Aid to Syrian refugees could stoke Lebanese ire

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A hostess shows State Minister Marwan Kheireddine and EU Ambassador Angelina Eichorst how to generate energy from organic waste. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Uneven distribution of aid to displaced Syrians could exacerbate tensions with host communities in Lebanon and deepen the sectarian segregation that has already started to manifest in refugee settlement patterns, top relief coordinators said Monday.

Most of the Syrians fleeing the violence over the border have settled in areas of Lebanon that have historically been marginalized, placing them in direct competition for resources and jobs with struggling Lebanese families. This, combined with the fact that many are drawn toward their own confessional or ethnic community, has created an extremely delicate situation for those tasked with managing the refugee crisis.

“The borders are open for everybody ... but at the end of the day, let’s be realistic: This is a country that has been stricken by war, that is highly politicized, so it is only fair to say that these people are coming into regions where they feel they are somehow welcomed,” said Ramzi Naaman, who heads Lebanon’s Syrian refugee response plan.

“Looking at this competition within the labor market, to say the least, looking carefully at the kind of assistance the displaced are getting versus the Lebanese community that has been living in poverty ... That could create a tension that could develop into something much more complicated than purely the loss of resources or competition at the level of labor,” he cautioned.

Naaman was speaking following a panel convened by the European Union as part of its “EU-Lebanon Cooperation Days,” a two-day event showcasing EU and EU-funded projects in Lebanon. The panel also included representatives from the United Nations Higher Council for Refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and the Norwegian and Danish refugee councils.

Almost all the speakers echoed Naaman’s position that aid should be distributed with an eye to the local host community as well, so as not to feed perceptions that Syrians were receiving preferential treatment.

UNHCR Deputy Jean-Paul Cavalieri was more diplomatic in his characterization of the sectarian and political dimensions of the refugee crisis.

“Obviously the refugees are coming to a country that, well, it’s Lebanon – it’s different than when they go to Turkey,” he said. “It’s clear that some refugees feel more at ease in certain localities.”

The threat of politicization can be seen on a regional and international level, as well as a local one.

Late last year, a Saudi-funded Islamic charity erected a “welcome center” in the Bekaa Valley town of Marj, a step which seemed to test the limits of the Lebanese government’s policy against camps. Despite the official position of disassociation, the move was widely seen as a poke in the eye to the March 8-led Cabinet.

Since then, ties with Saudi Arabia have notably improved, with Riyadh pledging its support to Lebanon as recently as last week. Accordingly, Naaman said, coordination between the two governments has been bolstered.

“We have established very good relations; things are different now,” Naaman told The Daily Star. “What has started as a kind of individual initiative at the beginning by working directly with NGOs is now shifting in terms of trying to work closely with governmental agencies.”

The Daily Star - Lebanon