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Syrian Refugees Are a Shock To Lebanon's System

07/18/2014 05:35 EDT | Updated 09/17/2014 05:59 EDT

"Lebanon is like a beautiful woman, everyone wants her but she is turning ugly". This was my introduction to the country, with my taxi driver Khalil referring to the swell of Syrian refugees.

The enormous influx of Syrian refugees has been difficult for the Lebanese people, and an acerbic taste is developing around the issue. Some estimates put the Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon at 50 per cent of the small country's total population.

Hala Naufal, an Expert Demographer and professor of Population Studies at the Lebanese University, estimates the Syrian refugee count in Lebanon to now be around two million. Proportionately, it would be like 10 to 15 million refugees entering Canada over the course of three years. Imagine the shock to our system and the strain on our economy.

But the word "refugee" is neither liked nor used by the Lebanese Government, says Naufal, as the term implies responsibility from the host country. While Lebanon has signed human rights treaties that protect refugees, it is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. This has allowed the Lebanese Government, without critique, to also refuse the assembly of 'refugee camps' per se. Instead, new Syrian refugees are generally directed towards 'Informal Tented Settlements' (ITS) or subsidized housing, and they are referred to as 'displaced'.

Makram Malaeb a programme manager for the Syrian Refugee Crisis Unit at the Ministry of Social Affairs in Lebanon, says that Lebanese refugees once poured into Syria, and that Lebanon must reciprocate the assistance. But he says, his country is seeing an economic depression as a result. The World Bank has estimated the price-tag of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon at about $7.5 billion, and Malaeb says international assistance is dwindling.

The problem is tangible to the Lebanese people.

"Syrians, big problem," says Khalil's brother Khodor. He points out places like sections of a beach where he says Syrians are "occupying" Lebanon. While he doesn't realize the implications of the English term, his bitterness is obvious. Or, maybe to him this is all too reminiscent of the Syrian Army's occupation of Lebanon which only ended less than ten years ago. That kind of wound can take generations to heal.

Also, when Syrians fled to Lebanon after the breakout of the civil war in 2011, they dwelled in the poorest of its regions, mostly on the border. When international assistance came, it only came for the Syrians.

NGOs now recognize that it was a grave injustice to ignore the impoverished Lebanese while tending to new Syrian refugees living in the same villages. Sandy Maroun, a Public Information Officer with the World Food Programme in Lebanon, says her organization comprehends the requirement to help both Syrians and Lebanese in need. She says for example, that the WFP in partnership with the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, is launching a project this month to provide relief for poverty-stricken Lebanese, providing them with electronic food vouchers they can use at local stores.

But Lebanon is deteriorating. Naufal says that for years international aid has been promised but only a fraction is ever delivered. Meanwhile, the Lebanese Government is left with a hefty Syrian refugee bill. It cannot accommodate the water or electricity needs of the population anymore. Some Lebanese complain that Syrians are also taking jobs below minimum wage, putting Lebanese out of work in their own country.

Other neighbouring countries are feeling the same financial pinch due to the conflict in Syria. Initially, Turkey refused international aid, believing they could shoulder the cost of Syrian refugees alone. $1.5 billion dollars later, they realized they were wrong. And Jordan estimated the cost of refugee accommodation for 2013 to be $851.1 million -- a whopping two percent of its GDP.

Canada has offered to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees over the next two years, and has committed over $630 million in humanitarian, development and security assistance to date. Malaeb says he would like to see Canada do more.

Bruno Saccomani is Canada's Ambassador to Jordan. The 28-year RCMP veteran says the refugee camps in that country have certainly evolved. So rather than focus on the staples -- since kitchen shelves are stacked and adequate refugee housing is already built -- the Ambassador thinks outside of the temporary NGO box. While maintaining the success already achieved, his goal for Canada is to help Jordan build infrastructure that will assist its communities in sustaining the amplified population which has caused local municipal infrastructure to implode. Because realistically, he says, it will be years before Syrian refugees will be able to return to their heavily-mined, highly dangerous, toxic country.

Saccomani's prescription for helping Jordan cope with the flood of Syrian refugees -- which have in some cases quadrupled the size of villages -- also includes a heavy dose of Canadian trade. The only free-trade agreement Canada has in the Arab world is with Jordan, and Saccomani sees a way to exploit that in a way that supports Jordan with their current infrastructure difficulties. He gives the example of a Canadian company that makes solar panels -- wouldn't it be brilliant if a sunny place like Jordan could power-up refugee camps with an inexpensive fix of solar power --and environmentally friendlier than the diesel currently used in places where there is any power at all.

This is coming from an Ambassador who unconventionally opened up the Canadian Embassy in Jordan to sell over a hundred pieces of unique artwork created by Syrian refugees in the country-for their benefit. At $75 a piece--and sold out--the proceeds went directly to the UN in Jordan to help refugees. He also invited the artists themselves to join him at the vernissage. This was Saccomani's brainchild. He's different, innovative, and determined. Try to praise him and you'll get an earful of credit for the team of extremely hard working public servants that surround him.

Some say that if enough -- and the right -- international aid is provided, it will economically boost countries that host Syrian refugees through stimulus effects. For example, the WFP's electronic food voucher program injects over $222 million into 340 Lebanese shops across the country. As a result, some Lebanese businesses have doubled and tripled in size and staff.

With a UN estimate of 100,000 new Syrian refugees every month, Naufal says that the Lebanese Ministry of Interior has plans to reassess refugee claims. She says the Government intends to do more thorough checks on Syrians who teeter-totter from Lebanon and back to Syria, possibly taking advantage of food allowances or short term employment, and then heading back home --suggesting they feel it is safe to return to their home country and are thus not true refugees.

Malaeb says that while in theory such an assessment seems beneficial, it is the UNHCR that registers the refugees, so an information sharing must take place for the plan to work.

NGOs working in Syria are also trying to provide food and shelter for those who have lost the basic necessities of life in their country but whose lives are not threatened. This, the WFP says, will encourage Syrians to stay in their home country and relocate to areas of Syria that are out of harm's way.

But the latest civil war in Syria isn't to blame for all the Syrian refugees, says Naufal. Many Syrians came to Lebanon before the crisis, as workers. Economic refugees, rather than humanitarian cases.

As Syrian refugees spread throughout Lebanon, so does a society and a mentality of war, says Naufal. From fighting at the borders, bombs in the cities, and threats throughout the country, these are perhaps the costliest consequences of the Syrian refugee intake.

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