The Lebanese government will spurn a U.K. request to loosen its restrictions on Syrian labor, Social Affairs Minister Rachid Derbas told The Daily Star in an interview Monday ahead of the third annual Syria Donors Conference. “Lebanon has been unstinting in its efforts to meet its neighborly and humanitarian obligations,” Derbas said. “But Lebanon is not a warehouse for people. Lebanon is weak and poor. And if this country has been able to endure [the refugee crisis] for such a long period, well this is one of the miracles of creation.”

With the London donor conference set to begin Feb. 4, politicians are having to return to the difficult question of how to distribute the humanitarian burden of the Syrian conflict, which has turned 4.6 million people into refugees, the vast majority of them in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Lebanon is home to nearly 1.1 million displaced Syrians, according to the registration rolls at the UNHCR, though the agency halted new registrations last year.

The U.K. government has made it a point to spearhead the donor campaign, casting its efforts in both altruistic terms and in response to hard political realities.

On an unannounced visit to refugee settlements in the Bekaa Valley in September, Prime Minister David Cameron said British aid to the region, totaling 1 billion pounds ($1.56 billion) since 2012, has discouraged refugees from seeking asylum in Europe.

The flip side of U.K. aid is that it will only accept to resettle 4,000 Syrians a year. The government would like to keep it that way.

This month, International Development Secretary Justine Greening told international media outlets that the U.K. would ask Jordan and Lebanon to pledge at the donor conference to ease Syrian labor restrictions and expand access to education.

It will put the Lebanese government in a difficult position, which depends on foreign aid to cope with the refugee burden while at the same time views aid policy as a half-measure against the root of the crisis.

“It is incumbent on the international community to impose a peaceful solution on Syria, so that Syrians can return to their homes,” Derbas said. “This is the solution, instead of burdening [Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey] with the consequences of its inaction and, perhaps, conspiracy.”

“As for changing the labor laws: This is not possible and it may not even be appropriate considering the high rate of Lebanese unemployment,” Derbas said. “It is hazardous to the stability of the host society.”

Responsibility for the welfare of Syrian refugees falls chiefly on the Social Affairs Ministry.

Lebanon will require $2.48 billion in assistance to meet its humanitarian obligations toward Syrians in 2016, Derbas said, with 37 percent of the amount to be invested in overtaxed host communities, and the remainder spent as direct aid for 2 million refugees and impoverished Lebanese citizens. “We hope for the whole amount, but we expect to receive more than 70 percent.”

Responding to Greening’s remarks on education, he said the government recognized the scale of need but lacked resources to reach all children.

“The Education Ministry doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate more than half of the [Syrian] students,” he said. “We will begin a new preschool program soon for children who haven’t reached grade school age yet, and we’ve presented this project [to donors].”

Despite the vast humanitarian network to support Syrian refugees, its capacity is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of need. In Lebanon, the United Nations has estimated that 70 percent of the refugees are living below the poverty line, and 90 percent are encumbered by debt.

Syrians are struggling here, and they are fleeing. Lebanese security forces arrest people-smuggling boats leaving Tripoli for Turkey or report deaths at sea on a near-monthly basis.

A Human Rights Watch report released January accused the government of criminalizing refugee existence in the country. Since January 2015, Lebanon has required Syrians to pay $200 per individual to renew their residency – an impossible amount for many families.

It has also required many to find citizens to sponsor their stay, allowing employers and unscrupulous business owners to prey on the vulnerable refugees, the report said. HRW estimated that over half of Syrians lost their legal status in the country in just one year.

Source & Link: The Daily Star