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Living In Limbo: Why We Should Be Talking More About Syrian Refugees In Lebanon

01/01/2017 21:45
Yuji Sakai via Getty Images

During a visit to a small German town that housed a large proportion of Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers, I found myself asking a few individuals about their journey to Germany from Syria. Whilst every person had their unique story, there seemed to be one constant feature that stood out to me: the journey to Germany almost always started in Lebanon.

Lebanon's history is intertwined with Syria. The two countries share an extensive and notoriously porous border of around 375km that served as an essential route for trade, smuggling and inter-state cooperation. Lebanon was also under Syrian Army occupation between 1976 to 2005. Close ties with Lebanon meant that when war broke out in 2011, thousands of Syrians began to cross the border into northern cities such as Tripoli and Akkar.

The Lebanese population is currently estimated at roughly 5 million (2016 census). As of June 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that there are around 1 million registered refugees in Lebanon, with numbers expected to rise. Due to fears of overcrowding and possible conflict spill over, the Lebanese government closed its border with Syria in 2014. Syrians already in Lebanon were required to renew their residency permits at a hefty price (Syrians over 15 had to pay $200 per person), making it almost impossible for some refugees to renew their residency permits. Failure to renew residency permits automatically classified some Syrian refugees as 'illegal immigrants', placing them at a significant disadvantage when registering marriages, births and deaths. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the people I spoke to in Germany echoed a sense of resentment towards Lebanon, noting that they felt "unwelcome" and "unprotected" during their stay. For example, a young man in his late twenties mentioned to me that he was unable to register his marriage on arrival to Beirut, making it impossible for his wife to join him from Turkey where she was a refugee too.

To make matters worse, increasing levels of overcrowding are impacting local schools and charities and refugee families are increasingly having to choose between feeding their children, or sending them to school. The UNHCR estimated that it would need $1,902,410,103 in order implement their relief plan, however it has only managed to secure $905,780,595. In an ideal situation, adequate social services would be provided by the Government. However, not only is the Lebanese Government not able to afford any of these developments, it has also provided little assistance to assimilate Syrian refugees into Lebanese education systems. Additionally, foreign donors have encouraged Lebanon to impose stricter border controls to curb the influx of refugees, as their funding is consistently under threat. As a result, more and more Syrian refugees are constantly facing dire living conditions, with little to no possibility of improvement.

Having said all of this, the discourse around the refugee crisis remains overwhelmingly focused on the impact it is having on Europe, with small attempts at understanding the possible repercussions the Syrian diaspora may have on more regional countries. The Lebanese economy is fractured, weak, and with little to no signs of showing massive improvement within the next few years. Despite the formation of a new government effectively ending the two-year long political deadlock, the future of the Lebanese and Syrians residing in the country is unclear.

A report conducted by the International Crisis Group (ICG) has revealed that some Syrians are reluctant to register as refugees with the UNHCR due to its strict rules stipulating that it must contribute with the Lebanese state. The ICG also notes that many refugees are being aided by civil society networks and local Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) who are also sometimes reluctant to share information, adding to the general scepticism the government has maintained towards refugees in Lebanon. Recent EU-Lebanese programmes such as the Partnership Framework hope to work with the Lebanese government to improve essential infrastructure in the country - namely waste management, water and education - yet this is moving at a very slow pace and has a very limited effect on refugees who are fearful of the Lebanese state. Furthermore, attempts to innovate and improve refugee policy by directly involving the government exposes a wider issue: politicians in Europe and elsewhere routinely use the refugee issue to gain more votes and establish themselves in the political arena of their country, resulting in a hyper-politicisation of the refugee issue at the expense of the refugees themselves.

In a recent article in The New York Times, Tina Rosenberg argued that cash initiatives are helping poor Lebanese people as well as Syrian refugees provide for their families. These initiatives are aimed at directly supplying poor Lebanese and Syrian families with cash in order for them to buy their most basic needs. However, organisations in charge of these initiatives still don't have enough money, and they have had to frequently ask for more donations.

What must be realised is that Lebanon needs more aid. NGOs and civil society networks are trying as much as they can to mitigate the effects of the on-going crisis, yet they are unable to provide for everyone. NGOs and initiatives that are in direct contact with refugees and vulnerable people in Lebanon need to be supported and encouraged to carry out their goals. Directly helping the government may strengthen the Lebanese economy, yet the Lebanese government does not have sufficient access to refugees, especially as more and more people are reluctant to seek help from the government because of fears of persecution, stigmatisation or forced deportation. This is especially the case after Michel Aoun was elected as President of the Republic as he hopes to swiftly return a large number of refugees to Syria.

Perhaps, had there been adequate ways of mitigating the crisis in the early years of the war, refugees would find safety close to their home. Whilst the refugee crisis is undeniably hitting Europe hard, there is a lot of hardship faced only a few kilometres south from Syria. Restoring the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon may also give Syrians a glimpse of hope to someday finally return to the country they call home without having to pause or limit their lives.

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