Kareem Shaheen, reporter at the Beirut-based The Daily Star.
Lebanon and its people have become the victims of three years of government inaction and a lack of strategy to address the influx of Syrian refugees. The result has been a refugee crisis that has stretched the country's infrastructure past the breaking point, brought refugees in competition with poorer Lebanese for jobs, and caused myriad security headaches.
Lebanon has over 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees, roughly half of whom are under the age of eighteen. Four out of five refugee children are out of school as the academic year begins. The refugee influx is such that Lebanon has surpassed its projected population for 2050, according to António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Syrian refugees have had to bear the blame for recent events, including the brief takeover of the northeastern Sunni town of Arsal, near the border with Syria, by militants pledging loyalty to Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. It is believed that some of the militants were residing in the scattered refugee settlements around the town. The settlements were partially burned in the Lebanese army’s ensuing siege. Since then, following the kidnappings and beheadings of soldiers held captive by the jihadis who attacked Arsal, other settlements have been periodically attacked and raided.
Locals in some Christian-majority towns have stepped in to fill the security void left by the government. Many towns have instituted strict curfews on refugees, barring them from leaving their homes at night. Municipalities in Batroun, for example, have called on residents to volunteer with the municipal police, set up observation posts, and take part in patrols targeting the Syrian refugee community there, with some Syrians complaining of abuses and discriminatory treatment.
The government has only recently begun stepping in. A proposal to build refugee camps between Arsal and the Syrian border is gaining momentum, and has emerged as a key demand in the aftermath of the ISIS-Nusra takeover. Even residents who have long supported the Syrian opposition back the proposal, but it has not yet been endorsed by the cabinet.
Building refugee camps was always going to be political dynamite for any Lebanese government, as they are wary of comparisons to the established Palestinian presence in the country and its role in the nation’s 1975-1990 civil war. But supporters of the proposal say it is necessary to bolster security and track Syrian refugees, many of whom are unaccounted for and carry incomplete identification papers.
Amid the influx, both refugees and locals have suffered from years of government inaction. The vast expansion in Lebanon's population has stressed its electricity grid, which has faced more extensive blackouts, and its education system, which no longer has the capacity to absorb Syrian children. Already, 85 percent of Syrian refugees live among the poorest two-thirds of Lebanese—Palestinians fleeing the violence in Syria have, for instance, taken refuge in the Palestinian refugee camps here, overcrowding already dense and impoverished neighborhoods. Harsh conditions are meanwhile prompting the twice-displaced Palestinians from Syria to flee on dangerous migrant boats to European countries along the Mediterranean coast. Some have died en route.
Belatedly, the Lebanese government has taken stopgap measures, including stricter controls on the border and stripping refugee status from Syrians who go back home for visits. But none of these measures will be enough to resolve simmering tensions or the security and economic fallout from the unprecedented refugee crisis. It is unclear if even a proposal as fundamental as establishing refugee camps will solve the crisis this late in the game.