A Lebanese official exclaimed: “These Syrians are going to eat us alive” after coming off the phone from an animated discussion about the ongoing crackdown against illegal Syrian workers and Syrian-run businesses. Sitting in his office, I asked how he felt that many who had lost sources of revenue would be compelled to return to Syria and suffer their fate. “That’s not my problem” was the reply.
Lebanon doesn’t have a particularly good record for the sympathetic treatment of refugees. The Palestinian refugee population (estimated at 400,000 as of 2014) was for decades prevented from integrating and blocked from taking jobs and state benefits. Nevertheless, we can sympathize with the frustrations of Lebanese bearing the brunt of the global refugee burden, with close to 2 million Syrians now constituting about a quarter of the population. In a nation with soaring unemployment, the huge pool of desperate arrivals willing to work for almost nothing to feed families sucks up career openings and drives down wages. Conversely, the sizable contributions that Palestinian and Syrian entrepreneurs have made to the Lebanese economy should be recognized. Meanwhile, some Lebanese have bigheartedly opened their homes and lands to refugees.
The refugee crisis has pummeled an already broken governing system, which is crippled by protracted political standoffs and corruption. Chronic failures in rubbish collection are just one foul-smelling symptom of the public services meltdown. This will be exacerbated by the austerity budget currently passing through Parliament; a consequence of Lebanon having one of the world’s heaviest debt burdens, at 150 percent of gross domestic product.
Just as during the 1970s, when the influx of Palestinian factions helped trigger civil war, the ramifications of today’s refugee crisis have cleaved Lebanon along confessional and factional lines. Hezbollah and its Christian allies want to rid themselves of this huge, mostly Sunni demographic. President Michel Aoun asks why the UN isn’t doing more to facilitate returns, although he should know that forcibly repatriating refugees facing a credible risk of persecution is a breach of international law. Hezbollah ally and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil demands that UN aid be directed to Syria to avoid perpetuating the Lebanon refugee presence, which would literally starve people into returning.
Hezbollah, Russia and Bashar Assad are, furthermore, anxious to normalize the situation in Syria, paving the way for envisaged 2021 elections, which they would engineer to perpetuate Assad’s tenure and draw a line under the conflict. A distracted international community may air token reservations about blatantly rigged elections, while scarcely hiding its relief that this protracted conflict can be swept under the carpet. Yet we haven’t seen the end of Syrian instability or its internationalized ramifications. In rebel-held Idlib, the regime has thus far made little headway, despite Russian warplanes killing hundreds in intense bombing campaigns.
The ramifications of today’s refugee crisis have cleaved Lebanon along confessional and factional lines.
About 170,000 Syrian refugees have reportedly returned since late 2017. Testimonies cite returnees facing official harassment and arrest. Many have vanished into Assad’s torture prisons, in which thousands were murdered. Young men are the principal targets, but women have faced vicious interrogation sessions over innocuous social media postings. Several of those who left have returned through European voluntary returns programs. Although there is no overt compulsion, penniless and desperate refugees can be seduced by financial incentives. Many aren’t equipped to make informed decisions about the grave risks.
In Lebanon, compulsion is more blatant. Hezbollah has sought to block the establishment of refugee camps and refugees have been forced to destroy their own makeshift homes. During last year’s particularly bitter winter, the very young and very old died through lack of adequate shelter.
Even Syrians lucky enough to return unmolested must start from nothing: A shattered economy, destroyed homes, disputes over land rights, and a deeply traumatized society. Adults have experienced unimaginable horrors. Children endure post-traumatic stress, missing limbs and life-shattering disabilities. Many never attended school and enjoy questionable life prospects, making them prime targets for recruitment into militancy, organized crime and terrorism.
While certain factions have behaved maliciously, it would be wrong to wholly condemn Lebanon’s handling of this crisis. Europeans clearly prefer that Syrian refugees limit themselves to bordering states like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan — which between them host more than 4 million Syrians. Yet refugee programs habitually receive much less than half their required funding, resulting in appalling living conditions and host nations bearing the burden.
The fact that Lebanon has endured the last decade engulfed by the destabilizing ramifications of Syria’s war without (yet) dissolving into conflict is nothing short of miraculous. But we shouldn’t take Lebanon’s stability for granted. Inappropriate and illegal forced returns and the manipulation of the refugee crisis for factional gain are symptoms of the global failure to properly support Lebanon and other overstretched states. With the number of those globally displaced by conflict approaching 70 million, and fascists in Europe and America fanning the flames of anti-refugee hatred, the world’s inability to compassionately address this issue may become one of the defining failures of the 21st century.
As the principal theaters of conflict wind down in Syria, Hezbollah fighters are relocating to battlefronts in southern Lebanon and the occupied Golan Heights region in southwestern Syria. In the context of growing US-Iran tensions, many Hezbollah personnel are convinced that a renewed conflict with Israel is only a matter of time. The weekend strike against a paramilitary base in central Iraq, where Hezbollah cadres were reportedly stationed, and repeated Iranian attacks against multinational oil tankers, including the abduction of a British freighter, are additional warning signs of how close we are to the spark that could inadvertently trigger regional conflagration.
During the 1970s, 1980s and in 2006, thousands of war-ravaged Lebanese refugees poured into Syria. In 1982, I was one of the Lebanese who (unsuccessfully) tried to take the road to Damascus. Given expectations that a renewed Israel-Hezbollah confrontation could be exponentially more brutal than in 2006, there would be a deeply bitter irony if those Lebanese who gripe about being deluged by refugees once again find themselves pleading for Syrian hospitality.