Lebanon is pushing back on the European Union’s calls for the country to assist migrants and refugees from Syria. There are growing concerns that Lebanon’s collapsing economy is fueling anti-immigrant sentiment and putting the country on a dangerous course.
Lebanon’s caretaker interior minister, Bassam Mawlawi, has accused Syrian refugees and migrants of committing crimes, taking away jobs from Lebanese and potentially creating a demographic imbalance along sectarian lines, saying their numbers must be “limited.”
Officials have warned the number of Syrians entering Lebanon via illegal crossings along the northern and eastern borders has escalated in the past two weeks.
Syria analyst Joseph Daher, who teaches at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, sees the government of President Bashar al-Assad as the “main contributor to human insecurity” in Syria as the February earthquake and dire economic conditions forced many Syrians to seek safety elsewhere.
Daher told an online Carnegie Middle East forum that Syria’s people have few options but to leave.
“Regarding the population, the means to resist are limited in many ways. For many people, the only way—it’s a form also of resistance—is to migrate. Levels of migration have continued to increase, despite decreasing of military conflict," said Daher.
Lebanese analyst Dania Koleilat Khatib told VOA that Lebanon’s political class is scapegoating Syrian refugees and migrants to divert attention from their own problems of corruption and mismanagement. Khatib, who heads the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, says she believes both Syria and Lebanon are using refugees and migrants as a political weapon.
“Assad is using his last card," she said. "The waves that are coming now are refugees from the regime area. These are pushed by the regime. It’s something organized by Assad to put pressure on everything, the army. That we can drown your country with refugees. But for the people living in Lebanon, they are making it more tough for them, just to pressure the EU and extort money.”
Lebanese politicians are proposing that Syrian refugees leave for Europe by sea, but Khatib says Joseph Aoun, the army commander, remains committed to preventing illegal sea migration because it’s prohibited by international law.
Mohannad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut told the Dubai newspaper, The National, Iran-backed Hezbollah has appeared to use the threat of sending migrants to Europe by sea to extract concessions, but it may not do it soon..
“The refugee crisis in Lebanon provides Syria's Assad, and by default his Lebanese allies, with leverage,” said Ali, “so I don't think Hezbollah is in a rush to resolve the crisis.”
Ali said Hezbollah could use that to leverage an easing of sanctions on Syria in order to allow some economic recovery.