Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, the Patriarch of the Maronite Church, whose seat is in Lebanon, has recently drawn attention to a fact that the world may have forgotten, namely that there are one and a half million Syrian refugees in the country. Lebanon’s population is small, as is its territory, and this means that Lebanon has the highest proportion of refugees perhaps in the world; more than one quarter of all the people in Lebanon are refugees. The strain on the country’s infrastructure can be imagined, as can the political stress this causes.
Lebanon, as everyone should know, has hosted refugees before now. The huge influx of displaced Palestinians, after the foundation of the state of Israel and the various Israeli-Arab wars, was instrumental in destabilising Lebanon’s fragile internal politics, and plunging the country into a hideous 17-year civil war. So the cardinal is right to be worried. Moreover, as someone who is deeply embedded in the country’s social and political as well as religious life, no one should dismiss his statement that the situation has become unbearable as belly-aching.
He suggests that the refugees be sent back to Syria, where there are now plenty of safe areas, and that the Lebanese government should do this without waiting for international help that may never come. The trouble is, of course, that Syria may not want to accept them, as many of them may be the “wrong” sort of people, from its perspective, the very people the civil war was designed to drive out in an effort to effect an ethnic rebalancing inside the country.
Of course, the Syrian refugees could be settled in third countries that might be better placed to integrate them and provide them with employment and a livelihood. And yet quite a few countries who are well placed to accept them, have accepted none or very few to date, though the figures are disputed.
Meanwhile, people outside the Middle East might reflect on the Lebanese experience. While welcoming the stranger is an evangelical imperative, as the Pope has reminded us on numerous occasions, consideration must be given to the effects that this will have on the host community. No European country has welcomed the stranger to the extent Lebanon has, and what Lebanon has done constitutes an example of charity, but also serves as a warning.