The Big Denial
Syrian refugees in Lebanon are likely to permanently transform the country
It is tempting to dismiss the ballooning numbers of Syrian refugees in Lebanon as a temporary crisis that will eventually disappear once things in Syria clear up. But several factors including uncertainty in Syria, a weak lebanese state, economic pressure and porous borders will likely result in a situation in which our Syrian guests will become a more permanent fixture in Lebanese life. How would the Lebanese state cope with such a reality?
Home will wait
Many Syrians in Lebanon today don’t have anything to return to. Entire buildings and villages in Syria were leveled to the ground, homes were occupied, jobs and businesses have disappeared and loved ones were killed. By the time peace comes to Syria — and we could be talking many years from now — , Syrians in Lebanon will not rush to the exits the way we imagine they would. That will only happen when Syria becomes economically prosperous and creates jobs to spare, and that’s still far down the line.
Some Lebanese understand that Syrian refugees will stay in Lebanon for a while, but they think that we can treat them the way we treated Palestinian refugees, ie isolate them in parallel lives with a miserable existence to encourage them to go home. But there are many reasons why Syrians are not like Palestinians and why that tactic will not work.
- Sheer scale: One million Syrians is a huge number that is already significantly impacting the Lebanese economy. The number of Palestinian refugees is very manageable in comparison
- Dispersion in Lebanon: Unlike Palestinian camps and unlike Syrian camps in Jordan and Turkey where refugees are clearly gathered in specialised camps, the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are all over the country living in villages, towns and cities with families, in stores, in churches, schools and mosques
- Lack of national cause Unlike with the Palestinian cause where the Lebanese are united in their insistence that the Palestinians must go back home, many Lebanese won’t feel good about pressuring the Syrians to leave the country
It is dawning on many Syrians that they’re in this for the long haul. Young women are being married off to Lebanese men, and others are joining the Lebanese informal economy. Many of those who fled the war are educated, skilled, and experienced. Syrian doctors, teachers, engineers, artisans, bread makers and farmers are now selling their skills for very low prices in the Lebanese black market. This is coinciding with a movement by organised labor in Lebanon to demand higher wages, which is creating an incentive for Lebanese households, business owners, farm owners and industrialists to take a look at the new vast pool of cheap and skilled Syrian labor.
The Lebanese state and public opinion will resist this and attempt to crack down on it, but our state is not strong enough to impose its will on such large market forces. Remember, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people all over the country who are offering real skills for lower wages.
What is the government to do? One way is to ignore the problem and we have done this for a while. But now, we are really starting to feel the pressure and we’re trying to guilt the world into offloading the problem off our backs. But no matter how much the UNHCR and the international community pour money into the problem, you can never take care of the daily needs of one million people.
Something will have to give. We can decide to isolate and scorn them, but they’ll ignore us and join the informal economy and crime. Or we can embrace them by creating schemes for them to work legally, where they get dignity and self sufficiency and the government gets to keep a closer eye on them and even perhaps some taxes.
But either way, the Syrians will be here for a while and we’ll have to find a way to deal with it.