Why Form a Study Group Focused on Vulnerable Populations in Lebanon: An Appeal For Workable Solutions

Wednesday, February 15, 2023
Opinion by James McLellan

Following a recent visit to Lebanon, experts from the American Task Force on Lebanon expressed strong concern that the Syrian refugee crisis was an issue deserving of more intentional focus. And, despite the frequent mention of Syrian refugees in the meetings with ATFL’s delegation in Lebanon, the delegation returned to Washington with more questions than answers.

What was clear, however, were the stakes underlying many of the passion-inducing conversations about Syrian refugees. Some interlocutors we met expressed their frustrations with what they considered to be an unacceptable disparity of humanitarian support, based on a perception of aid that prioritizes Syrian populations in Lebanon and overshadows vulnerable Lebanese populations. Others expressed concern that frustrated Lebanese government officials are unfairly blaming Syrian refugees in part for their own self-induced problems, pitting one group against another, with potentially disastrous implications.

The reality in Lebanon is that host, refugee, and other migrant populations all face unimaginably difficult living conditions and precarious prospects for their immediate futures. The majority of the Lebanese people are now under the poverty line and have experienced an egregious set of failures and criminality from their own government. This has thrown most refugees and migrant domestic workers, deprived of their basic human rights and persecuted by an exploitative labor system, into this economic and political nightmare as well.

The 7.8-magnitude Kahramanmaras earthquake that resulted in massive losses of life and displacement on February 6, 2023 was felt all across the Eastern Mediterranean region, with its epicenter situated in Southern Turkey, close to the Syrian border. In Syria alone, the rescue and recovery effort in its Northwestern region faces many political complications.

While Lebanon is not the only country to do so, offers of humanitarian assistance and material support for this natural disaster relief have been directed to the regime by several foreign governments. This assistance corresponds with ongoing questions about international normalization with the Assad regime, and raises concerns for those who oppose the regime’s opportunistic maneuvers to benefit from this influx of aid coming into Syria.

Further, the deteriorating value of the currency and overall economic situation in Lebanon has worsened everyone’s problems – plunging nearly all groups into a compounded state of economic hardship and humanitarian crisis. When crises that at first seem temporary become unsustainably prolonged, however, the tools and choices at the disposal of governments as well as multi-lateral and non-governmental organizations, let alone for host and refugee populations, become less clear-cut and effective.

For this reason, the discussion about Syrian refugees in Lebanon has noticeably become more urgent and passionate, with a clear and objective understanding of the problem supplanted by stories not based in fact. Objective facts surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon are therefore hard to understand, with unsubstantiated anecdotal stories filling this void.

Only impossible choices have been given to Lebanon’s most vulnerable populations. Given the growing pressure of refugees on the region, the recent earthquake, and economic disaster in Lebanon, it is now time to bring together a group of experts to unravel the real facts that underlie the refugee problem in Lebanon and look for new and creative solutions addressing all vulnerable populations in Lebanon, which include both struggling Lebanese and Syrian refugees.

Refugees and refugee crises are and have been the subject of politicization all over the world. In Lebanon, however, host and refugee communities are both struggling, and seemingly to no end. A broad group of experts may be able to not only come up with a clear understanding of the facts affecting both the host and refugee communities but also bring the stakes and workable solutions of this problem to the attention of US policymakers.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.