Syrian refugees facing a cold future
“I am going to freeze to death” is an expression often heard on the streets of Beirut as the Lebanese, generally ensconced in warm, thick winter coats, moan about icy weather sweeping the country.
While none of the Lebanese have yet to die because of the cold, Syrian refugees scattered around the country are not so fortunate, with many fatalities blamed on exposure.
The recent discovery of the frozen bodies of 15 Syrian nationals who died trying to cross the mountain range on the Lebanese-Syrian border reminded both the Lebanese and the international community of the refugee crisis that they have failed so abysmally to address.
Frozen in the snow, the bodies of these desperate men, women and children resembled the volcanic remains of the citizens of Pompeii. However, the deaths of the refugees were far more gruesome and far less swift. Originally part of a larger party being smuggled across the Lebanese border, these individuals lagged behind, before gradually succumbing to the cold and the storms that accompanied it.
This tragedy brings the debate surrounding the 13.5 million refugees scattered across the world, 2 million of whom are in Lebanon, back to the public sphere.
While initially adopting a fairly lax open-door policy towards the influx of refugees from Syria, the Lebanese soon reversed their position, introducing measures intended to halt refugee flows and doing what they could to make life difficult for those already in Lebanon.
Adding to those measures was the failure of the international community to provide basic services to the refugee communities. Their sharing of resources with Lebanon’s native community placed tremendous stress on the country’s archaic infrastructure.
While the Lebanese elites devise ways to channel relief funds to their own pockets and their clientelist networks, whole generations of young Syrians are out of school and lack basic sanitation and medical facilities.
There is little disputing that life is difficult for Syrian refugees within Lebanon. However, the frozen corpses in the country’s mountains testify to a far darker reality, which the Lebanese and the world ignore.
The overwhelming majority of the Lebanese, including the anti-Assad crowd, has swallowed the Syrian regime’s line that the war in Syria has ended, with what remains of any opposition existing in isolated pockets doing the bidding of the West and its Arab allies. Consequently, the Lebanese feel under no obligation to pressure their legislators — or do anything themselves — to address the country’s refugee crisis.
Instead, they have either adopted or through inaction tacitly permitted the rise of a xenophobic culture, one that juvenilely and maliciously seeks to blame Lebanon’s endless problems on the Syrian and the Palestinian refugee communities.
Had Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Iran-Russia axis truly won the day as many have claimed, why would a Syrian father gamble the lives of his wife and children by walking them across icy valleys and mountain ranges to either die from the cold or, worse, risk them being criminally enslaved by the corrupt underbelly of Lebanese society on arrival?
If the de-escalation zones were adequate as the Russians promised, the bands of Syrian refugees would be making their way towards Syria not away from it.
Truly addressing the Syrian refugee crisis is unequivocally beyond the reach and resources of the Lebanese government and its people. Yet the recent death of the 15 Syrians and the lack of empathy and inaction by the Lebanese government and the people speak volumes about the moral and political decay of the country and the system of values that supposedly sustain it.
Tragically, Syrians will continue to die either at the hands of their autocratic ruler, by the hands of his opponents or by the continued negligence of the world. What remains certain is that there is no reason to stay silent and partake in the crimes being committed against the innocent Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.