
Lebanon already has 455,000 Palestinian refugees living within 12 refugee camps within its borders in deplorable conditions widely deemed to be against basic human rights. This potentially puts the current number of foreign refugees on Lebanese territories well over the the 600,000 mark, meaning almost 15% of people in Lebanon are currently foreign refugees, a staggeringly high number.
Complications with Refugee Issues in Lebanon
History and Sectarianism
The Lebanese civil war, the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as deeply rooted sectarian divides make refugee issues extremely controversial ones in this tiny country. The overwhelming majority of Syrian and Palestinian refugees are Sunni Muslims. This traditionally unsettles leaders of other sects in a country where power is divided per sect. This means a sudden increase of one sect, might automatically mean that that particular sect’s influence dramatically increases. Perhaps not in the number of seats allocated for that sect, since that is virtually impossible to amend in the Taef Accord and Lebanese constitution, but in the ability of a certain sect to choose candidates from other sects loyal to it.
That has been the case for the dwindling number of Christians in Lebanon, who ceremonially control 64 seats in the 128 member parliament, but practically vote in barely two dozen MPs themselves, with the rest being divided among other sects’ shares.
So, it is understandable that the ever-present possibility of the naturalization of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon complicates positions and policies that have to do with individuals that have fled the violence in their home countries and sought refuge in Lebanon.
Also, political ideology adds a further layer of complication to the Syrian refugee surge. The 14 March coalition and its Sunni leadership are actively involved in the Syrian conflict despite the elaborate and fantastical attempts to cover that up. The 8 March Shiite leadership, mainly Hezbollah, is doing an equally feeble attempt at concealing their direct involvement in the Syrian conflict, which has seriously damaged their once sound integrities in the Arab and Islamic World and sets them up as hypocrites when it comes to The Arab Spring.
The testament that the above is true despite both coalitions’ denial are the body bags of Lebanese fighters streaming in regularly from across the border, both of which claim to be “performing Jihadi duties”.
14M are supporting the Islamist rebels and 8M are supporting the tyrannical regime, which means that the refugee problem is handled very differently by these two camps. On the one side, 14M embraces them with open arms as fellow victims of the Syrian regime that has wrought havoc on Lebanon for 3 decades. On the other, 8M are uncomfortable accepting the reality that their most valuable ally is causing a mass exodus of his innocent people to stay clinging to power in a bloody crackdown. Also, their rhetoric that this is a result of haphazard, spontaneous “terrorist groups” is one their own audience does not even believe anymore.
The Lebanese Cabinet Plan
Well over a year overdue, the plan has finally been given the green light, although its specifics remain unclear. For one, we know that the government asked for 190 million dollars in aid from the Arab and International community. For two, we know that no camps will be set up, similar to the ones in Turkey and Jordan. For three, we know that Interior Minister Marwan Charbel has been tasked with creating a special committee that will oversee and resolve security concerns that have to do with these refugees. After all, not all those seeking asylum are innocent civilians, and harsh conditions might spark unrest. It is unacceptable that in Lebanon’s and the Lebanese’s good faith, sovereignty and security be taken for granted. Here, I’d like to say I am against armed Syrians using Lebanon as a base, but completely for Syrian activists being able to campaign and push their cause, peacefully, under the protection of Lebanon’s security apparatus instead of complicity in their kidnapping and handing over to uncertain and unfair fates in Syria.
My Two Cents
Personally, I find it very unsettling that some have called for the closure of the border in the face of Syrian refugees. First and foremost, we have a moral and humanitarian obligation to provide safe passage for those fleeing their homes for fear for their lives. Second, we must remember Syria took in over half a million refugees during Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel. Third, it is utter stupidity to close the parts of the border we do control since they are so few and so corrupt. People coming through official border crossings are families and innocent civilians. Militants and arms flow through the illegal border crossings, that our security forces have shown no ability, or even intent of trying to protect or control, with dozens if not hundreds of incursions by the Syrian rebel fighters and government soldiers that have led to the death of many Lebanese citizens. So, closing our borders does nothing, it only makes us heartless, spineless monsters that flex out muscles in the face of helpless refugees, and run with our tail between our legs in the face of militants and military elements from Syria.
Charles Malek alongside Eleanor Roosevelt helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We are the founding member of the UN that helped enshrine the basic rights the entire world strives to achieve. We cannot fail in living up to the monumental burden that has been thrown upon us, at least not because of our selfish, sectarian, or political interests. The world is ready to help bear the financial burden, and to give an example Germany alone has already given more than 30 million dollars in aid for Lebanon to help it handle the refugee crisis.
Personally however, I do not think the funds should be given to the Lebanese government, but to international agencies like UNICEF, UNHCR and others. Why? Because Lebanese governments have been well-documented to misappropriate relief materials and funds. We all remember how disgusting it was to see some of the 2006 relief funds and supplies resurfacing in the run-up to the 2009 Lebanese elections. We also remember Qatar’s prudent decision to finance the projects itself directly, instead of handing it to the overly corrupt governments and institutions in Lebanon.
We mustn’t shut out people in need. We can help them, while ensuring no one encroaches on our sovereignty and security. We can get over our pitiful sectarian bickering and focus on the humans fleeing for their lives and safety, not numbers of this sect versus that. We can ask for help from the rest of the world. We must be the good example when other neighboring countries have shied away and turned a blind eye. We must eliminate disgusting attitudes such as “they did this to us, let it happen to them now” in reference to Lebanese Civil War times. It’s 2013. We’re rational human being who believe in freedom and democracy. Put aside your gods and fanatic religious men and do what’s good, for goodness sake.