Economic ruin forces thousands of Lebanese to flee - GulfToday

Economic ruin forces thousands of Lebanese to flee

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Lebanon-Protests

An anti-government protester reacts in front of Lebanese soldiers during a protest against President Michel Aoun near the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon. File/Associated Press

Lebanese seeking safety and jobs have joined the thousands risking their lives by setting sail in flimsy rafts and small boats with the aim of reaching peaceful and employment-rich shores. Wealthy and middle class Lebanese leave their country by plane while the poor apply to people smugglers who, for nine years, have exploited Syrians fleeing war in their country and poverty in exile in Lebanon. The exodus from Lebanon, caused by that country’s economic collapse, has accelerated since the August 4th explosion of nearly 300,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port.

Several small boats carrying mainly Lebanese migrants along with some Syrians have made for Cyprus in recent weeks, leaving from Lebanon’s northern coast near Tripoli, 90 kilometres from the island. At least two men have died when their boats floundered while the Cypriot coast guard has taken others into custody, put the migrants on a chartered vessel and delivered them back to Beirut. But the smugglers and their clients, who pay large sums for the passage, persist.

Syrians deported to Lebanon earlier this month have filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights against Cyprus, claiming Lebanon could return them to Syria from which they fled. By returning Syrians along with Lebanese to Lebanon, Cyprus has violated the UN 1951 Refugee Convention which forbids returning refugees to the place from which they arrived. Lebanon has been asked and agreed to halt the flow.

Cyprus is unwilling to accept a fresh influx of migrants/refugees. Its holding camps are overcrowded and the process of granting asylum can take years. Cyprus hosts the largest number per capita of refugees/asylum seekers in the European Union. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are 11,000 protected people and 13,000 asylum seekers in the Cyprus republic which has a population of 850,000 people. Many of these refugees/migrants have come to Cyprus with the intention of moving on to western Europe but become stuck here.

Lebanon has long been a country of emigration. The Lebanese diaspora is estimated to number around 10 million, almost twice the population of the country; of this number about 1.2 million remain Lebanese citizens. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the globe thousands of Lebanese have flocked to their homeland, many bringing the virus with them. Daily infections are peaking at nearly 700.

They return to a country broken by mismanagement and corruption where politicians responsible cling to power by refusing to permit reform or step aside.

There has been an opportunity for change since last October when hundreds of thousands, perhaps, millions of Lebanese took to the streets to demand an end to the sectarian system of governance imposed on Lebanon by France, the mandatory power, before independence in 1947. According to this confessional power-sharing arrangement, the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament a Shia. Other posts are allocated to the Druze, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Armenians, and so on. This system has enabled politicians and political factions to divide up ministries, jobs in the administration, the army, the police, the banking sector, semi-governmental organisations, and the judiciary. Lebanese citizens depend on connections with party figures at every level to secure jobs, services, and aid.

Since he paid two visits to Lebanon following the devastating explosion in the port, French President Emmanuel Macron has exerted pressure on politicians to accept a non-partisan government of “experts” who can rescue the country from economic meltdown, political collapse, and COVID-19.

Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany, Mustafa Adib, was designate prime minister and told to form a cabinet by September 15th. He missed the deadline, as could be expected. He planned a “small” government of 15-16 independent ministers but this was rejected by President Michel Aoun who demanded a government of 25-26 ministers, both “experts” and faction nominees.

Aoun was followed by Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri who has demanded for the Shia community the key finance ministry. His demand created deadlock. His Amal faction is allied with Hizbullah and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. He was prodded to take a stand by the untimely and deal-wrecking imposition by the US of sanctions on former Transport Minister Yusif Fiyuanus and former Finance Minister Ali Khalil (Berri’s man) for aligning with Hizbullah.

Defiant over the US intervention, both Amal and Hizbullah have insisted on a Shia finance minister. Since the two represent most Shias, about one-third of Lebanon’s population, they are in a strong position, something the mindless Trump administration does not seem to understand.

 The previous government under Hassan Diab, an academic, was comprised of “experts” chosen by the political parties which were supposed to be excluded. It failed to initiate reforms, halt the country’s economic slide, curb COVID-19, and deal with the aftermath of the blast at the port. Lebanese individuals, non-governmental organisations, and private businesses had to cope with rescuing victims, clearing up debris, making quick repairs, and providing food, medical supplies, and clothing to the needy among the 300,000 people made homeless by the explosion.

The political elite and the administration simply failed. Adib who attempted to stick to Macron’s plan to rescue Lebanon was sidetracked by the politicians who insist his government should be a repeat of the impotent Diab cabinet. Faces would be new but the policies would remain the same and the politicians would continue misrule.

This is why Lebanese who can least afford to leave are boarding leaky boats and inflated rubber rafts with feeble outboard motors and making for the unwelcoming Cypriot shore. Unlike Syria, Lebanon is not at war. Those who are fleeing cannot be classified as refugees and asylum seekers. They have joined the sad parade of economic migrants no country is prepared to receive. Lebanon is the victim of a sectarian system of governance imposed by France which France, decades later, seeks to uproot.

But this system is deeply rooted in the country and is resisting. Lebanon’s very existence depends on the uprooting of the system and the overthrow of its beneficiaries.

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