BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon is starting to feel the weight of its charity as the civil war in Syria continues and the strain of the conflict on Lebanon’s internal community intensifies. As a result of increased burdens to the host country, Lebanon is considering changing its policy toward Syrian refugees and calls upon the international community for assistance.
The Syrian conflict grew from protests to full-fledged civil war in 2011. In the past three years, nearly 160,000 people have been killed in the fighting between rebel groups and newly reelected President Bashar al-Assad’s military. The fighting has also displaced some 9 million civilians, about 2.7 million of which have fled the country in search of security and aid.
Just over 1 million of these displaced Syrian citizens have found sanctuary in next-door Lebanon, a country with only 4 million of its own citizens and crippled with its own internal problems. According to the UNHCR, Lebanon registers 2,500 refugees per day, making it the largest host for fleeing Syrians. Because Lebanon has seen an economic downturn in recent years, it is struggling to sustain the substantial number of refugees and provide them with medical care and protection. The 1,200 random and unregulated camps that have appeared without sanction and aid from the Lebanese government are evidence that there are simply too many refugees for the country to handle, and thus the refugee crisis in Lebanon is greatly affecting the country.
While the country has remained generous in receiving and assisting these displaced peoples, the huge influx of Syrian refugees has put strain on the Lebanese economy, social systems and infrastructure. It is estimated that the Syrian conflict has cost Lebanon around $7.5 billion since it began. Additionally, in the past three years, 170,000 Lebanese have fallen into poverty and the unemployment rate has doubled to over 20 percent. All this goes to show that Lebanon, while humanitarian, is not equipped to handle the amount of refugees for fear of damaging its own community.
To avoid further damage to the citizens of Lebanon, the government has recently changed its policy toward Syrian refugees. By doing so, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas hopes that the number of refugees will decrease and the Lebanese community will start to recover. All measures were set to be enforced on June 1.
The Lebanese government is making four distinct changes to its policy. First, the country will no longer recognize any Syrian who returns to his home for any reason as a displaced person when they come back to Lebanon. Refugees must stay in Lebanon or risk losing their status permanently. Second, Lebanon plans to change those who are applicable for refugee status. The government does not wish to accept Syrians coming from the few safe and secure regions in the conflicted country or from locations far from the border. Similarly, Lebanon plans to treat 40 percent of refugees as economic refugees with the understanding that this group lived far from the border and had other options like neighboring Turkey or Jordan. Lastly, Lebanon is requesting that the United Nations set up camps in Syrian safe zones and buffer zones along the border. This would alleviate the burden on Lebanon by giving displaced Syrians other options for protection.
In addition to changes within Lebanon to rectify the refugee crisis, the World Bank has encouraged donor nations to rise to assist Lebanon. Nations such as Britain and Germany have answered the call.
The British government is giving $170,000 to projects to improve the living situations of Syrian refugees. One such project is the rebuilding of a market in Sarafand that will hopefully allow refugees to have more stake in the economy, thus alleviating poverty in these groups. In addition, Britain is among the donors interested in supporting the host communities in Lebanon, understanding that refugees put a strain on the local economy and infrastructure. The United Kingdom Ambassador to Lebanon feels more optimistic than some, stating that the refugee crisis illuminates issue areas in the infrastructure and allows for development that would not have happened otherwise.
Germany is taking a particularly strong position in assisting Lebanon. Most of the 1 million euros that Lebanon has received from Europe over the past three years has come from Germany, and the country promises another 5 million on top of this. Most of this money goes to refugees, but some has been put into revitalizing the water sources and infrastructure within Lebanon. In addition, Germany has taken in 30,000 of its own refugees, the most of any European country, and welcomes more. Germany is even willing to host an international conference on the refugee crisis to collect funds from donors and brainstorm solutions for aiding Lebanon with its own internal issues.
Overall, the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon has reached a near breaking point of strain on the host country. This welcomes a debate over who has the responsibility to care for such civilians and what measures should be put in place to protect the host country from what some consider a draining burden. However, changes in Lebanon’s approach to hosting Syrian refugees and outside help from the international community may be able to rectify this particular crisis in a way that is beneficial to all.