Justin Salhani

‘One million Syrians’ claim jolts Lebanon

syrian refugee in lebanon

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman reiterated his calls for international assistance in dealing with the increasing flow of Syrian refugees into Lebanon this week. According to Suleiman, Lebanon’s infrastructure is at a breaking point, with the country already harboring over one million Syrians, including refugees, guest workers, and their families. While Suleiman’s comments are cause for new concern, they are not vastly divergent from previous statements made by the President. NOW spoke to activists and political analysts about their thoughts on Suleiman’s claim that Lebanon’s infrastructure is on its last legs, and what they believe are possible solutions to the refugee influx.


As of today, Suleiman is said to be preparing a report to present to the United Nations and has reportedly discussed the refugee situation with American officials from the Treasury Department in an effort to relieve Lebanon of increasing financial and infrastructural pressure. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees statistics list around 350,000 refugees currently registered in Lebanon. Multiple sources though believe the figure to be closer to 400,000, as over 2,500 new refugees enter Lebanon daily.


As to why Suleiman claimed Lebanon was struggling due to the presence of one million Syrians (refugees, guest workers, and their families), there are two main schools of thought. On one side, there are those who believe his comments are representative of Christians’ sectarian fears of the influx of Syrians, made up predominately of Sunni Muslims. On the other are those who believe Suleiman is hoping to garner additional aid from the international community.


“I am strongly inclined to assume it is the sectarian dimension of the Syrian refugee situation that is causing alarm among Maronite Christians including the President,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, implying that Maronites are threatened by the influx of refugees because most of them are Muslim. “Why didn’t the same happen when Armenians came into Lebanon? Over the past 10 years since 2003 scores of Iraqi Christians came to Lebanon and not a single Muslim leader made a fuss about it. This is a sectarian question,” Khashan said.


Lebanon’s government is split on a confessional basis with 50 percent of parliament seats distributed to Christians and the other 50 percent to Muslims, even though Muslims are believed to make up over 60 percent of the population. No statistics are official since no census has been taken since 1932.


“Lebanon already had around one million Syrian [residents] if [workers’] families are included. Why doesn’t the arrival of one million [temporary] workers put pressure on Lebanon’s infrastructure?” wonders Khashan. He goes on to maintain that Lebanon’s infrastructure remains unaffected by population changes, refugees or otherwise.


But some still believe the infrastructure of a country that already struggles to accommodate its own population of 4.5 million needs serious help if it is to accommodate the estimated 2,500 Syrians who enter Lebanon every day.


Some analysts predict further tension and eventual clashes between Lebanese and their Syrian guests. “It is becoming clear that [with the ever-growing number of refugees] an increasing friction and perhaps an explosion [could occur] as Lebanon is unable to accommodate” this many people, said Imad Salamey, an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Lebanese American University. Salamey added that Lebanon is in dire need of support from the international community to accommodate the flood of refugees.


“You can now go to any small town in Lebanon and find a significant number of Syrian refugees….Sometimes there is an [antagonistic] relationship between refugees and locals,” Salamey said.


This strenuous relationship has manifested itself into what some call discrimination, as certain municipalities have begun attempts to implement curfews on foreigners. While Minister of the Interior Marwan Charbel has declared these curfews illegal, the growing tension between Lebanese and Syrian refugees is apparent.


Minister of Energy and Water Gebran Bassil has repeatedly stressed that Lebanon is unable to deal with the large influx of refugees; at one point he even called for limiting the number of refugees crossing the border by installing quotas.


For his part, Suleiman has said that closing the border or applying quotas is not humanitarianly possible. Nor does it seem possible in a realistic sense with Lebanon’s army unable to cover the 375 km-long, badly-demarcated stretch of border. Activists and analysts have put forward other plans of action they believe will aid the Lebanese government and the refugees.


Maan Abdul Salam, a Syrian activist working in Lebanon, in a conversation with NOW, called for the measures taken to help Syrian refugees be carefully implemented, so as to avoid “affecting the legal aspect of Lebanon.” Abdul Salam stressed that these steps should be taken “in order to build healthier relationship between the refugees and the local community.”


While activists like Abdul Salam may stress for greater cooperation between the two communities, others still believe that only through further aid from the international community can the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon be abated.


“Lebanon has needed international support to accomdate such a large number of refugees,” said Salamey.


“The international community needs to end the conflict in Syria and find a political settlement,” said Salamey of LAU. “If it can’t bring about a political settlement inside Syria then it needs to create safe zones to release bordering states from potential spillover.”


Yara Chehayed contributed reporting. Follow her on Twitter @yarachehayed.


Follow the author on Twitter @JustinSalhani.


Read this article in Arabic 

A Syrian refugee child stands outside her shanty rented by their parents in a poor neighborhood at the entrance of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on March 7, 2013. The number of Syrians who have fled their country since a deadly civil conflict erupted two years ago has hit one million, the UN's refugee agency said on March 6. (AFP photo)

"'Over the past 10 years since 2003 scores of Iraqi Christians came to Lebanon and not a single Muslim leader made a fuss about it.'"