Lebanon prime minister pleads for financial support ahead of Syria conference
BEIRUT // With Lebanon “on the verge of a breaking point” from the strain of hosting more than a million Syrian refugees, its prime minister is pleading for financial support from the international community.
Saad Hariri said he would ask for between US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) and $12bn at a Syria conference hosted by the European Union in Brussels this week, to be paid over the next five to seven years. If Lebanon did not get more help soon, he warned, there could be dire consequences for the country and the refugees.
“Today if you go around most of the host communities, there is a huge tension between the Lebanese and Syrians … I fear civil unrest,” he told a press conference last week.
And in an interview broadcast on Saturday, the prime minister said the refugees could be forced to find a new home if funding from the international community did not come through.
“If it does not invest in Lebanon, Lebanon will have to take measures to see how those refugees could find another place to find refuge other than in Lebanon,” he told the France 24 channel.
Mr Hariri did not say where the refugees might be sent. Returning them to Syria would be the only feasible option for Lebanon, although Mr Hariri also pledged that his government would not take any action that would harm them.
The government estimates there are about 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country with just over 4 million citizens. The refugee-driven population surge since 2011 has placed an even greater strain on electricity, water, waste management and other service infrastructure that has never fully recovered since Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
Without formal refugee camps or substantial aid programmes, Syrian refugees in Lebanon have had to find their own accommodation and funds to survive. Many have taken up jobs, even though the government until recently banned them from working. The entry of refugees into the labour market exacerbated tensions with Lebanese communities, who say Syrians working for lower wages have ruined local economies and left locals jobless.
The government now says Syrians are allowed to work, but only as manual labour in sectors such as construction or agriculture. A number of towns across the country have begun enforcing the rules.
The international funding Mr Hariri is seeking would not necessarily go directly into aid for refugees. Instead, he is proposing large infrastructure projects that could employ Syrians and thereby reduce job competition – and tensions – with Lebanese communities.
Through building schools and hospitals and improving Lebanon’s congested roads and its perpetually failing electricity grid, Mr Hariri says refugees could find legal work while also fixing a country that has remained broken since its own civil war.
“This project will serve the Lebanese first and foremost,” he told France 24.
Despite plans to better cope with the refugee population, the government’s goal remains to return the refugees to Syria as soon as possible.
“As soon as there are safe zones protected by the United Nations, they will go there,” Mr Hariri said.
He is one of several Lebanese politicians who have long pushed for the creation of safe zones in Syria. Others argue that large parts of Syria are already safe enough to return to.
Lebanon does not have the ability to create such safe zones itself, and among the more powerful international players in the Syrian war, only the United States has pushed the idea. But while president Donald Trump has said the US is committed to creating safe zones in Syria, there have been no visible moves towards this since he took office in January.
* With additional reporting from Reuters
Updated: April 3, 2017 04:00 AM