In Syria refugee crisis, Palestinian legacy weighs on Lebanon

Even as a conference in Germany seeks to support nations hosting Syria refugees, Lebanon fears the Syrians will follow the path of Palestinians, whose refugee communities became entrenched, and radicalized, over time.

Bilal Hussein/AP/File
A Syrian refugee woman hangs laundry at a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Majdal Anjar, Lebanon, June 19, 2014.

Faced with sectarian unrest, spillover from the Syrian civil war, a presidential vacuum, attacks against the Army, and a tottering economy, Lebanon has no shortage of problems that threaten stability and livelihoods.

Lebanon has shown resilience coping with these stresses. But the enormous security, social, and economic burden of hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees is widely seen as a factor that could bring Lebanon to its knees.

“We consider this [refugee] issue to be the most important and dangerous that Lebanon is facing today,” Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam said Tuesday in Germany, where he was attending a conference to discuss international assistance to countries hosting Syrian refugees.

“The responsibility is huge and the challenge is ongoing,” he told the conference. “The Syrian refugee issue is not a simple issue. It is growing amid tension and the uncomfortable climate in Syria and the region.”

For Lebanon, the main immediate challenge posed by the Syrian refugees may be economic. But a key complicating factor is the experience with an earlier wave of refugees, the Palestinians, who fled their homeland in 1948 during the birth of Israel and have remained here ever since. Over the years, the Palestinian population became radicalized, at times threatening Lebanon’s delicate political balance.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered some 1.13 million Syrians in Lebanon, a country of about 4.5 million citizens. The true figure for Syrian refugees is believed to be higher, perhaps as many as 1.6 million. To put the statistics into context, that is the equivalent of increasing the population of the United States in a period of three years by almost 120 million people, almost all of them unemployed, destitute, and homeless.

Government resists building formal camps

The refugees are scattered across the country as the government in Beirut – fearing the Syrians will follow the path of Palestinians, whose numbers have grown from about 110,000 in 1948 to an estimated 350,000 today – has resisted calls to construct formal camps to house them. Such camps, the government fears, would lessen the Syrians’ incentive to return to the uncertainties and dangers of their homeland.

The Syrians live for the most part in half-built houses or makeshift encampments of huts constructed from scrap wood and plastic sheets on the edges of villages. Others live in Beirut where they have become a common sight begging in the city’s plush shopping districts.

The UNHCR has repeatedly called on the international community to provide greater assistance to Lebanon and other countries sharing the refugee burden, such as Jordan and Turkey. An international donor conference in January in Kuwait to help countries hosting Syrian refugees raised $2.4 billion, far short of the target figure of $6.5 billion.

In June, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim warned that Lebanon faces an “enormous emergency”: its healthcare and education systems are unable to fully accommodate the Syrian refugees, leaving a generation of youths out of school. A World Bank report published in September 2013 predicted that Lebanon’s economy will lose $7.5 billion by the end of this year, with 300,000 people at risk of losing their jobs and 170,000 pushed below the poverty line.

Dwindling sympathy for refugees

Even in Sunni-populated areas of Lebanon, where support runs high for the Syrian rebellion against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the initial sympathy has dwindled as the refugees compete for scarce jobs or open small businesses to rival those of their hosts. Some Lebanese communities are blaming the refugees for increases in petty crime in their neighborhoods. In Christian and Shiite villages, it has become common to see banners across the streets informing “foreigners” to abide by night-time curfews.

Last week, the government decided to restrict the number of refugees allowed into Lebanon to emergency cases. Any refugees who return to their homes in Syria will not be allowed back. However, some refugees enter Lebanon illegally, via passageways that run through the mountains that mark much of the Lebanon-Syria border.

For now, the impact of the Syrian refugees has been limited to the economy and social welfare. But there is also a potential threat that the refugees, like the Palestinians before them, could become radicalized, and mobilize along military lines.

From 1948 on, the Palestinians were corralled into a dozen refugee camps that 20 years later had become autonomous military encampments. The rise of armed Palestinian factions in the late 1960s and early 1970s upset the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon and was a contributing factor to the outbreak of civil war in 1975.

On a humanitarian level, gathering Syrian refugees into camps would facilitate the provision of aid and assistance. But the camps could also potentially become breeding grounds for militancy, vulnerable to penetration by extremist groups such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, mobilizing despairing and poor Sunnis.

Some Sunni radicalization

A recent rise in isolated attacks by Sunni militants against the Lebanese Army, and the open hostility felt by many Sunnis toward the powerful Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah organization, which has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to defend the Assad regime, demonstrates that some quarters of the country are becoming radicalized, albeit on a small scale. But some Sunnis regard the massive Syrian refugee population as a potential untapped resource to be exploited in the struggle against Hezbollah.

It took the Palestinian refugees 20 years to become mobilized. Some analysts believe that Syrian refugees could be radicalized much more quickly – with devastating consequences.

“Lebanon has proven resilient in maintaining basic stability and putting out sparks that spill over from the Syrian conflict,” says Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“But if a subset of the 1 million-plus Syrian refugees become radicalized and mobilized militarily, that would be beyond the Lebanese state’s capacity to control, and the country could descend into serious chaos.”

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