With more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Europe to escape the Russian onslaught and many more on the move, European social services are beginning to buckle under the strain. Having taken in millions of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere over the past decade, Europe simply cannot afford another major crisis that not only strains public finances but also public opinion. , which has been generous but is not without limits.
The situation in Ukraine rightly occupies most of the leaders’ agenda, but it should not distract from the precarious developments in Lebanon, which, if left unchecked, could lead to an uncontrollable further flow of refugees.
Lebanon is one of the most diverse countries in the Middle East, but it is also one of the most unstable by nature. The country lacks a majority political identity, with Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Druze, all with diverse sub-faiths, living a fragile coexistence, often caught in the geopolitical standoffs of their regional neighbors and global superpowers.
The 2020 Beirut explosion revealed how Lebanon’s entrenched multi-factional political elites all share full responsibility not only for the explosion itself, but also for decades of poor governance in the country. And if the political process is allowed to resume as normal, the drive for accountability could take off – and it could catch up with the very people who are currently responsible for the political process. This is why politics in Lebanon has been deadlocked for a year. And why most of those currently in government in Lebanon would prefer the stalemate to continue.
The problem for Europe is that the longer the political crisis – and therefore the economic crisis – in Lebanon persists, the more likely it is that the state will completely collapse. And Lebanon hosts between 1 and 1.5 million Syrian refugees, plus half a million refugees from other conflicts, mostly Palestinians, out of a total population of less than 7 million.
While Lebanon experienced a period of relative stability as the Syrian civil war was going through its worst phases, the political and economic crisis in the country is currently taking its toll, especially on the refugee population. Last year, UN agencies warned that 90% of refugees were living in extreme poverty. This is already a recipe for the new massive refugee movement. But if the security situation also deteriorates due to the political crisis, then more than a million refugees will be on the march again. And given that there are virtually no safe places left in the region, where are they likely to go? Inevitably, the most sensible destination will be Europe.
And that begs the question: can Europe absorb another million or more refugees? Economically, of course, Europe is in a much better position to provide refuge than Lebanon ever was, even in its best days. But politically? The 2015 wave of refugees was extremely destabilizing for national and European politics, leading to increased support for far-right and neo-fascist parties across the continent, jeopardizing the liberal democratic political order. What if another million Syrians started making their way to Europe’s borders just as it is busy trying to absorb refugees from much closer to home?
The European Parliament seems desperate to avoid this eventuality. And that is precisely why European leaders are taking such a tough stance with the politicians in Beirut. This is a chance for the Lebanese people. European countries, especially France, have significant influence over Beirut’s political class, not least because the proceeds of their corruption have generally flowed to Europe. If Europe carries out its threats of sanctions, it would mean that all that the leaders of Lebanon have accumulated thanks to their corruption will have been for nothing.
But the situation remains precarious. Not all politicians will react in the same way to the threat of sanctions. The joker will probably once again be Hezbollah, which continues to enjoy support from Damascus and Tehran. If Hezbollah leaders fear that it will ultimately be their head rolling over the explosion in Beirut, they might be less worried about French sanctions and more worried about their own survival. And so, Europe needs to watch every little development in Beirut very closely over the next few months.
• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is Director of Special Initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017).
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