by Robert Fisk, The Independent
A new frontier in Syria’s civil war, but what does future hold for refugees in Lebanon?
With Beirut restricting its borders, Robert Fisk asks if the million-plus displaced people already there have any real hope of returning home
Tuesday 06 January 2015
Isis is destroying the old Sykes-Picot border between Syria and Iraq, but Lebanon – its population diluted by refugees – is reinforcing its old French-created frontier with Syria. Not since 1943, when the French gave Lebanon its theoretical independence, has a Syrian citizen been forced to obtain a Lebanese visa to cross a border that for hundreds of years did not exist.
A quarter of Lebanon’s population is now Syrian and although the refugee flow will continue – the Lebanese army can no more guard the smugglers’ trails of misery leading from Syria’s civil war than they can prevent Isis from making forays into Lebanon – Syrian citizens arriving at the formal immigration post at Masnaa must now seek business, education, tourism or transit visas to enter. Tourist visas must be accompanied by a hotel reservation and proof that the traveller has £1,000. But permits will be given automatically to Syrians who own property in Lebanon. In other words, the rich – as usual – will pass more easily than the poor.
But none watch this influx of Syria’s huddled masses with more social, political and historical interest than the Palestinian refugees who fled – or whose parents or grandparents fled – Palestine in 1948, victims of fear and massacre at the time of Israel’s creation. Perhaps a quarter of the 750,000 refugees sought refuge in Lebanon then, believing – as many Syrians assume today – that they would be able to return “home” within days or months, if not years.
Tents housing Syrian refugees in the city of Arsal in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley (Getty)
And since the Palestinians and their descendants in Lebanon – whose figures may have reached 350,000, and then diminished through further exile to nearer 200,000 – were treated with initial kindness, but then with suspicion, fear and ultimately hostility, one can only wonder how the 1.15 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon today will be regarded in future. Christian militias cruelly blamed the Palestinians for the 1975-90 civil war and feared that the country’s minority Sunni community would become all-powerful if the Palestinian refugees, the majority of them also Sunnis, were to become citizens. UN refugee statistics suggest that 30 per cent of the world’s refugees never return home. So how will Lebanon cope, even now, with perhaps 35 per cent of its occupants of Syrian nationality, most of them also Sunnis?
The figures are by nature vague. Besides 1.15 million UN-registered Syrian refugees, there are 12,500 waiting for registration in Lebanon, and perhaps another half million long-term Syrian residents or migrant workers – many of whom are children engaged in virtual slave labour in the fields of the Bekaa Valley. The total refugee population of Lebanon, including Syrians and Palestinians, might come close to 1,750,000.
The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has swelled by 25 per cent since 2011 (EPA)
Despite some outrageous rents, Christian-imposed curfews of poor Syrians living in mountain villages, and some intimidation of refugees in poorer areas of Beirut, the Lebanese have been remarkably kind to their Syrian brothers and sisters, perhaps mindful of the generosity of a peaceful Syria which received hundreds of thousands of Lebanese refugees during their civil war – and even more refugees from Iraq after America’s 2003 invasion. Elaborate schemes have been introduced to educate Syrian children in Lebanese schools – taking into account the salient fact that Syrian educational standards are lower than those in Lebanon. Many Lebanese work without pay to help teach children in the UN-created tent refugee schools in the Bekaa Valley.
But there is no disguising the real – and, dare one say, understandable – anger directed at the Syrian rebel militias, who have used the Lebanese border as a sanctuary from Bashar al-Assad’s army and also captured 29 Lebanese troops and police in the town of Arsal, three of whom they have murdered. The rest are now threatened with beheading. Weeks of street fighting between the army and Sunni militants in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli have further damaged relations between Sunnis and Shia inside Lebanon – not least because the Shia Hezbollah militia is fighting alongside Assad’s men inside Syria. Why, Lebanon’s Sunnis have asked repeatedly, is the Lebanese army arresting armed Sunnis in Tripoli and imprisoning members of Sunni militias, yet allowing armed Shia Hezbollah members to patrol parts of Lebanon’s border and to pass freely across the same frontier to fight for Assad?
A class at a school for Syrian refugees in the Lebanese village of Qaraoun, in the west of the Bekaa Valley(Getty)
The answer is painful: because Hezbollah largely leaves Lebanese Sunnis alone, but an armed Sunni community might go to war with Hezbollah. Assad’s forces hold almost all the territory north and east of Damascus. A large-scale battle between Lebanese Sunnis and Assad’s army, loyal to a Shia Alawite president, would bring Syria’s civil war into Lebanon.
Unfortunately, history takes a back seat. Few outside Lebanon realise that before France partitioned Syria – a division opposed by a majority in the “new” Lebanon – Tripoli was the business hinterland of much of central Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Tripolitanians are related to Syrians who live in and around Homs. The French post-Great War border divided villages – as if by way of compensation, the French often built beautiful bridges between the two parts of each village, so that families could still cross the rivers that formed the new frontier.
Dreamers in the State Department may still demand strict sovereign adherence to these fraudulent borders; but that’s not quite how the people who live there see the land around them, however many Syrian refugees are arriving in their midst.