Lebanon’s economic crisis endures, as does the EU’s “fear” of refugees | Migration news

Lebanon and the Lebanese people are still suffering from a debilitating economic crisis that has gripped the country since 2019.

The pound has plummeted to less than 10 percent of its pre-crisis value, savings have disappeared both in terms of exchange rates and real deposits as banks announce they have no cash to release, and increasingly More people worry about simply surviving.

About 80 percent of the population is below the poverty line and 36 percent is below the “extreme poverty line,” living on less than $2.15 a day.

A recent deal worth 1 billion euros ($1.06 billion) with the European Union may have been seen as a blessing in such circumstances, but it has brought even more problems to the fore.

‘Shameful’

EU subsidies over the past three years are not only intended to help Lebanon’s economy.

Rather, its main objective is to “ensure the well-being of host communities and Syrian refugees,” as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. Nearly three-quarters of the package is earmarked for this, in the hope of deterring refugees from heading to Europe.

Lebanon has hosted millions of Syrian refugees who have fled their country’s 13-year war.

As more Lebanese saw their lives devastated by the economic crisis, hostility towards refugees increased, encouraged by a public campaign backed by mainstream Lebanese media and state figures.

The EU package was heavily criticized by workers and human rights analysts, who said the deal rewards the state’s financial mismanagement and mistreatment of the Syrian community.

More than 300 Syrians have returned – or been returned – to their home country in what Lebanese authorities call a “voluntary return” program.

But human rights groups have criticized the initiative, which comes in the wake of 13,000 forced deportations of Syrians in 2023 alone, violence against refugees in Lebanon and the ongoing conflict in Syria itself.

“Human Rights Watch has documented the summary deportation of thousands of Syrians in 2023 and (the) deportation of opposition activists and army deserters this year,” Ramzi Kaiss, a researcher at the Middle East and North Africa Division, told Al. of the right-wing group. Jazeera.

“Among those documented deportations were Syrians who attempted to flee Lebanon by sea and were returned to Lebanon by the Lebanese armed forces and subsequently deported.

“The fact that the EU provides funds to encourage such behavior is shameful.”

‘Asking people to starve’

Another persistent problem in Lebanon makes assistance of little use.

Syrian children play in a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley (File: Ali Hashisho/Reuters)

“The biggest problem is the complete absence of accountability,” Karim Emile Bitar, a professor of international relations at Saint Joseph’s University in Beirut, told Al Jazeera. “Even the Lebanese finance minister acknowledged that local corruption could be a major (problem).”

The country’s poor do not benefit from the money coming into the country and have to fend for themselves.

“In this country we live with the blessing of Almighty God… and people help each other,” Abu Omar, owner of a clothing store in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest and poorest city, told Al Jazeera. .

“Everything is very expensive and the economic situation is very bad. There is no money, there is very little work and a lot of taxes.”

Lebanon’s parliament approved a new budget in January aimed at reducing its significant deficit, which the World Bank says represents 12.8 percent of its gross domestic product.

The new budget increased the value-added tax and reduced progressive taxes on things like capital gains, real estate and investments, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable hardest, according to economists.

“With this kind of strategy to curb the deficit, people cannot meet the basic needs of health, food, housing and education,” Farah Al Shami, head of the social protection program at the Arab Reform Initiative, told Al Jazeera.

“They’re just asking people to starve and die.”

‘Nothing new under the sun’

International financial institutions such as the World Bank have been pressuring Lebanon’s leaders to introduce reforms to increase “transparency, inclusion and accountability” as a condition for releasing aid packages.

The International Monetary Fund has been waiting for a much-needed $3 billion package that, in theory, would help the state’s many crippled and near-bankrupt institutions get back up and running.

Lebanon’s political elite has avoided implementing reforms, concerned that transparency could reveal corruption among leaders focused on protecting their business monopolies, according to Leila Dagher and Sumru Altug, writing for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

The alternative, according to some observers, has been to wait and hope that the international community will eventually feel that it is in its interest to prop up even a failing governance structure, as long as it helps contain some refugees.

The EU has given Lebanon more than 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) since 2011, half of which was to help alleviate the consequences of the war in Syria – money that was supposed to help refugees become self-sufficient. and would help the Lebanese host community.

Another €860 million ($934 million) has been allocated for humanitarian assistance to Lebanon’s most vulnerable, including refugees and the poor.

Expectations that the latest EU package will have a different impact this time are unrealistic, analysts said.

“There is nothing new under the sun (in this agreement),” according to Bitar.

Politics replaces everything

Much of the money provided by foreign governments and international organizations to Lebanon since 2011 is alleged to have found its way into the pockets of corrupt bankers, businessmen and politicians.

But that has not stopped the EU from getting closer to the Lebanese ruling class and prioritizing its political considerations.

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides has been coordinating with interim Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati on the migration issue as the economy and local hostility push more Syrians and Lebanese to try to cross the sea to Europe.

Von der Leyen, who recently announced her reelection bid, was the smiling face of the latest aid package alongside Mikati and Christodoulides.

“Unfortunately, we cannot expect anything positive from her,” Bitar said, “neither on the Lebanese file nor on the Syrian refugee file.”

During her tenure as president of the European Commission, von der Leyen has focused heavily on migration, striking deals with North African countries to reduce refugee flows to Europe despite strong criticism from human rights groups. and some EU member states.

“This is just the latest in a series of bad migration deals with Turkey, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, so it continues a trend in Europe of really abdicating responsibilities for migrants and refugees,” said Adriana Tidona, a migration researcher. European Union of Amnesty International. she told Al Jazeera.

“Europe risks becoming complicit in very serious human rights violations.”

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