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Lebanon Bears Weight of Syrian Conflict

by Audrey Hoffer

The Nov. 19 suicide bombings on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut that targeted Iran for its support of President Bashar al-Assad's forces in the Syrian war represent only a fraction of the conflict’s spillover into Lebanon. The deteriorating Syrian refugee crisis is an international issue, but one felt most directly and with increasing alarm by the Lebanese people. On Oct. 29, a conference was held at the Woodrow Wilson Center to tackle this ongoing humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. 

From left, former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco and American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL) Vice Chairman Edward M. Gabriel, and Lebanese Ambassador to the U.S. Antoine Chedid attend a conference on the effects of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon. Photos: Audrey Hoffer
Hosted by Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, the event was cosponsored by the Wilson Center and the American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL), a nonprofit organization who works towards reestablishing a secure, stable, independent and sovereign Lebanon with full control over its territory.

“There’s a critical humanitarian situation in Lebanon now,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Anne C. Richard. “Unimaginable devastation is taking place right next door.  A violent conflict is raging with indiscriminate bombing attacks by the Assad government on its own people.”

One year ago 74,720 registered Syrian refugees lived in Lebanon. Now there are 720,021 with an additional 85,720 waiting to be registered. Moreover, there are 300,000 seasonal Syrian workers who have brought their families; 280,000 Palestinian refugees already residing in Lebanon; and 49,000 Palestinians from Syria who have fled to Lebanon.

From left, former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco and American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL) Vice Chairman Edward M. Gabriel, and Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program attend a conference on the effects of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon.
The result is that refugees now comprise roughly 30 percent of Lebanon’s population, greatly exceeding its capacity.

“It [Lebanon] has remained faithful to its international and human commitment not to close its border,” Ambassador of Lebanon to the U.S. Antoine Chedid said.  “This aggravating burden represents now a real existential crisis, in view of the security and socioeconomic repercussions of such a sudden overpopulation.” Speaking sincerely, he pleaded that, “this is a very painful cry on behalf of Lebanon and the Lebanese to be heard.”

Moderating the panel, Edward M. Gabriel, the former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco and Vice Chairman of the ATFL, told attendees that the greeting ATFL received in April 2013 when touring refugee settlements with an NGO was, ‘Welcome to hell.’

In many of the makeshift settlements, there is no electricity or running water, minimum sanitation, lack of medical care and insufficient food and water distribution. In addition, life in the villages and communities where Lebanese families have absorbed Syrians into their homes — nearly every town or city in the country — as temporary guests is fraying.
Initially, the stay was expected to be of short duration, said Gabriel, but has now lasted too long and is resulting in friction between the Lebanese and Syrian people over increasingly scarce resources and jobs.
 The figures are staggering and “Lebanon is in danger,” he said.

The country’s budget requires additional financial shoring in order to cover the health, education and social needs of both refugees and residents. Traffic and road accidents have increased and the water supply, electricity, sanitation, and waste management infrastructure are stressed by excessive use. Funds are desperately needed for these projects.
Half of current financing comes from the U.S. — as of September, it has contributed more than $254 million to Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon — from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, other UN agencies and many NGOs. But this aid is simply not enough to fulfill the multiplying need for services or ward off the threat of national instability and likely chaos.
“The US recognizes that Lebanon is doing right by keeping borders open but the country has paid a heavy price for its generosity,” said Richard. “The US believes that the international community must help.”

Ambassador Chedid stressed the need for a political solution and described the desired outcome that can only come about with the help of the international community. Amongst other things, he called on the consolidation of frameworks and spaces to lodge the refugees on Syrian territories in safe zones outside the reach of the conflict; the organization of an international conference to discuss all aspects of the problem including burden sharing; and creating an overall strategy to facilitate coordinated assistance in the international community.
 “All these measures seem pressing and urgent, pending the desired political solution for Syria which hopefully will be provided by the Geneva 2 Conference to which Lebanon when invited would seriously consider attending, a solution that is likely and hopefully to ensure for those refugees a dignified and safe return to their country,” said Ambassador Chedid.
After the conference, Ambassador Chedid and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Representative in Lebanon Ninette Kelley met key members of Congress in their Capitol Hill offices to brief them on the situation, express appreciation for U.S. support and request its continuation.

“Lebanon is under tremendous pressure,” said Kelley. “If your neighborhood and your state received one million refugees in 18 months, what would your reaction be?  The country has been welcoming but that welcome is starting to wear thin.”

Audrey Hoffer is a contributing writer for Diplomatic Pouch.




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