Lebanon's refugee crisis

On 11 December, winter storm Alexa hit eastern Lebanon. Images reverberating throughout the web show clusters of flimsy fabric tents covered in snow. The same morning, British MP Hugh Robertson announced, while visiting Lebanon, a new Department for International Development £24 million fund to face the humanitarian crisis of the Syrian refugees in the country. 

The UK is amongst the first and largest donors responding to Syria’s crisis. A $120m USD stability package provides $15m in army equipment for border protection; $75m to respond to the influx of Syrian refugees; support of Lebanon’s coexistence and formation of a neutral government; international effort to prevent the Syrian conflict from spreading to Lebanon; increase of UK/Lebanon trade. 

DFID’s response to the refugee crisis in Lebanon has shifted from emergency humanitarian relief to longer-term assistance. Besides providing emergency food and shelter for the 780,418 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the funds - often via other humanitarian organisations - are also for supporting host Lebanese communities coping with growing refugee numbers. This is particularly important in areas like the Bekaa valley, with high numbers of registered refugees and high deprivation. Support initiatives include work schemes for both refugee and Lebanese, vaccinations and food for Lebanese livestock, repairs and upgrading of schools, water and sewage infrastructures.

Including Lebanese host communities in assistance programmes is of vital importance. The Syrian crisis is exacerbating pre-existing fault lines within the Lebanese society. Lebanon is split between supporters and detractors of Assad’s regime. This split often turns violent: guerrilla warfare is ongoing in Tripoli and retaliatory bomb attacks hit both Sunni and Shia areas, like the bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut in November. Hezbollah fights alongside Assad’s army in Syria, while radicalised Sunni Islamists foment divisions in Lebanon. Meanwhile, a semi-paralysed Lebanese army struggles to protect its neutrality and logistic superiority over the increasingly sophisticated Hezbollah. Finally, a government stalemate prevents agreement on the refugee crisis management, including allocation of more permanent shelter than informal settlements made of fabric tents. Consequently, instead of being hosted in large camps equipped with basic infrastructure, many Syrian refugees squat derelict buildings, rent apartments, or use makeshift shelter in Lebanese cities.

In this context, tensions between Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees are escalating. The last weeks saw Lebanese politicians blaming refugees for the rise in crime and demonising them as terrorists. A Bekaa Valley refugee settlement suffered arson after disputes with local Lebanese. 

Much of the “hostility” said to characterise Lebanese attitudes towards Syrian refugees can be viewed in terms of competition over land, resources, energy and an overstretched infrastructure. The DFID budget for Lebanon so far has focused on keeping a strong border so to keep a sovereign Lebanon out of Syria’s ‘quagmire’. However, Lebanese sovereignty and stability are fragmenting from within, contested among its very own citizens and between them and the refugee communities. Response to the refugee crisis and investment in coexistence appear increasingly as a single struggle that should come first and foremost in DFID’s stability package. 

Dr Sara Fregonese, Birmingham Fellow, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences