Lebanon at breaking point

Two out of three Lebanese believe that the conflict in Syria could lead to a new civil war in Lebanon. For many, the question is not if there is going to be a war or not, but when it is going to break out.

Cathrine Thorleifsson
12 September 2013

The relationship between the Lebanese population and Syrian refugees is showing clear signs of strain. The Syrian refugee crisis is causing increased social and political tensions in a Lebanon on the brink of civil war. Two years into the Syrian conflict over half a million Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring Lebanon. Now it seems that Lebanon's hospitality has reached its limit.

According to Human Rights Watch, Palestinian refugees fleeing the violence in Syria have been refused entry into Lebanon for the past three weeks, and this violates Lebanon's international obligations. This action demonstrates that Lebanon is close to breaking point. The mass influx of Syrian refugees is putting the country’s already scarce resources under added pressures. A recent study by the Fafo Foundation, an independent research organization, of a representative sample of 900 Lebanese respondents, shows that the majority wants stricter border control. More than half of the sample are not comfortable with having Syrian refugees as neighbours and attitudes towards the Syrian refugee population are souring. 

Like other refugee populations before them, the Syrians are now being used as scapegoats for the declining economy. The Lebanese authorities have so far refused the UN to set up separate camps to house the refugees under the rhetoric that they can turn into permanent settlements and increase the likelihood that Syrians may decide to stay. The absence of refugee camps means that Syrian families are settling in local communities across the country and competition for scarce jobs is creating friction. The idea is that Syrian refugees can combine low-paid work with aid and impoverished Lebanese, without external financial support, become the losers in a tight labor market. With increased demand for housing, rents have risen dramatically and the Lebanese complain that they are being priced out of the housing market. They feel that the Syrian refugees are supported to an unfair degree, while their needs are being neglected. These frustrations coupled with a sense of differential economic treatment have led to increased prejudice towards Syrians. Many Lebanese are carrying old grievances against their Syrian brothers caused by Syria's military presence in Lebanon for 29 years (1975-2005) which were accompanied with human rights violations. And now new stereotypes are added to these old hatreds. The Syrian refugees are accused of crime and of stealing jobs. 

Struggling to survive everyday life in Lebanon is trying. The Syrian refugees arrive traumatized by horrific violence and the fragmentation or loss of family facing new challenges in a country of large class differences and widespread poverty. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees provides assistance to refugees who register, however many do not register out of fear that their names will travel back to the Syrian regime. Refugees I met in the poor Sunni village of Bebnine expressed frustration with the poor living conditions, coupled with the difficulty in accessing various aid organizations. Moreover, they feel the local prejudice. A taxi driver, Ahmed, fled his hometown of Idlib with his wife and two children under heavy shelling. While careful not to talk negatively about their hosting society, he feels that the Lebanese profit from their tragedy, in that the rent is high and wages are low. Ahmed worries about the future: “Only God knows how long we have to live like this.” 

Lebanon has requested more billions in aid to deal with the growing influx of refugees. Even with increased international support, Lebanon’s stability is fragile. For an extended period of time, Lebanon’s official disassociation policy to the conflict in Syria kept the situation in balance. The Shia Hezbollah movement and Sunni groups increased involvement on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war which reinforces the same sectarian divisions in Lebanon. Nowhere is the tension higher than in Tripoli, where the population is deeply polarised between those who support Assad and those who oppose him. In the Shia Muslim district Dahiyeh in southern Beirut the Lebanese army had to break up fights between Syrians and the locals. Additionally are the unknown consequences of a possible US-led strike on Syria. 

According to Fafo’s study, two out of three Lebanese believe that the conflict in Syria could lead to a new civil war in Lebanon. For many, the question is not if there is going to be a war or not, but when it is going to break out. It remains to be seen whether Lebanon will fall as the fifth domino of the Arab Spring.

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