How Lebanon is coping with more than a million Syrian refugees

A country not much bigger than Wales has seen its population increase by a third

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

14 November 2015

9:00 AM


If any of the Syrian refugees who have made it to the relative safety of Europe have been watching the smash-hit TV show Homeland (season five), they would be baffled by its warped depiction of their compatriots’ plight in Lebanon.

Unlike the vast majority of Homeland’s viewers ,they would know there are no government-sanctioned camps guarded by nervy UN soldiers and run from the inside by menacing Hezbollah operatives. This is out-and-out nonsense and insulting to the Lebanese, who have arguably done more than any country to absorb this unfolding human tragedy.

For the record, Lebanon, a country a tad bigger than Wales, plays host to around 1.5 million Syrians, a number equivalent to a third of its population. Think of it this way: it’s the same as 21 million Europeans moving quite suddenly to the UK. Imagine what you’d make of that.

The Lebanese can be proud of doing their bit but, truth be told, they didn’t really have much say in the matter. The Syrians just came. And the concern today is not just the shock of so many more people, it’s that their long-term presence may push the country into yet another existential crisis.

The majority of refugees started arriving in 2011 with only what they could carry, trekking over the historically porous border into the North, or across the vast and often lawless Bekaa Valley. Many thousands stopped in the valley and live there still in pitiful makeshift tent communities. They’ll freeze in the harsh winter months.

Other refugees made it further, to our cities, to the capital Beirut as well as Sidon and Tripoli. They are everywhere: begging at traffic lights, walking precariously on the hard shoulder of highways, trudging along country roads or sleeping, whole families huddled together on filthy cardboard sheets, under bridges and flyovers.

Many are exploited by unscrupulous landlords and rely on modest cash handouts from the UN Refugee Agency. But they are undermined by the unstoppable flow of their own countrymen. The more Syrians arrive, the more the NGOs have to discriminate in favour of those most in need of financial aid: the elderly, the pregnant or those with small children. Men of working age must fend for themselves.

Think how agitated the British become about the thought of a few thousand refugees. Now try to imagine how the indigenous Lebanese feel. The country’s notoriously creaky infrastructure, its electricity and water, roads, bandwidth and mobile phone connectivity, could hardly support its own population, let alone the newcomers. Yet somehow it manages, which might give the British some pause for thought. Lebanon manages because after years of war and a peace, its people are masters of crisis management. The Syrians are also fellow Arabs. We could hardly turn them away.

With hindsight, a mere £20 million could have bought every Syrian family a cosy bespoke tent with five-year lifespan made at Ikea’s Corporate Social Responsibility arm, which would be infinitely preferable to a makeshift shelter or a cardboard box. But (and this is where Homeland really slips up) the Lebanese government equates tents and camps with permanence and with the enduring legacy of 500,000 Palestinians who are either still waiting to go back to a country they lost in 1948, or who are too young to know what that country means.

Letting so very many Syrians seep into normal Lebanese society has had a rocky effect on our economy. According to a World Bank report on the effects of the Syrian civil war: ‘Even without the Syrian refugees, the Lebanese economy needed to create six times the amount of jobs it previously did to absorb new entrants to the labour market.’ As it is, the migrants are ruthlessly under-cutting their hosts. Lebanese builders, joiners, plasterers, painters and the like have been priced out of the market by desperate Syrian labour.

Not all Syrians are slumming it. For the more wealthy, especially the merchant class with influential friends, the transition was smoother. Apartments were rented in Beirut and in the cooler, hilly suburbs, while their children were miraculously -accepted into the top schools. These well-to-do escapees eat out and shop with the rest of the Lebanese bourgeoisie. They look like them and dress like them. Only the number plates and the slight accent set them apart. And yes, they will admit that Assad has been cruel, but they will also argue that he is the only man who can stop the thundering tide of Sunni fundamentalism sweeping across the region.

It’s the poorer Syrian refugees who present a greater existential problem for Lebanon. Under Ottoman rule, which did not end until 1917, Lebanon was part of Greater Syria. Tribal ties in parts of the country often matter more than international -borders and there is every reason to assume that many of the refugees will never return to Syria.

This would not only change the face of -Lebanon but also its soul. These are not just 1.5 million Syrians; they are 1.5 million Sunnis. Even if only half of them stay, their presence will upset our delicate sectarian balance of Shia, Sunni and Christian. And there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of Hezbollah, the biggest Shia party, caring for these poor Sunnis. New and cataclysmic sectarian rifts will open up in a country that sits right on top of the Middle East’s fault lines.

What Lebanon really needs is for every-one else to do their bit; for Europe to do its bit. The British are in a panic about importing so-called jihadis, but a reputation for hard work and family values has defined the people of the Levant for centuries. We’ve taken 1.5 million and we survive — just. Take 20,000. Trust me. You won’t even notice them.

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  • simon

    what a guilt ridden article – step up other middle east countries and help out – why should europe and britain burden the responsibilty? The middle east covers an area way bigger than europe so let’s see those guys clean up there own backyard. And what’s this nonsense about palestinians? Palestinians weren’t Palestinianas until the 60s and they never had a country to lose – the indigenous arabs of what is now Israel declared war on another group of refugees that came there pre 1948 – and lost. So what kind of comparison is that to make to Lebanon? Furthermore, the Palestinian refugees and terrorists that moved to lebanon after black september sent what was an enlightened and forward moving democracy into continuous civil war – so now is clearly the time where the west needs to put pressure on the remaining arab states, who either persist on letting tiny lebanon shoulder these massive burdens or insist on using refugees to demonize israel, to organise places for a – the palestinians and b – the syrian refugees

    • Gilbert White

      Simon you are right but that is the intention of the article. Stuff their guilt and thought censorship.Nobody wants people dying needlessly. But if it has to be good job it is not white people. Furthermore the suffering inflicted on Lebanon by the Syrians has seen an ironic role reversal?

    • Gilbert White

      Keep saying UN. China, Russia, US, India, no EU, perhaps Nato sort the situation out in Mecca/ Medina but my postings are censored?

    • scampy

      Exactly and what is allah doing about this mess in his back yard>

    • Sunshine Sux

      Muslims aren’t exactly famous for helping their now, they’re much more famous for killing their own.

    • edlancey

      11 out of 11 Simon. Perfectly put.

  • Michael, interesting and thoughtful article. . . except for this odd statement: “there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of Hezbollah, the biggest Shia party, caring for these poor Sunnis [Syrian refugees].” First, clearly not all refugees are Sunni. Second, to the contrary of the statement’s assertion, since 2012 Hezbollah has indeed offered humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees regardless of sect. As Secretary General Nasrallah explained in his Jan 2013 speech,

    “We call for dealing with the case of immigrants from an absolute humanitarian perspective, and not to politicize this case at all. Consequently, the families which immigrated to Lebanon and are seeking refuge in Lebanon, in the Lebanese government, and the Lebanese people must not care whether they are with the regime in Syria or against the regime in Syria or neutral – meaning they are not with or against the Syrian regime. This is a humanitarian case which must not be politicized. . . . Today, I call on you and on all the Lebanese – as we have called in the past – to embrace these families in the various regions – in our houses, public places, and institutions. We must embrace these families from a humanitarian, moral, and responsible perspective despite the tough living conditions which many Lebanese families are suffering from. However, this is a responsibility which we must not abandon. From our perspective, we are exerting our efforts. However, all must exert their efforts on the official
    and popular levels.”

    Granted that aid has sometimes been sneered at, snubbed, even notoriously burned, but that does not mean that it was not offered in good faith, and indeed that it has been as often gratefully accepted.

    Perhaps this article’s statement meant to imply that only if in the hypothetical future half the refugees remain in Lebanon, that then Hezbollah will stop caring. Really? Perhaps you don’t trust their motivations. But there is hardly a case made here for asserting that Hezbollah would stop caring in order to maintain some demographic advantage. If they were that thin-skinned, would they have endured decades of attacks and have prospered against all odds?

    • nielsc

      2 years ago. Since Hezbollah has created many more fugitives

  • Michaelinlondon1234

    Does Lebanon need help…Yes.
    As you rightly point out there are permanent Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Those born in Lebanon should have Lebanese citizenship. I am aware of the complexity of that situation.
    2 Lebanon has been exporting people from the country for decades. Like a lot of countries and for various reasons. You and I both know there is about 12 million in Diaspora.
    3 Lebanon closed its borders to refugees nearly 12 months ago.
    4 the official figures for refugees is less than 1.2 million not 1.5 million. With some already left for Europe and other places that number will decline. So stop inflating the figures.
    5 The refugee numbers are suspect. Pre conflict 400,000 Syrians use to come to Lebanon as seasonal labour. They were all signed up by the UN in the early days as propaganda to boost numbers and make it look worse than it was. for the first 2 years people were catching buses to go to Lebanon to register. Collect the allowance and then return home.
    There was no universal education pre conflict for these groups or the poor in Lebanon in general….Good that it is being worked on.
    6 UK take in more? We took in 600,000 migrants last year. Biggest group was Romanian. Some Lebanese and Syrian. Stop playing political games. Similar numbers have already come to the UK this year already. The US/UK are pushing hard for the EU to open borders to Ukrainians…Another pop of 45 million…..
    7 They are not all Sunni.
    8 The UK and US government trying to slaughter there way in to Syria using a fake government is absolutely disgusting. Cameron as a Tory Friends of Israel member is completely compromised in this situation.
    9 There is direct shipping between Lebanon and UK. We both need trade more than war.
    10…..12 months ago you started a tree planting project. How is that going?
    11… UK government funded research on water Quality in Lebanon. Has that been published?
    12….You have more than doubled power production in the last 5 years with more to come on line.
    The economics of that need to be dealt with.
    Some huge work has been done on improving agriculture and using vacant land…Keep up the good work.
    13 to conclude…Lebanon needs long term help for education and the poor in society. I am not giving a penny for all the lies you have told. Not while I have a government trying to slaughter its way in to other peoples countries.

    • blandings

      If I could turn the followers of mohamed into civilised human beings I would, but I can’t, they will have to do it themselves and the first step towards becoming civilised to stop blaming others for ones own failings.

  • scampy

    And no matter how hellish their conditions still breeding like dogs?

    • Michaelinlondon1234

      That is a worldwide problem. We could have done one child or family planning 100 years ago

      • Guilttripjunkie

        Only in third world countries. The population numbers of white Western people is falling.

  • Michaelinlondon1234

    2 questions.
    Why has the port not been upgraded in Tripoli to one set of cranes to handle containers?
    Why has the link motorway past the port not been completed?

  • davidshort10

    The writer does not explain why Britain has any responsibility for these poor people.

    • Patricia

      The writer does not explain why so many thousands of young men are leaving Syria and not staying to fight for their country.,

  • Tamerlane

    Lebanon is next door to Syria right? Not sure they’d be willing to take too many refugees if say France collapsed into civil war, then we’d probably take a whole heap of French and not expect the Lebanese to entertain them. And vice versa. See how it works? Not hard to grasp.

  • edlancey

    Who cares.

    They are exactly the same people – it’s only the much-maligned “Colonial” imposition of borders that means they aren’t just all in exactly the same squalid Ottoman vilayet but in what we’re always told are fake western constructs.

    They can all stay there.

  • Tony

    As a British person of Lebanese origin I say not a single one on British soil. Let them go to Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries.

    • Bonkim

      What are you doing here?

      • ExSexOffender

        Shagging your Mrs

        • Bonkim

          Didn’t ask you – don’t poke your nose.

        • Sue Smith

          No, seriously, it’s good to know you actually HAVE somebody. We thought you were a total loser that nobody would touch.

  • JAH68

    Except for the very deserving, the sick and ill or orphans, the taking in refugees in a waste of money. Every pound that supports the integration of a Syrian could be better spent improving the life of those left behind. Our ultimate aim, no matter how distant it seems now, should be for all Syrians to return to their home one day. Once they get to Europe, they will not want to leave.

    • Bonkim

      Muslims give a tenth of their earnings for good causes – good for them.

      • Ivan Ewan

        And an eighth of that tenth goes to jihad.


        • Sue Smith

          In Australia we have “Halal Certification” on huge numbers of food items. A recent public broadcasting documentary failed to chase the money trail for these Halal funds, with most people suspicious they go to support terrorist organisations. So, you buy cheese from the supermarket and you are helping to fund these rabid lunatics. And our government (again) refuses to act.

      • Microaggressive

        Only for other Muslims

        Muslims are commanded to kill off all non-Muslims

  • Suzy61

    Does Lebanon give money to the migrants from the purses of their own taxpayers?

    Do they provide every migrant family with their own house?

    Do they provide free education for every migrant child?

    Do they provide free health and social care for every migrant?

    Do they also offer all these freebies to the extended families of the migrants after a short time in the country?

    Something to think about while you polish your halo.

    • Sue Smith

      Yes, this IS disturbing if true.

    • Guilttripjunkie

      Of course they don’t. Only gullible countries in the West do this.

      • Suzy61

        Indeed. We could all claim our virtue badges whilst not actually giving anything at all. If Lebanon offered these things the refugees wouldn’t be risking their lives to get to Europe.

  • Bonkim

    Good for Lenbanon – not a lesson we need to copy. In any case the first safe port of call for Surian refugees is Jordan, Lebanon or any other adjacent country – so they have a right to ask for asylum in Lebanon or Jordan – but not in Germany or the U.K.

  • Pioneer

    Have they all been given Lebanese citizenship and passports?

  • octagon<3

    The UN needs to put in place a refugee convention that makes culturally similar countries surrounding conflict responsible for refugees. It makes sense that Arabic speaking, Islamic practicing countries should take in their brethren. On the other hand, Europeans should be responsible for refugees from conflicts within Europe.

  • serguei_p

    Sorry, but I don’t think Britain needs 20,000 Sunnis as the author suggests.
    And I think Paris have just shown why it does not need them.

    • Guilttripjunkie

      The 20,000 would become 40,000 within a few years. The birth rates of these people means their population doubles every generation. That is one reason for their civil war and something the left wing will not acknowledge.

      • Nardio Casas

        Just look at the picture, no one women without a baby…

        • Patricia

          “Just look at the picture, no one women without a baby…”

          And yet most pictures and film clips show mostly able-bodied young men clamouring for help.

          • Guilttripjunkie

            In 1990 there were 12 million Syrians . In 2015 there are 26 million. This trend is common within the whole MENA region.

  • Sue Smith

    The western world needs to dump the Refugee Convention BUT QUICK!!

  • Itinerant

    “Take 20,000. Trust me. You won’t even notice them.”
    The deliberate conflation of asylum seekers and economic migrants, by ‘progressives’ and open-border EUtopians, is only making life much harder for genuine refugees.
    The UK would not notice 20,000 Syrians, if it wasn’t for the several million others from around the world, who want to come with them.
    Or the fact the UK is now taking in around 600,000 people every year- the British public have always been opposed to mass immigration and has had it forced upon them- patience has worn out.

  • Guilttripjunkie

    Why don’t the 20,000 Sunni Syrians go to another Muslim country like the UAE, Quatar or Saudi? Why Western Europe, a continent already struggling to cope with the huge numbers of Muslims who have immigrated since the 1950’s?

    • Nardio Casas

      Because these countries are far smarter, they know what will happen to their countries if they accept to bring all these refugees.

      • Guilttripjunkie

        The UAE stated the ‘refugees’ posed a security risk as they had been infiltrated by ISIS. They were derided by the left for this. The events of Friday have proved them and the other Gulf States to be correct over the security issues caused by ‘refugees’ .

  • Nardio Casas

    There is not even one without a baby ….

  • TheJustCity

    I can only feel for the Lebanon: the Arab state which retains some western-style modernity and liberty; as if they didn’t have enough on their plate with their Hezbollah-affirming militant Shiite minority, quarrelsome Palestinian
    campers, and fascistic Christian movements. The tenor, though, of this canting piece is clear: share in this misery
    and ease our load; a ‘burden shared’ and all that. Europe can offer sympathy and no more (and Europe, embattled by Islamism, is going to have to adopt more pragmatic policies of enlightened self-interest if it is to survive in any recognisable state). The Arab nations alone must deal with this singularly Arab problem. Arab and Muslim culture, with one fifth to a quarter of its adherents engaged on perpetual jihad and a similar number in sympathy with its objectives, is harmful to Europe and Europeans – it’s clearly harmful to Arabs.

  • Philsopinion

    I have genuine sympathy with the author. The problem in Britain is that we have watched our country – our capital city, in particular – be transformed by two decades of mass immigration. There was never any democratic mandate for it and still our political class continue to turn a deaf ear or deride us as racists. As such, many of us just don’t believe that it will only be 20,000.