6 Sep 2015

Refugee crisis? You should see what it’s like in Lebanon…

Dear old UK. Looked at from Beirut you just have to laugh at the British going on about a refugee “crisis”. It seems like parochial angst, leaves on the railway lines or any other such Terribly British Concern. The chattering anxieties of island races with nothing much to worry about.

Not just the UK but the EU generally, talking of a refugee “crisis”. Here in Lebanon they shrug or laugh at this stuff.

Why? Because officially Lebanon now has a little over 1.2 million Syrians living here according to the UNHCR. Most Lebanese insist the real figure is two million or more.  All that in a country of around five million.

It is as if Britain absorbed the populations of Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Tyneside, Bristol, the entire central belt of Scotland and many, many more. And all of that in one of the less stable, more politically fractured and long-time president-less countries of the world.

And the UK is in a tizzy over what? 4,000, 10,000, 15,000 refugees and migrants coming in? Is that it? Is that your “crisis”?

Read more: Europe’s migration crisis – what we know so far

Right now in the Middle East the UNHCR appeal for $4.5 billion funding has been met by donations of less than 25 per cent.

In July the World Food Programme was forced to cut the allowance for food to refugees in Lebanon to just $13.50 a month.

Is this how to sustain a population influx that has been little short of miraculous thus far?

06_syria_r_wAbove: Syrian refugees at a camp in Lebanon

So Lebanon is potentially a time-bomb if things continue like this. Of course nobody knows how sustainable the current influx is, but everyone agrees upon one obvious fact: if things fall apart and Lebanon cannot cope with the massive population shift it has somehow miraculously sustained so far, there is only one place these Syrians can go to.

Yup – Turkey. And thence to Europe now that Angela Merkel has extended an invitation to all.


Should that happen, the EU’s supposed “crisis”, hand-wringing and general display of disunity and self-interest this summer, will all seem like a picnic.

Moreover, with the German invitation now made and with Sweden at least following suit to some degree and pressure for other EU players to open doors, how may Lebanon respond?

Does German generosity, driven in part by historic guilt, make it easier for the Lebanese to do what they could to force Syrians to move on to Turkey and the EU?

The possibility at least now exists.

Which is why, however popular it may be for some, David Cameron’s proposals have a certain logic and coherence.

Whereas an emotional outpouring to one terrible image of one death after more than 250,000 who have died in Syria’s civil war might be the quickest way to produce yet more terrible deaths of desperate, innocent people.

The response to that photo to open doors and welcome refugees and migrants – and yes many are migrants –  is entirely understandable. The problem is that it might just make things worse, in a complex international issue where statesmanship and leadership are rarer than EU unity.

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