A report on a special session in the House of Commons on Lebanon’s economic and political future with a special focus on the refugee crisis, hosted by the South-Asia and Middle East Forum
Chair of the South-Asia and Middle East Forum Khalid Nadeem opened the session proposing the following question: What does the future of Lebanon entail? He underlined the impact of the current refugee crisis, reminding attendees that the country was coping with over one million Syrian refugees. Nadeem said the crisis was affecting Lebanon’s future as well as Syria’s, suggesting immediate action was required from the West to increase humanitarian help, and called for consolidation of UK-Lebanon relations on this urgent matter.
Nadeem also discussed the importance of maintaining good relations between the UK and Lebanon, as the former is one of the largest donors to the refugee community in the latter. As one in five residents of Lebanon are refugees, he highlighted the fact that the country is an important host to not only Syrian, but also Palestinian refugees.
Stephan Gethins MP insisted that long-term investment is required to support civil society in Lebanon. Therefore, he said, there is a need to recalibrate the UK’s policy towards Lebanon before leaving the EU to avoid a policy vacuum. He admitted that the UK government failed to comprehend the burden that the refugee crisis places on Lebanese society. He advised the UK to have a generational investment in the country to support the institutions in the long-term. Gethins also mentioned his efforts in Scotland to encourage work on refugee issues since these people can provide a long-lasting contribution to the societies they integrate into. He also reminded attendees that the gestation of Brexit is currently the UK government’s highest priority, which unfortunately relegates this issue to further down the list.
Middle East historian Dr Andrew Arsan from Cambridge University provided a detailed overview of the political situation in Lebanon. He stated that President Michel Aoun’s recent election meant Lebanon has entered a period of political stability. However, he emphasised that uncertainty still exists on three main political issues: Hezbollah’s weapons and its resistance status as well as its participation in the Syrian war; Lebanon’s foreign alignment and its positions in the region; and the marginal role of the Lebanese parliament. Aside from the refugee crisis, Dr Arsan insisted the recent rubbish crisis and the protests that followed demonstrated the inefficacy of the political class and the general sense of fatigue in civil society.
Dr Arsan described the evolution of the three main political actors since 2005. The Future Movement has been hampered by political insecurity and the assassinations of several of its central political figures. The exile of its president Saad Hariri also led to the emergence of radical Sunnism and other figures of opposition. Concerning the Christian parties, whose roles have been downplayed after the war, Dr Arsan exposed how they’ve been key allies in each of the movements after 2005 and clarified their strong attachment to constitutionalism and their request for a strong presidential figure. Finally, Dr Arsan described how Hezbollah uses its newly obtained presence in the cabinet to work for its own agenda. Hezbollah also refuses to give up any of its resistance status, claiming their weapons are a guarantee against any possible attack from Israelis and terrorists.
Former British Ambassador to Lebanon and head of the Middle Eastern region at Christian Aid, Frances Mary Guy, began with an overview of the situation in Lebanon. She stated that there are 1.5 million Syrian refugees and over 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, as well as one million poor Lebanese. She emphasised the need to hold countries accountable for their responsibilities and commitment to helping the refugee crisis. She said that one of the challenges these refugees face is acquiring the documentation they need. While one million Syrian refugees are registered with UNHCR in Lebanon, at least half a million are not, leaving them vulnerable. She discussed the commitment made to get all Syrian children in Lebanon into education, and said that the Lebanese government has been generous in opening up public schools. However, she stated that there have been many issues getting children to those schools, especially girls, and many children are not getting into higher education. She said: “These refugees are the future of Syria, and we need to invest in them.” Another commitment made during the conference was to increase access to work for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Syrian refugees are legally only allowed to work in construction, agriculture and cleaning, meaning many refugees work illegally. She believes that Syrians are well-qualified and should be allowed to work in other areas. She emphasised that Europe should help take in refugees, as Lebanon is taking the real brunt of the crisis.
Tom Brake MP praised Lebanon’s commendable role in managing the refugee crisis. In comparison, he said the UK government needs to do more to support refugees as a whole. He was also hopeful that Lebanon would experience more political and economic stability under its newly-elected President. Additionally, he hopes that countries continue to support Lebanon financially, including the significant financial aid from the UK. He also briefly discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an issue that continues to affect Lebanon. The MP expressed that Brexit should not lead to a deterioration of UK and Lebanon relations, and that they will remain as strong as they are today.
Palestinian Delegate General to the UK, Manuel Hassassian, said he considers Lebanon to be one of the most developed countries in the Middle East, and a pioneer in the Arab world for scholarly research and the free press. However, Mr Hassassian said that Lebanon is still a patriarchal society, and that political leaders and clans continue to hijack its politics. Since 1948, Palestinians have been living in dire conditions in refugee camps throughout the Middle East, including in Lebanon. He described some of the worst conditions in the Sabra and Chatila camps, where he taught English. Currently, Palestinians in Lebanon lack access to employment and the public health service, and are restricted from acquiring property. Also, Palestinians face legal barriers that deprive them of basic human rights, and are only allowed access to 32 professions, which excludes the public sectors and syndical jobs. Hassassian claimed that a solution to the refugee crisis can only be found when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.
Dr Najat Benchida-Savenius of Oxford Strategic Consulting provided a macroeconomic overview of Lebanon. She said the rubbish crisis and the strikes that followed have crippled the Lebanese economy over the past decade, slowing down growth. So too, the spillover of the war in Syria has had a significant economic impact on the country. However, Dr Najat predicts that the election of a new President and greater political consensus will revive the economy by boosting confidence, renewing hope for 2017.
Panelists welcomed questions from the audience, that included diplomats, representatives from the Lebanese government, NGOs and media. Some appealed to Britain for more assistance to help Lebanon cope with the crisis. Many pointed out that despite Lebanon’s limited economic capacities, the country bravely faced the crisis, trying to resolve the many complex issues, supported by a committed civil society and local and international NGOs.