At Kuwait's conference to support displaced Syrians, Michel Suleiman, president of the Lebanese Republic, presented a plan that included not only Lebanon's financial demands to help shelter the displaced, but also a vision of how to formulate a collective Arab solution to the crisis. The problems posed by the flow of Syrian refugees into Lebanon are not limited to the financial cost, despite the importance of this matter, but also involves other risks, such as that this wave of refugees could affect Lebanon's security and disrupt its political and demographic stability.
On the eve of the conference, Lebanese diplomatic channels explained the country's overall vision on this matter to influential regional and global countries. A source from the Lebanese Foreign Ministry spoke about these communications to Al-Monitor, and noted the most important ideas put forth by the Lebanese side.
In the run-up to the conference — which was held on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013 — Lebanese diplomatic figures intensified their efforts in international decision-making centers, urging leaders to support Lebanon’s demands at the conference in order to help it take in the rising number of displaced Syrians.
Lebanon is mainly arguing that among Syria’s neighboring countries, Lebanon remains the primary host of Syrian refugees. Although these figures are unofficial, the number of displaced Syrians in Lebanon is estimated at 200,000 and is expected to reach 300,000 by mid-2013, should the Syrian crisis drag on.
Lebanon also addressed the other displacement crisis it faces, as Palestinians in Syria have also been fleeing the crisis to Lebanon. Their numbers are estimated at 20,000, distributed between al-Jalil refugee camp in Baalbek and the camps of Beirut, Ain al-Hilweh and Sidon.
These camps had already become cramped after the United Nations Relief and Works Agency reduced aid to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon several years ago. The influx of Palestinians from Syria has made them dangerously overcrowded, further deteriorating the poor social and living conditions there.
The burden of the crisis of Palestinian Syrians fleeing to Lebanon stems from the fact that these displaced citizens are heading to Lebanon more than other countries. According to a report issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 90% of the Palestinian refugees from Syria have come to Lebanon, and it is expected that a similar percentage of those displaced in the future will do so as well.
A few months ago, the Lebanese government appealed to the international community for $187 million to meet the expenses of hosting Syrian refugees. This amount, however, was modified shortly thereafter to $230 million in order to cope with the rising number of refugees. Given the increasing rate of displacement to Lebanon, this figure has now increased to $370 million, according to Suleiman's statements at the Kuwait conference.
According to sources from the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, some Arab countries expected to offer donations for this purpose were skeptical of this amount. Thus, over the past week a joint committee was sent to Lebanon to tour the areas where Syrian refugees live and inspect their conditions, to estimate what it called “the real cost of their accommodation.”
Lebanon decided to be diplomatically active in the run-up to the Kuwait conference and will continue with its efforts after the conference in order to build an international safety net to help it accommodate Syrian and Palestinian refugees coming from Syria. Without international aid, this large influx of refugees is likely to have a profound impact on Lebanon’s stability in terms of the economy, security and demographics.
Lebanon has commissioned a diplomatic committee to feel out the mood of the donor countries and check their willingness to help Lebanon in paying the expensive financial costs of hosting displaced Syrians.
According to a source in the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, who wished to remain anonymous, after many international meetings, the diplomatic committee came to the following conclusions:
First, the Lebanese side has been in contact with US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Anne Richard, who is charged with this case.* It seems that the US will pledge a large sum at the Kuwait conference to support the efforts of sheltering Syrian refugees. However, the amount has yet to be declared, and according to the same source, Richard did not give a clear answer as to whether the US will increase its financial support to Lebanon to help it cope with the rising number of refugees seeking shelter in Lebanese territories.
This reluctance on the part of the US was echoed by Paris during a meeting a few days before the conference. French officials implied that such financial assistance should be requested from “concerned and financially capable countries” such Saudi Arabia in particular and the Gulf countries in general.
Nevertheless, Lebanon has the impression that the Gulf people tend to hold back their generosity, even to a minimum level, regarding displaced Syrians in neighboring countries. Proof of this can be found in the list of financial demands recently made by Lebanon. Instead of promising to fulfill these, the Gulf countries sent a committee to Lebanon to visit displaced Syrians and closely assess the sum of money needed to provide them shelter.
The second conclusion was drawn from the meeting held between Suleiman and Russian President Vladimir Putin when Suleiman visited Moscow a few days ago to receive the Orthodox People's Unity Award. When Suleiman broached the issue of financial aid to Lebanon to accommodate displaced Syrians, Putin changed the subject, offering to host a global conference to support the displaced Syrians. In this way, he turned a blind eye to the Kuwait conference and suggested that in principle, this conference does not have Moscow's support.
The source concluded by saying that the political complications resulting from the different international and regional perspectives on events in Syria and pursuing ways to address the issue of refugees are negatively — albeit indirectly — affecting the international community's ability to coordinate over this major humanitarian crisis.
Lebanon is the country most affected by this situation. One on hand, the international community asked it not to close its borders to more displaced Syrians and Palestinians coming from Syria. Lebanon is facing resistance on the part of the international community, particularly the West, concerning financial help for the country. On the other hand, Lebanon is also dealing with Arab avarice regarding the money it requires to take in the displaced without leading to economic and social instability, especially at an already sensitive time.
There is growing concern in Lebanon about the demographic burden because of the sensitivity of the country's internal map, as it grapples with differences in identity and concerns regarding potential sectarian issues in the future.
Lebanon wants more than financial support from other Arab countries; it wants these countries to share the burden of hosting displaced Syrians. This demand stems from considerations regarding the sensitive nature of Lebanon's internal situation. From an internal Lebanese perspective, the fear goes beyond the concerns of insufficient funding — that Syrian and Palestinian immigration to Lebanon will become permanent. Previous immigration experiences have taught the Lebanese to be wary of migrations in the Arab Levant, which start out temporary but then become permanent, especially in the case of religious civil wars.
According to the same source at the Foreign Ministry, the Lebanese worry that the countries — including the Arab states — that Beirut talked to about the flow of Syrian refugees into Lebanon are out of touch with this lesson regarding the nature of migrations in the East.
But within this framework, the same source disclosed to Al-Monitor that Lebanon has so far received a set of guarantees showing that the international community understands the situation. Foremost among these guarantees is the withholding of permission to establish camps for displaced Syrians in Lebanon. This smacks of the Palestinian camps that were supposed to be temporary but then became a permanent fixture in the fragile and tense fabric of Lebanese society. The second guarantee is a UN resolution to preserve stability in Lebanon and protect the self-distancing policy adopted by the government.
But the question remains: Will the Kuwait conference fulfill its promises to provide Lebanon with the required financial support, which should be calculated based on increased displacement in the future, and not on the current number of refugees? Moreover, will Arab states develop their visions regarding how to face the Syrian displacement crisis?
* On January 31, 2013, US Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly released the following statement on aid to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
"The United States is also committed to working with the UN and several societies to address the needs of Syrian people in Syria and throughout the region."
"We encourage other donor countries to meet the UN's regional appeal and Lebanon's specific requests for assistance. The people of the United States are making this contribution to further strengthen the ongoing commitment we have made to promote our stable, sovereign and independent Lebanon. We look forward to our continuing partnership with the UN here in Lebanon and around the region, to provide for the basic needs of those who fled the violence in Syria and to help the generous communities that are hosting them here in Lebanon."
Nasser Chararah is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse, head of the Lebanese Institute for Studies and Publications, a writer for multiple Arab newspapers and magazines, author of several books on the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict and has worked for the Palestinian Research Center.