Sunday, March 1, 2015

The dangerous absurdity of Lebanon's refugee camp decision

[Originally posted at NOW]

See if you can follow the logic: the Lebanese government is now concerned that its 1.2m Syrian refugee population has become vulnerable to infiltration – or has indeed already been infiltrated – by extremist Islamist groups. At the back of its and everyone else’s mind is the battle last month between Islamic State (IS) jihadists and the Lebanese army in the border town of Arsal, where gunmen were reported to have emerged from the makeshift camps housing thousands of refugees in the adjacent and otherwise barren Wadi Hmayyed region, beyond the final Lebanese army checkpoint but before the first Syrian one.

To mitigate this worry, the government now plans to move refugees currently scattered across the developed areas of the country, where their activities are closely monitored by security and intelligence forces, to precisely the same jihadist safe haven from which IS launched its August attack.

Citing “social and security concerns,” Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas told Annahar today a decision has been made to “establish experimental camps on Lebanese state territories [in areas] between the [Lebanese-Syrian] border.” This is essentially the same proposal that’s already been mulled several times in the past, and has been thoroughly criticized by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). It’s worth revisiting what they had to say about it in May:

“In our experience camps that are built on border areas can be transformed into places where armed activities take place […] The border has witnessed a good number of security incidents over the past three years and the Lebanese government does not have a permanent presence [there] to oversee the security situation.”

In other words, moving the people you suspect of harboring jihadist sympathies to a lawless no-man’s-land crawling with jihadists might not be a surefire formula for stability. And who, incidentally, is to protect the refugees, 80% of whom are women and children, from the gunmen? For months, Lebanon was unable to provide security for thousands of its own citizens in the border town of Tfeil. How far will it be willing to go to protect Syrians, who it now regards as IS fifth columnists? Will it enlist the help of the Syrian army? Hezbollah? Anyone who has spent five minutes with a Syrian refugee knows how they’d react to that notion.

On a more pedestrian note, as UNHCR also pointed out, who will provide the infrastructure? Lebanese citizens themselves in the east Beqaa are lucky to get 3 hours a day of electricity. Water is a similar lottery. Derbas told Annahar the money would come from “Arab and international” sources. Now might be the time to mention that UNHCR, three years into the Syrian refugee crisis, has only managed to raise 36% of its pledged funding. And, again, we’re talking about a territory contiguous with the most violent war zone on earth today. What happens if the security situation doesn’t permit aid workers access?

That the Syrian refugee crisis, like the wider Syrian conflict itself, has had profound repercussions on Lebanon is beyond doubt. Sadly, this plan seems less an earnest effort to resolve them than an ill-conceived capitulation to the irrational, and increasingly xenophobic, passions of the street.

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