The most under-reported aspect of the civil war in Syria is the monumental refugee crisis in Lebanon. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 2.2 million Syrians have fled their country. 824,000 people have sought refuge in neighboring Lebanon. Other sources site over 1.4 million refugees in Lebanon.
The humanitarian impact of such a dramatic influx of refugees is staggering. Yet Lebanon is the only country bordering Syria that does not contain any officially sanctioned UNHCR refugee camps. The Lebanese government refuses to provide the land rights necessary to establish them. To the arm's length observer, rejecting any aid from an internationally neutral organization like the UNHCR seems both callous and foolish.
I would feel the same way, had I not enjoyed a visit to Lebanon last December. Beirut is a global, cosmopolitan destination that is still suffering the impacts, both physically and psychologically, of its own 15-year civil war. It's taken decades for Lebanon to bounce back from the trauma, and now, right when the country is on the cusp of a national renewal, the Syrian crisis has the potential to tear it down all over again. The Lebanese solution? Political isolationism.
To the Lebanese, official refugee camps are not merely havens for those desperate to escape the horrors of war. Camps have the potential to become permanent settlements, pushing the economic strains on a host nation long into the future. Worse yet, refugee camps can be the breeding ground for military recruitment: pro-al-Assad, pro-rebel, pro-ISIS, pro-al-Qaeda, pro-Hezbollah. You name it, there's a faction that needs bodies to fight. And where better to find them than in a sea of over a million destitute people?
But the isolationism won't last forever. Recent events have shown the Lebanese government's acknowledgment of the crisis, and its requests for help. It has authorized provisional, temporary construction of a small number of UNHCR tents in northern Lebanon. It has requested support from the United Nations for its military to maintain order and to safeguard lives if necessary.
To get a handle on the economic impact of the situation, the World Bank, at the request of the Lebanese government, issued a report on the future state of Lebanon. Not surprisingly, the report predicted dire consequences and projected the need for billions of dollars. Reports such as these can be used by the Lebanese government to request funds not only from the World Bank, but also from other countries. Money is coming in to Lebanon through these channels. Even the United States has quietly pledged over $74 million.
Pledging money almost always comes with strings and stipulations. A donation from the U.S. faced political struggles over concern that the cash could wind up in the hands of the Hezbollah, a powerful military force inside Lebanon which is also designated a terrorist organization by our country. They are an enemy of Israel, our ally, and they support the al-Assad regime. By the same token, money could get siphoned to al-Qaeda forces, also our enemy, despite the fact that they are fighting against the al-Assad regime. So they're de facto fighting the Hezbollah. Huh? Exactly. It's a political mess that no one wants to touch, but anyone with an ounce of empathy wants to help solve. Money is thrown at the problem. Conscience cleared. Happy holidays.
Cash is king, and it needs to be spent wisely, especially in Lebanon. Financial resources contributed towards the refugee crisis do not address the infrastructural issues which plagued Lebanon before the Syrian civil war began. Beirut's lack of mass transportation and the abeyance of the development of a national rail system contribute to continuous, national congestion in Lebanon. A sustainable solution for not only the Lebanese, but also for the Syrian refugees residing there will have to address these concerns.
Lebanon needs more than financial help. It needs macro-leadership to oversee the transformation of the country's infrastructure to ensure the fair and expedient delivery of support to all individuals residing in Lebanon. The country needs a politically independent agent of change. Lebanon needs the Lebanese.
Just as the Syrians are streaming into Lebanon today, Lebanese in the not-so-recent past have left their own country. This constituency has moved from the Middle East primarily to the Americas. It is a group characterized by above-average wealth, power and influence. And it cares about Lebanon.
In 2010, the World Bank estimates that almost $8.2 billion in remittance money was sent to Lebanon. The country's GDP is about $43 billion, so individuals outside of Lebanon have been ostensibly propping up the country's economy. And they can do more. They need to do more. They have an obligation to their heritage to do more than just send a check.
Who are these people? King of the Lebanese ex-pat community is Carlos Slim, Mexican telecommunications magnate, a.k.a. the second richest man in the world. Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault, was schooled in Beirut. Brazil is home to a higher population of Lebanese than live in Lebanon itself.
Lebanon's ex-pat community has the skills and resources to work in conjunction with the Lebanese government in an apolitical fashion to drive positive change for Lebanon at a time when the country and all its inhabitants need it the most. Lebanon needs creative ideas for its future. Looking back may be the best way to find them.