Crisis economy: The blame game
Lebanon must not hold Syrian refugees responsible for its economic woes
Lebanon’s two current crises will not evaporate anytime soon. Our economy is struggling and GDP growth rates are too low for the needs of an emerging country. Our cities and villages are confronted by a refugee crisis of immense proportions. Neither problem will go away if we just close our eyes and both are related in many ways, but the one capital error that we must eradicate above all is to blindly blame one crisis on the other.
As the Syrian conflict enters into its fourth year evidence of human rights violations committed by all conflict parties against civilians continue to mount. The war has displaced more than 10 million Syrians, both inside the country and out, and left vast areas of Syrian territory unsafe for refugees to return. Reluctantly, Lebanon has welcomed 1.16 million Syrians seeking refuge into the country, but the surge in population that the refugees represent has strained relations.
The Lebanese government has introduced policies aimed at limiting the number of refugees in Lebanon, and political sentiment has placed the brunt of the country’s economic woes at the feet of the refugees. But blaming the refugees for Lebanon’s faltering economy demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of this economic crisis and jeopardizes the country’s ability to solicit donors for needed humanitarian development aid.
The vast majority of refugees have no other choice but to stay in Lebanon for the foreseeable future, and attempts to push them out of Lebanese territory through discriminatory practices, such as municipalities imposing curfews for Syrians and the deregistration of refugees, will help address neither Lebanon’s immediate needs for humanitarian aid nor its long term need of revitalizing physical and social infrastructures. Rather than continuing to blame refugees for the country’s economic woes the Lebanese government must remain resilient — its economic success depends on harnessing Lebanon’s spirit and ability of entrepreneurship to identify ways through this crisis.
It is clear already that Lebanon has missed the huge economic opportunity that attracting Syrian industrialists to the country would have produced. Instead, many of Syria’s businesspeople have opted to restart their businesses and factories in the Gulf countries or Egypt. This mirrors Lebanon’s inability to support its own manufacturers where unreliable access to electricity, the high cost of energy, ineffective industrial zones, and transit costs are among the contributing barriers to Lebanese factories’ competitiveness in regional and global markets. But it has also reflected upon the government’s inelasticity to quickly address this economic crisis.
As bad as Lebanon’s economic situation now appears there may still be opportunities to capitalize upon. On our streets one can see plenty of budget-size cars with Syrian license plates, but also enough SUVs and luxury sedans to imply that Lebanon is hosting Syrian population segments that have some level of purchasing power. The hospitality industry has realized that opportunity — often led by Lebanese businesspeople. More than a few restaurateurs have found success in marketing their establishments to the large Syrian population able to afford a meal out.
The state still has chances to make good. At specific levels, the reduction of bureaucratic red tape can coax small gains for Lebanon’s industries. Reducing barriers to imports would help, for example, hospitals reduce the time and cost of acquiring medical equipment not produced in Lebanon. Even as the Lebanese government remains restrained by an imposed political paralysis, there is much more that its ministries can do to facilitate transactions in the country’s economy. Instead of pointing the finger of blame at refugees, Lebanon’s politicians and government leaders should be looking at ways to leverage the crisis.
Rather than abhorring their presence, Lebanon must actively identify the communities and projects that would contribute most to addressing the needs of both refugees and their host communities — an initial step in reassuring donors of Lebanon’s worthiness as a country to invest in. Lebanon’s leaders must also stump for those investments to convince the international community to finance infrastructure products that will immediately alleviate the suffering of refugees, improve provision and quality of infrastructure services for all inhabitants in the short and mid term, and spur economic growth in the long term.