Syria and Lebanon

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 7th March 2012.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton 4:30 pm, 7th March 2012

The picture is, indeed, complex. Broadly speaking, the 14 March coalition is opposed to Assad and 8 March is broadly sympathetic. Clearly, Hezbollah has strong connections with the Assad regime and, if we are to take its views at face value, it places a great deal of importance on maintaining that regime, but we heard conflicting views about who was standing where exactly. As the situation in Syria deteriorates, we are yet to see what will happen in Lebanon, and that is one of the issues that I am raising in the debate. Does the Minister agree, if I may put it this way, that there are all the ingredients for potential civil conflict and tension within Lebanon, the tragic history of which we all know?

On minorities, there are almost 300,000 registered Palestinian refugees, living mainly in 12 UN refugee camps and some 20 unofficial camps. We visited two camps during our visit to Lebanon, and it became painfully clear that the Syria crisis has polarised opinion in an already difficult situation, so the Syrian problems are not helping the future of the Palestinian people living in Lebanon. There is also minority solidarity; Lebanese Alawis are of course concerned about the fate of their Syrian counterparts, as are the Druze, the Sunnis and the Christians. Recently, even the Maronite patriarch was moved to support the Assad regime, claiming—I have to say, somewhat ludicrously—that it was the most democratic Government in the region. Similarly in Turkey, the Turkish authorities fear the effect of the Syrian crisis on their Arab Alawi population and their Kurdish community.

The two countries are somewhat dependent economically. Sanctions are hitting Lebanon as well as Syria, and tourism is down. Many of the communities that we visited close to the border were dependent on smuggling, and those communities are suffering the substantial additional burden of hosting the refugees. Does the Minister agree that the international community should look at how to assist Lebanon in handling the economic impact of the crisis in Syria?

The most important consideration is the refugees. The UN is reporting that, following the crisis in Homs and the shelling of other areas in Syria close to the Lebanese border, between 1,000 and 2,000 refugees are trying to cross the border. That is in addition to the some 7,000 refugees already registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the north and the many thousands unregistered in Lebanon; the UN estimates that around 1,500 vulnerable Syrian refugees are in southern Beirut. The total number of refugees, according to the UNHCR, now exceeds 15,000 and is growing fast. According to Save the Children, about one quarter of those refugees are children under the age of four.

We visited Tripoli and Wadi Khaled, close to the border, where refugees were being hosted. Their stories confirmed the litany of horrors that we have all heard concerning the events in Syria and in Homs in particular. There were no refugee camps, and people were surviving in abandoned homes and other buildings, frequently with no heating and inadequate shelter. They were dependent on Lebanese families, some of whom were relatives, who were already incredibly deprived, and had lost out due to the absence of cross-border trade.

The Red Cross told us that it could cope with perhaps another 2,000 refugees before pressing the panic button. That was in January, and during the two months since then that figure has been overtaken. Many of the refugees were entering Lebanon via the Bekaa valley, a Hezbollah-controlled, Shia-dominated area. That was, and is creating tensions. All the refugees were fearful of the Lebanese security forces, and many were too scared to register with the UN, fearing that their details would be shared with the Lebanese authorities.

The UNHCR was operating in far from perfect conditions regarding the status of the Syrian refugees. Under international law, they are clearly refugees, and deserve all the rights and protections that go with that status. However, Lebanon has always been deeply sensitive about refugees, and prefers to refer to them as Syrians fleeing the unrest. The Lebanese Government would not recognise them, nor grant them their legitimate rights; for example, they have not issued them with refugee IDs. As a result, they cannot leave the border areas. Our understanding from the UNHCR is that immediate additional funding is needed to cope with the crisis. What assistance is the UK providing to UNHCR? Will the Minister consider providing further assistance as a matter of urgency to help with the looming crisis in that country?

What did the Minister make of the recent comments by the Lebanese President that the influx of some Syrian families into Lebanon as a result of the turbulence does not constitute a major problem because they can “stay with their relatives”? He continued:

“We are treating the Syrians who fled as families, as relatives and not as refugees.”

Do the Government accept that they are genuine refugees? What discussions have there been with the Lebanese authorities on their responsibilities to recognise and protect refugees, and accord them their full rights under international law? What plans have the Government made with their international partners about the possibility of a humanitarian disaster in Syria if the economy there crashes, the security situation deteriorates even further, and the regime falls, which is a real possibility, leaving chaos in its wake? Have the Government discussed contingency plans with their Lebanese counterparts? In particular, has the Minister raised the issue of humanitarian access from Syria to Lebanon? What support can the EU and the UK give to the UNHCR to meet its needs should that happen?

The situation in Syria is critical and deteriorating, and that is having a significant impact on Lebanon. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that the Government are not only monitoring the situation in that country, but are ready to take action to support those in need at the present time.