Syria: the unbearable crisis - Rebecca Lowe

The crisis in Syria is putting unsustainable pressure on its neighbours – Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. With public services swamped by refugees and local tensions rising, Global Insight reports on Lebanon, a country bearing an impossible burden.

Imagine if civil war broke out in Mexico and 100 million civilians were forced suddenly to flee to the US for asylum. What would the reaction be from the government and locals? Would entry be permitted? Would the newcomers be greeted with open arms and offers of refuge? Perhaps. Or perhaps the initial humanitarian impulse would turn swiftly to public resentment, and the fleeing multitudes told politely but firmly to go elsewhere – Guatemala, maybe, or Belize.


‘This is definitely the worst refugee crisis not only in the history of Lebanon, but in the history of any country of its size […]. Lebanon’s capacity has reached its maximum’


Dominique Tohme
Head of the Legal Unit, UNHCR

If this scenario sounds fanciful, spare a thought for the population of Lebanon. Since the conflict began, up to 1.3 million refugees have fled to this tiny sliver of a country, swelling its population by a third. According to World Bank estimates, a further million could descend by the end of the year.

While the international community wrings its hands and locks its doors, Lebanon has done the opposite. The border has been kept open and households have shown extraordinary hospitality to their beleaguered neighbours. Yet signs of strain are evident: public services are at breaking point; refugees are competing with their hosts for jobs and resources; social tensions are rising. Meanwhile, sectarian conflicts between pro- and anti-Syrian forces continue to escalate across the country.

As hostilities intensify, refugees are particularly vulnerable to arrest and ill-treatment within a criminal justice system riddled with corruption and abuse. Lebanon has declined to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, leaving the legal status of Syrians fleeing civil war undefined. Instead, it relies on a series of ad-hoc provisions to ensure their welfare and security – provisions that could be changed or revoked at any time.

‘This is definitely the worst refugee crisis not only in the history of Lebanon, but in the history of any country of its size,’ says Dominique Tohme, Head of the Legal Unit at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). ‘How long can people endure such a difficult situation? Lebanon’s capacity has reached its maximum.’

A makeshift life

Tohme is not exaggerating Lebanon’s plight. Between December 2012 and 2013, the number of Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR increased by 700 per cent, to around 860,000. However, the World Bank puts the real total far higher. Around 200,000400,000 people are believed not to have registered, perhaps because they entered the country illegally or have sufficient funds to live without assistance.


‘The absence of a legal framework allows Syrians to be targeted and victimised, with no way to defend themselves’


George Ghali
Project officer, Association Libanaise pour l’Education et la Formation

Unlike Jordan and Turkey, which between them have taken on around 1.2 million Syrians, Lebanon has not established official refugee camps. Still smarting from 1948, when Palestinians arrived in droves and later contributed to the 19751990 civil war, the country has long enjoyed an uneasy relationship with foreign arrivals.

With its fragile factional balance of Christian, Shia and Sunni (see timeline, page 28), Lebanon’s concerns are understandable. Yet without centrally organised camps, Syrians have been forced to build flimsy makeshift shelters and hunker down in any accommodation they can find. Refugees can now be found in 1,500 territories across the country, the majority in the poorest regions in the Bekaa Valley, north and south.

‘Refugees are suffering a terrible life,’ says politician Nayla Moawad, widow of former Lebanese President Rene Moawad. ‘But we often don’t know where they are or how to find them. Already people are saying, not jokingly, if we don’t die of bombs, we’ll die from the lack of hygiene. It’s a tragedy.’

Around 120,000 refugees are currently believed to be living in tents without proper heating or sanitation. Through the Rene Moawad Foundation, established to uphold social justice and economic development, Moawad has been helping the UNHCR conduct a countrywide polio and tuberculosis vaccination campaign for Syrian children. But as the winter drags on, refugees are becoming harder to assist.

‘We have almost nothing, except for a few pots and pans and some clothes. It is very hard,’ says Hiba Tahrani, a 31-year-old mother-of-three living in an unofficial camp in the Bekaa Valley, who fled Syria ten months ago with her husband, young children and elderly father. The family lives with four other people in a dilapidated wooden shack patched together with plastic sheeting, barely large enough for a couple. Over the winter, temperatures dropped below freezing, Tahrani says, and her father was diagnosed with pneumonia. ‘It is getting harder every day. People are kind, but we know we are not wanted here. My husband found a job in construction, but it is not enough. We are constantly cold, damp and hungry. The hardest thing is not knowing when we can go home. The thought we might be here forever, trying to survive forever, is terrifying.’ 

George Cody, Executive Director of the American Task Force for Lebanon, visited two camps in the Bekaa Valley in April 2013. What he saw shocked him. ‘Sanitation was execrable,’ he says. ‘There was open defecation and people had scabies and boils on their faces. In the drinking water barrel we found flotsam and debris. It was a terrible thing to witness.'

Maximising funds

Under customary international law and global covenants on human rights and torture, every country has an obligation to uphold refugee rights. However, Lebanon has no domestic legal framework that addresses refugees. Instead, it relies on a Memorandum of Understanding with the UNHCR, which outlines how Syrians will be identified and legitimised while a long-term solution is found.

‘In the absence of a clear commitment by the government to protect refugees’ rights, there is still uncertainty,’ says George Ghali, project officer at the Association Libanaise pour l’Education et la Formation (ALEF), a Beirut-based human rights organisation. ‘We don’t know when a judge might issue a deportation order. We don’t know when the government might implement these decisions. The absence of a legal framework allows Syrians to be targeted and victimised, with no way to defend themselves.’

Under international law, refugees fleeing conflict zones cannot be designated illegal immigrants. In Lebanon, however, the 15 per cent of Syrian refugees believed to have entered through unofficial crossings along the porous 130km border are vulnerable to arrest. Many more fall into illegality because they cannot afford the $200 fee to renew their residency permits after a year. While official statistics are unavailable, ALEF estimates that around 6,000 refugees have been detained after entering the country ‘illegally’. The UNHCR suspects ‘a rather large number’ of refugees have been arrested and released without charge, but has only been alerted to 130 cases of detention since October 2012.

There have also been reports of border officials turning back Syrians without valid IDs at the border, after which they are unable to return for a month. According to ALEF, Palestinians – who enjoy few legal rights in Lebanon – are routinely being denied entry from Syria, though UNHCR says it has no knowledge of this.

Despite these concerns, Lebanon has made it clear that no refugee is currently at risk of being deported; even those who have committed crimes. It has also declined to close its border, unlike Turkey and Jordan, and has revoked the normal visa requirements. Most impressively for a struggling country with weak infrastructure, it has permitted 100,000 Syrian children to enter its school system, instantly doubling class sizes.

‘Lebanon’s unwillingness to sign the Refugee Convention is unfortunate,’ says UNHCR Lebanon representative Ninette Kelley. ‘But their response to the Syrian situation has been incredible. I cannot think of a single time in history when so many refugees in proportion to a country’s size have been admitted freely like this.’

With few public services in Lebanon, the UN-affiliated aid agencies have their work cut out. Currently, they provide food and fuel coupons, hygiene kits, stoves and plastic sheeting. They also subsidise health services, though thousands continue to fall through the gaps. Healthcare in Lebanon is expensive even for the Lebanese, and subsidies are targeted to pregnant women, children and the elderly. Food supplies are also limited: following a reassessment in May 2013, 28 per cent of recipients were cut from the programme.

‘It’s a big concern because we know we’d be unable to assist a child who has cancer,’ says UNHCR Lebanon spokesperson Dana Sleiman. ‘If we were to cover this child, we wouldn’t be maximising our funds, because for the cost of this treatment we could have covered 100 children with other healthcare needs.’

Shocked and revolted

Lebanon has called with increasing urgency for help from the international community. Yet the response has been disappointing. Wealthy neighbours Saudi Arabia and Qatar have done little, while European countries have seemed more inclined towards military intervention than providing asylum. Despite a UN call for 30,000 permanent visa places to be made available for Syrians, European Union states have only agreed to take 18,300 refugees for both temporary and permanent resettlement between them: less than one per cent of the total.

In Greece, refugees are not only denied entry but treated with shameless brutality. According to Amnesty International, refugees reaching the country’s shores have been beaten, robbed and pushed back to sea. Since August 2012, at least 130 refugees have lost their lives attempting to reach Greece from Turkey.

Instead of taking on refugees, the international community has made cash donations. The US, EU and Kuwait have all given generously, and without them there is no doubt aid efforts would have failed. Yet the last $1.7bn UNHCR appeal was only 51 per cent funded, and December’s $1.89bn follow-up is currently only six per cent funded. Saudi Arabia, Brazil, China and Russia have all proved particularly tight-fisted.

‘Lebanon feels it is alone in this crisis,’ says Ghassan Moukheiber, Rapporteur of Lebanon’s Parliamentary Human Rights Committee. ‘Assistance is coming, but it is still way below our needs. Relief needs to address the refugees, but also the communities that are supporting them. People are living in terrible conditions. It is an unbearable situation.’

Moawad is more forthright. ‘We have been flabbergasted by the lack of reaction from the international community,’ she says, her voice trembling with frustration. ‘It is so shocking, but nobody seems to care. I am simply revolted. It is unbearable, really.’

New anger, old animosities

Unbearable is the word. According to a September 2013 World Bank report, the Syrian conflict has put Lebanon’s public finances ‘under severe and rapidly escalating strains, unsustainable given Lebanon’s initial weak public finances’. Nearly 30 per cent of Lebanese citizens live on less than $4 a day, and the conflict may push a further 170,000 into poverty by the close of 2014, the report states.  The total fiscal impact is estimated at $2.6bn, with a further $2.5bn needed to return public services to their pre-crisis levels.

Contributing to the country’s woes is a growing tide of social tension. Content with far lower wages than the Lebanese, Syrians are gradually pushing their hosts out of the job market. The influx of refugees is expected to increase labour supply by between 30 and 50 per cent, doubling unemployment levels. Pay in the service and agriculture sectors has already plunged by 50 per cent, while the new wave of lower middle-class Syrians has increased competition in the retail and business sectors.

Currently, all Syrians need a work permit and are limited to a prescribed list of menial jobs, but the vast majority work freely without one. Because of this, many Lebanese have become resentful of the UN assistance given exclusively to refugees and accuse them of illicitly collecting aid while working to bolster their income. In a survey by Norwegian research foundation Fafo in May 2013, an overwhelming 98 per cent of Lebanese respondents believed the Syrians were taking jobs from locals, while nearly two-thirds believed they received unfair economic assistance. A third said the border with Syria should be closed.

‘People still support the Syrians’ cause, but they are nervous about the scarce economic opportunities,’  says Amal Mudallali, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and advisor to former Lebanese Prime Ministers Rafik Hariri and Saad Hariri. ‘Syrians are very entrepreneurial. I’m from Bekaa and I’ve heard they’ve come to an area of about 4km and opened about 100 restaurants. It’s causing a lot of tension.’

The Lebanese and Syrian communities are culturally close but divided. Intermarriages are common, but long-term sectarian and socio-economic hostilities continue to drive a wedge between the sibling nations. For some, the Syrian occupation after the civil war has not been forgotten, provoking xenophobic sentiment towards Syrian people – despite the fact it was perpetrated by the very same regime now tormenting the refugees.

‘The conflict is opening up a Pandora’s box of anger and racism towards the Syrians,’ says Sami Atallah, Director at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. ‘So you have two conflicting sides: the humanitarian side and the old animosities between the societies.’


‘Some judges are independent, but not the judiciary. We have a lot of political intervention, even with the criminal courts. And you can feel the power of money’


Chawkat Houalla
Adib & Houalla Law Office, Lebanon

While instances of violence have been minimal, officials are concerned that isolated events do not escalate. In December, a refugee settlement was burnt down following allegations that residents had sexually assaulted a disabled person, though the claims transpired to be false. In Kab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, residents commonly refer to Syrian tents as ‘musta’amarat’, a term connoting illicit Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.

Meanwhile, human rights organisations have reported a rise in violent crime towards female refugees, alongside cases of prostitution, forced marriage, sex trafficking and child labour.

Lama Fakih, Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), says the growth in racism means Syrians are increasingly being unfairly blamed for crimes. ‘We are very concerned about non-state actor violence. It has been reported there has been an increase in crime, and often these reports are linked in a very racist way to the presence of Syrians, prompting instances of retaliatory violence.’

Jewel of coexistence

While social tensions seethe and simmer, sectarian battles are erupting with increasing regularity in Tripoli and south Beirut. Car bombs and street fights have become common, and the death toll has reached the hundreds – including former finance minister and Syrian regime critic Mohamad Chatah, killed by a car bomb in December.

In Lebanon, around 40 per cent of the population is Christian, 36 per cent is Shia and 18 per cent Sunni. Previously, the greatest tension existed between Christians and Muslims, but over the past decade – since the 2003 Iraq War and 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – the Muslim sects have become increasingly divided. The Syrian conflict has exacerbated such hostilities further, with Shia Hezbollah supporting Assad, and extremist Sunni factions, including Al-Qaeda, supporting the rebels.

While most Lebanese are moderate and unconcerned about sectarian issues, the armed elements at the periphery are gradually gaining influence over the political agenda. ‘It is a big concern,’ says Moukheiber. ‘We are experiencing an extension of the crisis in Syria. People are travelling back and forth with weapons for both Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. It is a serious risk that several thousand people coming over may be armed and ready to make problems.’

Lebanon has maintained a policy of neutrality towards the Syrian conflict, but the country’s delicate stability is looking increasingly precarious. Currently in a state of paralysis due to the resignation of the government in March 2013, the caretaker cabinet has proved incapable of prosecuting perpetrators on either side of the divide. Nine years after the murder of Hariri, the trial of four Hezbollah members accused of the killing started at The Hague this January, but the government has been unable to compel the powerful organisation to surrender the men – all of whom proclaim their innocence.

According to a December 2013 HRW report, the Shia Alawite community in Jabal Mohsen, Tripoli, has been the target of a series of brutal attacks over recent months. Assailants have fired mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at residents, and burnt down their businesses. Yet the government has markedly failed to hold those responsible to account, HRW states, allowing them to enjoy relative immunity from prosecution.

‘Lebanon was always meant to be the jewel of coexistence, where everyone was respected and held common values,’ says Moawad. ‘But it has become a place of hatred. We should not allow this, because the whole world will pay the price.’

Domestic reform, global response

As violence and instability grows in Lebanon, the criminal justice system is in danger of buckling under the pressure. A January 2013 report by ALEF describes Lebanon as having cultivated a ‘legal culture in ruins’. Prisons are overcrowded to bursting point, court backlogs are interminable, detainees are regularly held for months or years without trial, military tribunals are commonplace, access to counsel is unreliable, torture is widespread - and corruption is endemic across the board.


‘We are experiencing an extension of the crisis in Syria. People are travelling back and forth with weapons for both Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. It is a serious risk that several thousand people coming over may be armed and ready to make problems’


Ghassan Moukheiber
Rapporteur, Lebanon’s Parliamentary Human Rights Committee

‘It’s a miserable system,’ says leading Lebanese lawyer and human rights activist Muhammad Mugraby. In 2009, Mugraby commenced proceedings against the EU before the European Court of Justice, claiming it had failed to use the instruments at its disposal to persuade Lebanon to respect human rights. ‘The judiciary is not trusted to apply the law and is in a state of accepted corruption. There is a strong culture of impunity. There is no rule of law.’

Lacking legal status, it is refugees who are most at risk of abuse within such a system. The interim government may lack the power to make serious reforms, but frustration is growing at its current torpor. One key priority must be addressing legal loopholes, say NGOs, as well as cracking down on the corruption scandals involving aid agencies that have deterred donors from giving more generously.

‘I know that often donors are very sceptical about money being side-tracked to the wrong channels, especially in countries where corruption is rife,’ says Shalini Agarwal, founding partner of UK-Indian boutique firm In Se Legal. Agarwal, who lived in Lebanon during the civil war in the 1980s and ‘once spent a few hours in an air raid shelter with Yasser Arafat’, suggests Beirut ought to focus resources on ‘increasing transparency and visibility, and encouraging more hesitant donors by showcasing what happens with the funding’.

For Atallah, Lebanon must view the refugee issue as a ‘five-to-seven-year’ problem, and concentrate on creating jobs and attracting capital via improvements in infrastructure and transparency. Ferid Belhaj, Director of the Middle East Department at the World Bank, agrees. Authorities should create a framework of ‘resilience and sustainability’, he says, including implementing economic reforms that would help bolster the effectiveness of international assistance and ‘put the country on a much more sustainable path towards development’.

Ultimately, however, it is the international community that has both the power and responsibility to keep Lebanon on its feet – not just with cash, but sanctuary too. ‘Lebanon is rendering a service to the international community as a whole,’ Belhaj stresses. ‘And the international community should respond in words and in kind.’ 


Rebecca Lowe is Senior Reporter at the IBA and can be contacted at rebecca.lowe@int-bar.org