Syrian Refugees in Lebanon and the Scheme to Extract EU Funds

Pictured: the President of Cyprus, the Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister, and the European Commission President.

For the past decade, over 1.5 million Syrian refugees who fled from the brutal Assad regime in Damascus have been living in Lebanon under harsh conditions. Their presence creates political tensions and stresses the weak state institutions, which are already struggling to provide the basic needs of the country’s population. 

Recently, the EU pledged a $1 billion aid package to Lebanon to be delivered over the next three years, seemingly a noble humanitarian act. However, the reality behind this fund transfer is much more cynical.

It appears that the refugee issue is used by Lebanese officials as a tool to extract money from the EU in return for Lebanon’s efforts to prevent refugees from leaving for Cyprus – the closest EU member country, which is less than a 200 km boat ride away. In recent months, an unusually high number of boats carrying Syrian refugees from Lebanon have made that journey, which many see as a subtle Lebanese signal to stop intercepting migrant boats bound for Europe unless Lebanon receives more economic support. 

Shortly after the new aid package was announced, Lebanese Finance Minister Youssef Khalil warned that the EU aid package could be undermined by corruption. This statement should be taken as an understatement, as Lebanon is governed by a highly corrupt elite that controls the state institutions with virtually no accountability. Any financial aid delivered to Lebanon without strict oversight will most likely “disappear” into the pockets of politicians and civil servants affiliated with them. 

In the past, institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, which was ready to deliver financial aid to the cash-strapped country, demanded that the government accept a strict precondition of structural reforms and transparency. This reflected the common understanding that the Lebanese state institutions are highly corrupt, and any aid or support given will be misused. 

Nevertheless, the cynical use of the tragic humanitarian situation of the Syrian refugees and the manipulation of European fear from an influx of additional migrants into the EU territory is not a Lebanese invention. It was Turkey’s President Erdoğan who was the first to operate this scheme, as early as 2016, when he threatened to flood Europe with Syrian refugees who found sanctuary in Turkey unless the EU would deliver him massive financial support. This threat earned Erdoğan a massive €6 billion grant, which raised serious questions regarding how the money would be used by the Turkish government. 

Back in Lebanon, immediately after the announcement of the new EU grant, politicians from different opposition parties claimed that it was practically a “bribe” paid to the caretaker government officials for them to maintain the same “sit and do nothing” policy towards the Syrian refugees, without any real prospect of formulating a permanent solution to the issue. Demands were presented to the government to act transparently and share its planned use of the money, and the oversight mechanism for its spending went unanswered and is highly likely to remain that way. 

Understandably, this is the EU’s top priority, as it is already facing a major challenge coping with the existing number of refugees inside its borders. Paying Lebanon to make sure it stops any further immigration makes total sense from a European point of view. 

More than anything, the current developments regarding the refugees and the EU are yet more examples of the lack of public trust in the Lebanese political elite and state institutions to serve the country’s interests. Lebanon needs a permanent long-term solution to the years-long presence of the Syrian refugees and not a short-term “band-aid” plan focused on preventing them from leaving Lebanon and resettling in the EU. 

Unfortunately, as long as Lebanon is ruled by a weak government under the influence of Hezbollah, which for years has actively prevented any reform in the country's political and bureaucratic institutions, long-term national interests will always be overtaken by the short-term personal ones of the corrupted elite and its collaborators inside the state institutions. We should not hold our breath waiting for the current EU grant to improve the tragic humanitarian conditions of the refugees in Lebanon nor pave the way to secure their safe return to their homes in Syria. 

Dror Doron is a senior advisor at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) focusing on Hezbollah and Lebanon. He spent nearly two decades as a senior analyst in the Office of Israel’s Prime Minister. Dror is on Twitter @DrorDoron.