Humane remedy

Lebanon took its Syrian refugee aid plan to Cairo this weekend, telling the Arab League that it needed help to confront a “dangerous” and “worrisome” situation as the number of refugees continues to grow.

Hearing officials lay out the case for assistance was a welcome change from earlier comments by politicians who strayed into the realms of racism and isolationism when they talked about Syrians in Lebanon.

These people conveniently forgot that Syria was a safe haven when the Lebanese Civil War began in 1975. It played the same role after the war during particularly violent Israeli bombing campaigns against south Lebanon and elsewhere, most recently in 2006, when tens of thousands of Lebanese streamed across the borders.

Back then, the Syrian authorities did not complain about the impact of hosting so many people, and did not raise the possibility of closing the borders. Thousands of Syrians offered free shelter and other types of assistance to Lebanese friends and acquaintances, and even absolute strangers, just because these people were suddenly in need.

The good news is that Lebanese officials have stressed a realistic message: They note that as the government drafted its action plan, the number of refugees was steadily growing. The requested figure of $180 million will be quickly outdated, as Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour predicts that in six months’ time, the number of Syrian refugees could double from its current level of around 200,000 people.

As a result of this presentation and other reasons, the Arab League is sending a delegation to visit Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, the countries that have been the most sharply affected by the refugee crisis.

It is hoped that Lebanon’s efforts will be endorsed during a donors’ conference at the end of the month in Kuwait, and there are certainly some Arab countries with the financial resources to help the refugees.

And while the Arab League should extend its hand, the United Nations itself bears a huge responsibility, namely to head off the problem at its source by making every possible effort to end the fighting and bloodshed.

As for Lebanon, it must maintain its open-door policy to Syrians and palestinians fleeing unrest – the majority of these people are women and children, highlighting the importance of the humanitarian aspect. While the steady inflow is certainly a “burden” in the technical sense, it is simply a duty to help.

The authorities should create an ad hoc committee to ensure that the assistance is used in optimal fashion and to avoid any politicization of the issue. Instead of wasting time on trying to obtain votes in upcoming parliamentary elections by talking about the “threats” posed by the Syrians, politicians and officials should do something practical for the country.

The figure of 200,000 people represents those who are registered with the UNHCR. Thousands of other people are in need of help and are waiting to register. In addition, thousands of well-off Syrians have relocated temporarily to Lebanon, avoiding the status of refugees.

Does the government know how to deal with cases that are less clear-cut? Is it following the impact of Syrians in the labor market with any precision? Can it look forward, and try to anticipate repercussions months from now? Can it ensure that the funding will be spent without waste and delays? It is time for Lebanon’s leaders to do their homework, and come up with solutions, instead of merely talking about problems.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 14, 2013, on page 7.




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