Posted on October 15, 2013 in Washington Watch

Immediate attention must be paid to Lebanon, lest it becomes an additional casualty of the horrific war raging next door. As it is, the country is on the brink. We know that Lebanon's fractious sect-based political system has been strained by the Syrian war. Some Lebanese have crossed into Syria to support the warring sides and that, as an extension of this, there have been retaliatory attacks within Lebanon. 

But more than the violence or the fear of renewed civil war, what has put Lebanon on the brink is the flood of Syrian refugees who are overwhelming the country, threatening it with economic collapse and its capacity to survive as a state.

It is only right that the world has focused attention on the terrible plight of Syria's refugees. But the enormity of this human tidal wave that has hit Lebanon must also be considered. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHRC) there are currently 790,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with an estimated 75,000 coming each month. This number does not include the more than 250,000 Syrians living in Lebanon as migrant workers.  Given current projections, the UN agency estimates that if the Syrian war continues apace, by the end of this calendar year, Syrian refugees will constitute about one-quarter of Lebanon's total population.

The refugee crisis has affected Lebanon on many levels.

Because Lebanon has not built refugee camps, the Syrian exiles have moved into communities across the entire country. Many have crowded into low income apartments, resulting in a housing shortage and a spike in rental rates - as much as 44% in some areas. This in turn has pushed poorer Lebanese out of the housing market - forcing them to become internally displaced in their own country. Other Syrians have formed informal "tent cities" in towns and villages throughout Lebanon creating additional stress on host communities. The UNHRC estimates that there are 1,400 of these settlements.      

Because the Syrian refugees have flooded the job market, often willing to work for less, official statistics now report that average wages have plummeted and 20% of Lebanese are now unemployed. There are additional strains on the economy. The World Bank projects that Lebanon's GDP will decline by 2.9% each year from 2012 to 2014. Government revenues will decrease by $1.5 billion annually, while government expenditures are expected to rise by over $1 billion each year, owing to the increased demand for services. As a result, it is projected that an additional 170,000 Lebanese will be forced into poverty this year. 

The problems don't end there. The 90,000 Syrian children registered in local schools have created a serious over-crowding problem in the educational system - with additional strains reported in the health care, public and social service sectors. Water, gas, and electricity rates have all increased by 7.4% in the last year. Some medicines are now in short supply and with winter fast approaching the stress on the food supply, housing, health care, and other services will only grow. In this context, it is important to recall that last winter; there were only about 150,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon - while this winter the number will be at least eight times that number!

It should be expected that this situation might lead to social tensions within Lebanon. Polling data establishes that many Lebanese have become resentful. Many Lebanese poor see their country being overrun, resulting in: their inability to find work; having to settle for lower wages; and forcing them to face increased costs for food and services. They resent the fact that the Syrian refugees receive international assistance, while they must do without. All of this has created a new level of communal tensions. Since Lebanon has had a long and conflicted history with its neighbor, and since Lebanon's internal relationships remain unresolved, the added dimension of over one million Syrian refugees has only compounded an already fragile situation.

The UNHRC's representative in Lebanon has written that given all these strains, which no country should be expected to bear, Lebanon has so far held up quite well. She writes "Lebanon stands as an example of generosity in the face of crisis. Despite misunderstandings and tensions, everyday acts of kindness are commonplace". But she warns, "Without more international support, the patience and hospitality of host communities may wear thin.  Continuing neglect will stoke rising tensions and raise the risk that the...Syrian civil war will become a regional war".

This said, Lebanon demands immediate attention. I cannot disagree with the push to rid Syria of chemical weapons, convene a Geneva II Summit to find a way to end that country's long war, and provide more assistance to alleviate the humanitarian crisis created by the massive population displacement created by the war. But Lebanon can no longer be ignored. The country need urgent support. It needs support to strengthen its capacity to deal with this crisis: the army needs assistance to help control the border and provide internal security; and the government and relief agencies need assistance to provide support to Lebanon's poor and those who have been displaced in their own country by the influx of refugees.

Our concern for what is happening to Syria and Syrians, cannot and must not drown out our concern for Lebanon and its people. If we continue to ignore Lebanon, in short order, that country might collapse under the weight of the pressures to which it has been subjected. Lebanon requires attention.


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