Return the favor

Syrian refugees navigate the border Nahr al-Kabir River into Lebanon (Photo by Roni Said)

Anyone who follows the issue of refugees is fully aware of the international consensus that has arisen over past decades. Civilians are entitled to protection when the places where they live are suddenly exposed to dangers that threaten their lives and their property.

Lebanon is no stranger to the issue of refugees. It is a depressing fact of its modern history that waves of such groups have sought shelter in this country.

They range from the Armenians from around a century ago, to the Palestinians in the middle of the 20th century, as well as Iraqis who have fled dictatorship and war.

Lebanese themselves have been refugees, and this week’s sudden influx of thousands of Syrians fleeing their capital and surrounding areas is the latest wake-up call to a state that must do more to assist people in need.

Over the last year, thousands of Syrians have arrived in Lebanon in a flight from violence and chaos, and the authorities, assisted by various non-governmental groups, have worked to provide a minimum level of assistance and services.

This week, another large wave has entered the country, and although the majority of them appear to be better off in economic terms, the tragedy from which they are fleeing leads to the same result: the government must step up its efforts and ensure that everything is done to make the stay of these people as comfortable and smooth as possible.

It is of course worrying that the Lebanese authorities say they have no more funds with which to assist refugees, and officials must come up with a better response than merely saying they hope for the best.

Lebanese fled to Syria during the civil conflict of the 1950s, as well as the 1970s and 1980s, and at no time were they treated like second-class citizens, but instead as honored guests.

More recently, tens of thousands of Lebanese streamed across the border into Syria in the summer of 2006, amid Israel’s war on Lebanon, and it is now time to return the favor. At the time, irrespective of the reasons for that flight, Syrians welcomed their neighbors with open arms.

At present, the Lebanese government’s Higher Relief Committee is an extremely small-scale operation. If authorities are not inclined to boost its manpower and resources, they must at least empower it in other ways, so that it can effectively coordinate relief efforts, and oversee a dynamic policy of securing the needed funding – many groups around the world are enthusiastic about helping refugees, so the task is not an impossible one.

Lebanon’s small size might frighten people when refugees show up at the borders, but this is a fact of life, and the sooner that state officials come up with a forward-thinking and robust response to refugees, instead of wringing their hands, the better.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 21, 2012, on page 7.




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