While the migrant crisis in Europe has been getting all of the international attention, a much larger migration from Syria has quietly been underway – to neighbouring Lebanon. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 1.1 million registered refugees living in Lebanon, but many more are not registered with the UN. The total number of refugees could be something in the order of 1.5 million people says Father Paul Karam, president of Caritas Lebanon. All of these people have fled the violence in Syria to a country with a population of just under 4 million and a land area of 10,000 square kilometres. (To put that in perspective Lebanon is two-thirds the size of Conneticut or one-thirtieth the size of New Zealand, or one-third the size of Belgium, or one-quarter the size of Bhutan…you get the picture – Lebanon is a very small country.) Thus, one-quarter of the current population of Lebabon is made up of refugees from Syria (and 20,000 from Iraq). Needless to say, Lebanon is home to more refugees per capita than any other nation.
As one can imagine, these huge numbers of refugees are placing large strains on the country. First, there is the religious balance of Lebabon. Lebanese are about 40 percent Christian, 55 percent Muslim (split evenly between Sunni and Shia and 5 percent Druze. Although most of the Iraqi refugees are Christian, the vast majority (97 percent) of the Syrian refugees are Muslim, Father Karam fears that such large numbers will “destabilise” the current Lebanese system. Further “destabilisation” must surely come from the plight of those born whilst in refuge: Syrians born in Lebanon since the outbreak of civil war are stateless and have no identification documents and their births are not registered in either Syria or Lebanon. There are over 65,000 of these stateless children.
And then there’s the practical infrastructure. Unbelievably there are no formal refugee camps, instead Syrians establish with the permission of the local municipality informal tent settlements. Luckier refugees find space in aprtments to rent and others squat in abandonded buildings. But life for both refugees and Lebanese is getting harder:
“Even before waves of Syrian refugees began descending upon the country more than four years ago, Lebanon had grappled with shortages in water and electricity.
‘You need to have infrastructure in order to help you to help these people,’ Father Karam said. ‘If you don’t have such a strong infrastructure, what shall you do? If the problem will remain and there is no solution in the near future, this will affect more and more the social life and the security life of this country.’…
Yet Lebanon’s own population is being squeezed economically.
‘The Lebanese have also slipped slowly to poverty under the pressure of competition represented by the increasing supply in the labor market and the increasing demand on goods and services,’ said [Michel] Constantin, [regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, an agency of the Holy See].”
It is therefore not suprising that the Lebanese government does not allow refugees to work. Some stil work informally, but if they do they are suciptible to poor conditions and will lose their UNHCR card and residency papers if caught by the Lebanese government. On a brighter note, the Lebanese Ministry of Education has announced that it will make space for 200,000 school-age children in the public school system, a considerable undertaking for a country of Lebanon’s size.
All-in-all there is little doubt that Lebanon is ill-equipped to deal with a problem on this scale by itself. And let’s not forget, Lebanon has been host to Palestinian refugees for more than 60 years – there about half a million Palestinians in Lebanon.