If there is one election issue that unites most Lebanese in this fractious, stressed-out country ahead of Sunday’s election, it is their desire to see Lebanon’s one-million-plus Syrian refugees go home.
But even though the Syrian civil war seems to be winding down, there is little sense their return will happen any time soon. Lebanon’s refugee crisis, now in its eighth year and putting a massive strain on the weak economy, seems set to endure. “Does the Syrian regime even want their refugees back? I don’t think so,” said Nadim Munla, senior adviser to Prime Minister Saad Hariri on refugees and the economy. “I don’t believe they’re going back in the next two to three years.”
The election is Lebanon’s first parliamentary election since 2009. It comes as Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, Syria and Saudi Arabia try to bolster their influence in the small Mediterranean country, and as Israel conducts bombing raids on alleged Iranian targets in Syria. While the Lebanese hope their refugee crisis will not intensify, they know it could if the animosity between Israel and Iran breaks into open conflict.
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Lebanon has the most refugees relative to its population of any country. The UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, says there are just under one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The Lebanese government believes there are hundreds of thousands of unregistered refugees, raising the total refugee count to as much as 1.5 million, excluding almost half a million Palestinian refugees. Lebanon’s population before the Syrian civil war started was thought to be about 4.3 million (the last official census was done in 1932).
Most of the refugees in Lebanon are living well below the poverty line (defined as income of less than US$3.80 a day) and rely on assistance from the UN, charities and international donors to feed and shelter themselves. Last month, Canada donated $19.5-million to the UN agencies and charities working with refugees in Lebanon and Syria.
In a small refugee settlement near the town of Majdal Anjar, about a 90-minute drive east of Beirut, in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, hope among the families for a return any time soon was fading. The settlement – there are no official United Nations-sponsored refugee “camps” in Lebanon – is virtually within sight of the Syrian border, adding to the refugees’ longing to see their homes again.
“We arrived 2-1/2 years ago and, for sure, we never thought we’d be here this long,” said Safwan Soueid, 45, who is from Homs, the big western Syrian city that was largely destroyed in the civil war. “We would go back if it’s safe for us to go back, but it’s not. We need a guarantee from the international community.”
There are about 100 refugees in the Majdal Anjar settlement – informally known among the UN agencies as “Camp 010” – all of them Sunni Syrians. They live in shelters made of white tarps stretched over wooden frames. The tarps were supplied by the UNHCR and are weighed down by car tires to ensure the primitive houses don’t blow away.
The shelters have water supplied by outside tanks and electricity (which is unreliable anywhere in Lebanon), gas burners for cooking and Syrian carpets to insulate the floors. Mr. Soueid and his wife, Zeinab, are raising five children in their shelter, which they say is unbearably cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer.
The UN’s World Food Programme gives each resident food cards worth US$27 a month. UNHCR gives the most desperate refugee families US$175 a month, but a severe funding shortfall means the amount might soon be reduced or even eliminated for the recipients. Some of the parents, many of whom had professional careers in Syria, work in construction or on farms to supplement their meagre incomes, but complain they often get ripped off. “We might get paid half of what they owe us,” Mr. Soueid said.
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A very small number of Syrian refugees have succeeded in building new lives in Lebanon. One is Mohammed Meibar, the projects co-ordinator in the Bekaa Valley for Multi Aid Programs (MAPs), a charity largely funded by Syrian doctors in the United States; it runs four health-care clinics for Syrian refugees.
Mr. Meibar, 28, arrived in Lebanon in 2014, after his town turned into a battle zone. He went to a local medical school, got married to a Syrian woman living in Lebanon and lives in a proper house. Still, he wants to return to Syria, but says he’s afraid to go back. “Syria is too complicated and dangerous, with the Iranians, the Russians and the Americans all there,” he says. “I might also have to go into the Syrian military.”
Refugees who talked to The Globe and Mail said they couldn’t return for fear of arrest for suspected association with rebel groups or for even having been caught on video at anti-regime rallies just before the civil war erupted in 2011. Young Syrian male refugees said they know they’d be thrown into the Syrian army the moment they crossed the border.
Others said their homes have been destroyed, are occupied by rebel or regime fighters or are in areas where fighting persists. A new Syrian law reportedly gives property owners both inside and outside Syria only one month, starting later this year, to present property deeds to local council offices. If they don’t, the properties can be seized and sold at auction.
Kamel Wazne, an economics and political analyst in Beirut, agrees with Mr. Munla that the refugee crisis will persist not only because most refugees are still afraid to go back, but because the Syrian regime might not want them back. “Maybe [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad is happy to keep the refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey,” he said. “When he’s still fighting a war, there’s no place for the refugees, no jobs, so why not just leave them where they are?”
There is no doubt that the Lebanese government and Lebanese citizens are losing their patience with the refugees. While there is no specific government budget for refugee relief, the economic toll on the country is thought to be severe because of the wear and tear on infrastructure such as roads and electrical grids, pressure on local schools and hospitals, and the cost of extra security. Last year, Lebanon’s central bank governor, Riad Salameh, said that hosting the refugees was costing about US$1-billion a year, an amount it cannot afford given the country’s dismal fiscal shape (its debt-to-gross-domestic-product, at 150 per cent, is almost as high as Greece’s).
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While the Lebanese government complains that hosting the refugees is unsustainable, it has taken a lot of criticism for doing little to cure it. It has failed to draft a comprehensive policy for dealing with the refugees.
The government has no idea how many refugees are actually in Lebanon. It did not assess individual refugees when they entered Lebanon to determine which of them fled because their lives were threatened and which may have come for other reasons. It does not know how many of the refugees might now feel safe returning to Syria (the Beirut office of the UNHCR said about 11,000 refugees returned to Syria last year). And it has not opened formal talks with the Syrian government to draft a refugee-return plan.
This week, Lebanese President Michel Aoun made a plea to the international community to help Lebanon find a solution to the refugee crisis and “to end the repercussions of this displacement on Lebanon socially, economically, educationally and in terms of security.”
But most refugees think the government pleas will amount to nothing. “Sure, it’s our dream to go back,” Mr. Soueid, the father in Camp 010, said. “But for sure, it’s not happening this year.”