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How Lebanon is coping with more than a million Syrian refugees

A country not much bigger than Wales has seen its population increase by a third

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

Beirut

If any of the Syrian refugees who have made it to the relative safety of Europe have been watching the smash-hit TV show Homeland (season five), they would be baffled by its warped depiction of their compatriots’ plight in Lebanon.

Unlike the vast majority of Homeland’s viewers ,they would know there are no government-sanctioned camps guarded by nervy UN soldiers and run from the inside by menacing Hezbollah operatives. This is out-and-out nonsense and insulting to the Lebanese, who have arguably done more than any country to absorb this unfolding human tragedy.

For the record, Lebanon, a country a tad bigger than Wales, plays host to around 1.5 million Syrians, a number equivalent to a third of its population. Think of it this way: it’s the same as 21 million Europeans moving quite suddenly to the UK. Imagine what you’d make of that.

The Lebanese can be proud of doing their bit but, truth be told, they didn’t really have much say in the matter. The Syrians just came. And the concern today is not just the shock of so many more people, it’s that their long-term presence may push the country into yet another existential crisis.


The majority of refugees started arriving in 2011 with only what they could carry, trekking over the historically porous border into the North, or across the vast and often lawless Bekaa Valley. Many thousands stopped in the valley and live there still in pitiful makeshift tent communities. They’ll freeze in the harsh winter months.

Other refugees made it further, to our cities, to the capital Beirut as well as Sidon and Tripoli. They are everywhere: begging at traffic lights, walking precariously on the hard shoulder of highways, trudging along country roads or sleeping, whole families huddled together on filthy cardboard sheets, under bridges and flyovers.

Many are exploited by unscrupulous landlords and rely on modest cash handouts from the UN Refugee Agency. But they are undermined by the unstoppable flow of their own countrymen. The more Syrians arrive, the more the NGOs have to discriminate in favour of those most in need of financial aid: the elderly, the pregnant or those with small children. Men of working age must fend for themselves.

Think how agitated the British become about the thought of a few thousand refugees. Now try to imagine how the indigenous Lebanese feel. The country’s notoriously creaky infrastructure, its electricity and water, roads, bandwidth and mobile phone connectivity, could hardly support its own population, let alone the newcomers. Yet somehow it manages, which might give the British some pause for thought. Lebanon manages because after years of war and a peace, its people are masters of crisis management. The Syrians are also fellow Arabs. We could hardly turn them away.

With hindsight, a mere £20 million could have bought every Syrian family a cosy bespoke tent with five-year lifespan made at Ikea’s Corporate Social Responsibility arm, which would be infinitely preferable to a makeshift shelter or a cardboard box. But (and this is where Homeland really slips up) the Lebanese government equates tents and camps with permanence and with the enduring legacy of 500,000 Palestinians who are either still waiting to go back to a country they lost in 1948, or who are too young to know what that country means.

Letting so very many Syrians seep into normal Lebanese society has had a rocky effect on our economy. According to a World Bank report on the effects of the Syrian civil war: ‘Even without the Syrian refugees, the Lebanese economy needed to create six times the amount of jobs it previously did to absorb new entrants to the labour market.’ As it is, the migrants are ruthlessly under-cutting their hosts. Lebanese builders, joiners, plasterers, painters and the like have been priced out of the market by desperate Syrian labour.

Not all Syrians are slumming it. For the more wealthy, especially the merchant class with influential friends, the transition was smoother. Apartments were rented in Beirut and in the cooler, hilly suburbs, while their children were miraculously -accepted into the top schools. These well-to-do escapees eat out and shop with the rest of the Lebanese bourgeoisie. They look like them and dress like them. Only the number plates and the slight accent set them apart. And yes, they will admit that Assad has been cruel, but they will also argue that he is the only man who can stop the thundering tide of Sunni fundamentalism sweeping across the region.

It’s the poorer Syrian refugees who present a greater existential problem for Lebanon. Under Ottoman rule, which did not end until 1917, Lebanon was part of Greater Syria. Tribal ties in parts of the country often matter more than international -borders and there is every reason to assume that many of the refugees will never return to Syria.

This would not only change the face of -Lebanon but also its soul. These are not just 1.5 million Syrians; they are 1.5 million Sunnis. Even if only half of them stay, their presence will upset our delicate sectarian balance of Shia, Sunni and Christian. And there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of Hezbollah, the biggest Shia party, caring for these poor Sunnis. New and cataclysmic sectarian rifts will open up in a country that sits right on top of the Middle East’s fault lines.

What Lebanon really needs is for every-one else to do their bit; for Europe to do its bit. The British are in a panic about importing so-called jihadis, but a reputation for hard work and family values has defined the people of the Levant for centuries. We’ve taken 1.5 million and we survive — just. Take 20,000. Trust me. You won’t even notice them.

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