We thought we’d provide some context about what’s happening in Lebanon to better explain why there is an urgent need for aid there. Thanks to Collette Ridley, from France and Beyond / RASI-RINE HUB31, for this report.
Remember Beirut? The Lebanese city of Beirut was a constant feature in the news throughout the eighties. I remember TV reports peppered with scenes of sectarian violence, car bombs and political assassinations.
In the 16 years since the end of the civil war, the tiny country of Lebanon (the size of Cornwall) has been quietly dragging itself from the rubble out of sight of news cameras. The religious and political divisions are still ever-present though and have made recovery slow and difficult.
Lebanese infrastructure is fragile and, as with any emerging nation, corruption and state incompetence are rife. Against such a backdrop, it seems improbable that this smallest of Middle Eastern countries should be host to the second highest number of Syrians displaced by the Syrian civil war. Yet it’s not hard to see why. Lebanon shares borders with Palestine and Syria and, despite problems at home, the warm Lebanese people have opened their arms to Syrian and Palestinian refugees.
Incomers to Lebanon have swollen the population by nearly half – the UNHCR estimates 1.8 million refugees for a local population of just 4 million.
In a controversial move last year, the buckling Lebanese state closed its borders to refugees. Since then, the UNHCR has been unable to register new refugees (an estimated 500,000 people) on the official refugee lists, thus denying them rights to basic benefits for food and healthcare.
An estimated 70% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in a state of extreme poverty on a mere 70 cents a day (the UN poverty line is $US1.90). These displaced people have little to eat and the quality of water is poor. Refugees have inadequate access to healthcare, and they cannot afford to go to hospital (Lebanon has a privatised healthcare system). Unsurprisingly, the universal health problems and infectious diseases of the poor have raised their ugly heads: malnutrition, cholera, polio, birth defects, and eye and ear infections.
The lightweight, unsewered shacks refugees make for themselves (there are no official refugee camps) are hopelessly ill-suited to either the 40oC plus days of high summer or the freezing conditions of winter. Old and young alike are dying of exposure.
The Lebanese are doing what they can, but the sheer weight of numbers on already inadequate public services such schools, hospitals and even refuse collections has led to a meltdown in provision.
An inevitable uptick in civil unrest in response to this chaos has forced the country to call out for aid, but the world sits by and little is being done. The UNHCR hopes to raise $US1.9 billion to help Lebanon deal with Syrian refugees, but to date less than half that target has been met.
Lebanon sits precariously on the edge of the greatest conflict of our times. In the Middle East the high-income countries of Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain have offered to resettle a total of zero refugees. The wealthy countries of Western Europe, along with the US, would prefer to take none.
Few in the world want to host victims of the Syrian conflict, yet no one is supporting Lebanon do so. Lebanon is alone shouldering the crippling economic demands and demographic changes that nearly 2 million refugees represent to such a small country.
Even so, the role of Lebanon, alongside Turkey and Jordan, is crucial to what happens next. These countries form a buffer zone for refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. Without Lebanon, Syrians would face a stark choice: go north and west towards Europe, or stay and die.
As the Lebanese watch some of the world’s youngest and most vulnerable refugees helpless in face of the poverty and suffering from malnutrition, disease and exposure, they ask themselves: where is the rest of the world?
CALL TO ACTION
Now is the moment for the world to help Lebanon hold the chalice rejected by so many others. While governments are frozen by inaction as people are dying, you don’t have to be. You can be part of an effective grassroots movement to throw a lifeline to those most in need in Lebanon. Here is how you can make a difference in the greatest humanitarian crisis facing the world today: