World Bank chief and John Kerry ring alarm bells on Lebanon visit

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and US Secretary of State John Kerry pledged help for Lebanon, which is housing 1 million Syrian refugees in a country of 4 million.

Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference after meeting with Lebanon's Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the government palace in Beirut June 4, 2014. Kerry arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday, where he will pledge more aid to help Syria's neighbors deal with an influx of refugees and press Lebanese parliamentarians to swiftly choose a new president.

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Beirut today in a show of support for Lebanon, overwhelmed by the influx of refugees fleeing the three-year war in neighboring Syria.

Mr. Kerry’s hours-long stay in Beirut is the first by a secretary of state in five years. Following talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam, he announced that the US is donating $290 million to boost United Nations aid efforts in Syria and neighboring countries. Lebanon will receive $51 million of the amount, he said.

"Lebanon is a very important country for the security of the region and beyond," Mr. Kerry said. "The US is very committed to its stability and sovereignty."

Kerry's visit comes a day after the president of the World Bank warned that Lebanon faces an “enormous emergency” due to the politically and economically destabilizing presence of more than 1 million Syrian refugees.

“It's the equivalent of having the entire population of Mexico entering the United States within a two- or three-year period and then integrating that population into your own school systems and health care systems,” Jim Yong Kim told a group of reporters invited to a round-table session with the World Bank delegation in Beirut on Tuesday evening.

The UN refugee agency has registered nearly 1.1 million Syrians in Lebanon, although the true figure is believed to be much larger. The World Bank estimates that the financial cost to Lebanon from the overspill of Syria’s war will reach $7.5 billion by the end of the year, with 300,000 Lebanese at risk of losing their jobs and 170,000 pushed below the poverty line.

For a country of just over 4 million citizens, Lebanon has absorbed the refugee influx better than expected. But the burden is becoming unsustainable, especially on schools and the health care system. Dr. Kim said that the number of Syrian students would soon surpass that of Lebanese students. He warned of a “lost generation” of youths receiving a substandard education. Teachers are pulling double shifts amid classroom overcrowding.

Even more concerning is host communities' rising resentment. Lebanese complain that the refugees compete with them for scarce jobs and that they receive greater levels of assistance from aid agencies than the local Lebanese do from their own government.

“It is remarkable that we have not had explosions of conflict between Syrian refugees and the Lebanese people,” Kim says, “But I’m telling you there are some very, very angry comments from the Lebanese population about why they have been left out.”

Rashid Derbas, Lebanon’s social affairs minister, said today that from now on Lebanon would only accept those Syrians who live close to the Lebanese border as refugees. Syrians heading to Lebanon from Syria’s interior will not be allowed in.

“We no longer accept to deal with the Syrian crisis as a humanitarian issue,” he said. “It’s a political issue that the Lebanese government as well as the international and Arab communities failed to handle properly,” he told Voice of Lebanon radio.

Lebanon is split between supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, with Sunnis fighting for the Syrian rebels and the powerful Shiite militant organization Hezbollah serving as a key battlefield ally for the Assad regime. The country has been rocked by suicide car bombings and rocket attacks by Sunni militants against Lebanese Shiite targets, and the government is struggling to maintain stability in a country with a history of sectarian conflict.

Last week, the Lebanese government announced that any registered Syrians who return to their homes in Syria would be stripped of their refugee status. The decision was made out of concern that friction will arise not only between Lebanese and Syrians but also between rival Syrians who oppose or support Assad.

Last week, tens of thousands of mainly pro-Assad Syrians caused huge traffic jams when they converged on the Syrian embassy in Beirut to vote in the presidential election, held a few days earlier outside Syria. The large mobilization alarmed Lebanon.

“The fear is that it will create a counter-mobilization among the vast majority of those Syrians present [in Lebanon] who oppose Assad, making Lebanon a new Syrian battleground,” said a diplomatic report sent from a European embassy in Beirut this week.

The cash-strapped government has repeatedly asked the international community for money to help it to cope with the refugee influx, but the international response has been sluggish. In January, a UN-sponsored donor conference in Kuwait raised only $2.3 billion in pledges for Syria’s neighbors, far short of the target figure of $6.5 billion.

Lebanon’s specific needs are being addressed through the International Support Group for Lebanon, which was formed last September on the margins of the UN General Assembly. In March, the support group announced the creation of a multi-donor trust fund for Lebanon, which is being administered by the World Bank. Other than a $10 million donation from the World Bank, Finland and Norway are the only countries to give funds – together they've raised a total of $28 million.

Asked how much more funding would be necessary to fulfill Lebanon’s needs, Kim replied “A lot more than that.”

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