Lebanon strains under weight of refugees

IMAGE: CNS photo/Lucie Parsaghian, EPA

By Doreen Abi Raad

BEIRUT (CNS) — While the flow
of migrants into Europe and the West has sparked controversy, Lebanon continues
to bear the brunt of absorbing massive numbers of refugees. A commonly cited figure
is that one in four people in Lebanon is displaced from Syria.

“They are everywhere … in
all of Lebanon,” Father Paul Karam, president of Caritas Lebanon, told
Catholic News Service of the presence of Syrian refugees in the country, which
is roughly two-thirds the size of the state of Connecticut.

There are no formal refugee
camps in Lebanon. Rather, some Syrians establish — with the permission of the
local municipality — informal tent settlements. Others find ways to rent space
in apartments or squat in abandoned buildings.

As of November, the U.N. High
Commissioner for Refugees calculated there were nearly 1.1 million registered
refugees living in Lebanon — but not all refugees are registered with the U.N.

The true scale of the influx is
that there are more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, equal to
almost one-third of the country’s existing Lebanese population of nearly 4
million, Father Karam said. In addition, there are 20,000 Iraqi refugees.

Although Jordan and Turkey are
also hosting Syrian refugees, Father Karam noted Jordan is almost eight times
the size of Lebanon, and Turkey about 24 times larger. According to a UNHCR
report released Dec. 18, Lebanon hosts more refugees compared to its population
size than any other country.

“The Lebanese have shown a
real spirit of welcoming the refugees. They help them, they are assisting them,
but of course this cannot continue for too many years,” he told CNS.

Most of the Iraqi refugees are
Christian, and about 97 percent of the Syrian refugees are Muslim, Father Karam
said. Consequently, the overwhelming presence of Syrian refugees upsets the
demographic balance of Lebanon, which is about 40 percent Christian.

“It will destabilize the
system,” Father Karam warned.

Lebanon’s demography is based on
18 religious confessions, 12 of which are Christian.

At least 65,000 Syrian babies
born in Lebanon since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict are stateless, with
no identification documents. Their births are not registered in Lebanon or in

“So, shall Lebanon have
another story with the new, let me say, scenario, with Syria?” Father
Karam asked. He cited the presence of Palestinians in Lebanon for more than 60
years “and nobody has resolved their problem.” Currently, there are
about 500,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, most in areas agreed upon between
Palestinians and the Lebanese state; these areas are commonly referred to as

On a practical level, Lebanon’s
infrastructure cannot cope with such a huge number of refugees. Even before
waves of Syrian refugees began descending upon the country more than four years
ago, Lebanon had grappled with shortages in water and electricity.

“You need to have
infrastructure in order to help you to help these people,” Father Karam
said. “If you don’t have such a strong infrastructure, what shall you do?
If the problem will remain and there is no solution in the near future, this
will affect more and more the social life and the security life of this

Father Karam said although
Caritas receives support from its partners and from others in the international
Caritas network, “this is not sufficient for everybody. … The needs are
huge and the capacities are very limited, so we need much more solidarity at
the international level.”

Michel Constantin, regional
director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt for the Catholic Near East Welfare
Association, an agency of the Holy See, shared similar thoughts.

“The impact of the Syrian
and Iraqi refugees on the Lebanese society is huge and multidimensional,”
Constantin told CNS, stressing that the Syrian crisis will soon enter its
fifth year, “with no end in sight.”

“Lebanon cannot bear this
responsibility without the support of the international community,”
Constantin said.

“As the crisis persists,
refugees are exhausting their savings and resources, becoming more vulnerable,
and are increasingly at risk of resorting to negative coping mechanisms,”
Constantin said. In Lebanon and beyond, millions of refugees remain in need of
lifesaving humanitarian assistance, he added.

The Lebanese government does not
allow refugees to work. To get by, some refugees work informally, for low wages
and often in subpar conditions. But if the Lebanese government learns that
refugees are working illegally, they will lose their UNHCR card and residency
papers, said Davide Bernocchi, country representative for Catholic Relief
Services in Lebanon. CRS, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and
development agency, is a member of the worldwide Caritas network.

“This situation places
refugees in a perpetual cycle of dependency, not feeling as though they can
move forward,” Bernocchi said.

“A recent positive move,
however, was the announcement by the Lebanese Ministry of Education to make
space for 200,000 school-age children in the public schools for the current
school year,” Bernocchi said.

Yet Lebanon’s own population is
being squeezed economically.

“The Lebanese have also
slipped slowly to poverty under the pressure of competition represented by the
increasing supply in the labor market and the increasing demand on goods and
services,” said Constantin.

Father Karam said some politicians
see refugees only as numbers. “But for the church and for our Christian
moral and ethical teaching, we are not dealing with numbers. We are dealing
with humankind: who feels, who cries, who laugh(s).” The world, he said,
cannot continue to deal with them as though they are “instruments.”

What will resolve the problem,
Father Karam emphasized, is “pressure on the international level” to
stop the war in Syria. “We need to implement the spirit of peace, to
implement the spirit of dialogue, the spirit of accepting the other.”

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Editors: A video interview to
accompany this story can be found at https://youtu.be/9CfiC6IeS8U.

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