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In this week’s edition: Winter is coming in Lebanon, EU-US tariffs end and Western Balkans focus.
As Lebanon slips deeper and deeper into financial and economic crises due to decades of mismanagement and corruption, challenges posed by the global fuel shortage are set to exacerbate problems for the Lebanese and the country’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
A few weeks ago, the lights went out in Lebanon. Two power plants that supply the country with electricity had gone offline due to a lack of fuel.
Hyperinflation has increased the price of food, fuel is difficult to come by, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further hampered the country’s ailing health system.
In addition, the dispute over the circumstances of the 2020 Beirut explosion escalated earlier in October, with at least six people killed and 30 wounded during a large demonstration.
With a population of just five and a half million, Lebanon hosts one of the largest numbers of Syrian refugees in the world per capita.
Over the past ten years, around 1.5 million Syrians fled their civil war-torn country to their neighbour. This influx placed a significant burden on a country already struggling with poverty. While the situation was somewhat under control, it has deteriorated dramatically in the past few months as Lebanon teeters on the brink of collapse.
“Compared between the early months of this year and now, the situation has further deteriorated,” Ayaki Ito, UNHCR’s new representative in Lebanon, told EURACTIV.
“The difference between earlier and August, when I visited the refugee locations, around 90% of refugees are under extreme poverty, around 50% of refugees are food insecure, and only 53% of refugee children between the age of 6 and 14 are going to school,” Ito said.
“The real consequence is pure survival,” he added.
In Lebanon, only local and international aid organisations take care of the refugees, but they have received fewer and fewer funds over recent years, Ito said.
“Winter in Lebanon is quite harsh, and, normally, we provide winter support to refugees,” the UNHCR representative said.
“But this year, it’s even more challenging because the Lebanese host community is also suffering and the availability of fuel for some heating systems is not there, and we tried to be very inclusive, to support refugees, but we’re targeting vulnerable Lebanese families as well,” Ito said.
Arguably, the Lebanese government has contributed to the gradual stigmatisation of Syrians, particularly in the runup to the 2022 parliamentary elections. As a result, it is becoming increasingly more challenging for Syrians to integrate into Lebanese society.
“For refugees, especially in Lebanon, local integration is not an option. The other two options are voluntary return or resettlement,” Ito said, adding that according to UNHCR, the need for resettlement from Lebanon is estimated at 107,000 refugees. Still, the current quota available is less than 9,000.
“At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Lebanon opened the door because Syria is a neighbour, and you cannot close the door to a neighbour – it’s now important that the international community supports more the host communities as well,” Ito said.
The international community, including the EU, has repeatedly urged Lebanese political actors to move ahead with reforms to tackle the multiple crises Lebanon is facing.
The Lebanese parliament voted on Thursday to hold legislative elections on 27 March, confirming an earlier vote last week that had been challenged by President Michel Aoun.
The election will be the first since the country’s popular uprising in late 2019 when hundreds of thousands of people began demanding an overhaul of the political and economic status quo.
Donors led by former colonial power France have pledged millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, but conditioned it on Lebanon installing a government capable of tackling corruption.
Asked whether the international community should keep limiting its assistance to humanitarian relief until Lebanese politicians proceed with reforms, Ito says it is a “very difficult balance to strike”.
“It would hurt the most vulnerable Lebanese as well as the refugees because you would create tension between both sides – those who are suffering from the current situation should not be punished,” the UNHCR representative said.
While the overall international financial support, including EU assistance, for Lebanon is strictly conditioned on reforms, EU’s lead foreign affairs spokesperson Peter Stano told EURACTIV humanitarian assistance will not be limited and particular attention paid to supporting Lebanon in hosting Syrian refugees.
“We have seen some progress to end the political stalemate with the confirmation last month of the new government led by Prime Minister Mikati, the recent agreement on a date for the legislative elections and the foreseen resumption of the technical negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF),” Stano said.
In the last 10 years, the EU has allocated €2 (out of 2,8) billion to Lebanon to support them in dealing with the Syrian crisis.
“We would not make the Lebanese people pay for the mistakes of their politicians – the humanitarian assistance goes directly to people to alleviate their hardship, so limiting it would only affect the most vulnerable,” he said.
EU officials do not see a risk of another refugee crisis in terms of Lebanese leaving their country en masse. But what about the Syrian refugees, if the situation deteriorates?
A trickle of Lebanese and Syrian citizens have already made their way to Cyprus. EURACTIV also understands that a growing number of refugees and workers are abandoning Lebanon and turning to a new migration route into Europe, via Belarus.
A German foreign ministry spokesman acknowledged there was a noticeable increase in direct flights to Minsk from Beirut, Damascus and Amman, Deutsche Welle reported. Recent local media reports also indicate this is increasingly the case.
EU IN THE WORLD
GEOPOLITICAL VULNERABILITIES | The COVID-19 pandemic was much more than a health crisis for Europe, which means it needs to transform from rule-political machinery to a political body able to deal with unexpected events, political philosopher and historian Luuk van Middelaar told EURACTIV. Read the interview here.
NORDIC NATO | NATO’s Secretary-General has been on Nordic tour in the past week, to be continued with participation in the Nordic Council early next week. While about 60% of Finns consider Russia a military threat and 45% hold a negative opinion of the country, support to join NATO has also seen a slight increase.
TARIFF WAR ENDS | The US and EU have agreed to end a festering dispute over US steel and aluminium tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump in 2018, removing an irritant in transatlantic relations and averting a spike in EU retaliatory tariffs, US officials said on late Saturday. (The official announcement is expected in the course of Sunday).
MIGRATION CRISIS | EURACTIV travelled to the Una Sana canton in northwestern Bosnia in mid-October for four days to interview institutional and non-governmental actors to present a clearer picture of the migration situation on the EU’s external border. Read the newest parts in the series here.
DELAYED REFORMS | Washington has also sent a special envoy to Bosnia and Herzegovina to help with a long-delayed electoral and constitutional reform in the Balkan country, against the backdrop of heightened tensions among its Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.
FOCUS MONTENEGRO | Western partners, NATO and the US have recently toned down their confidence in the new Montenegrin government. EURACTIV spoke with Montenegro’s Interior Minister Sergej Sekulović on Western partners’ concerns about how reliable the new Montenegrin government is, the 2016 alleged coup attempt, the difficult relations with Serbia, and the latest European Commission report on the country’s accession process.
‘WEAPONISATION’ OF GAS | The EU this week rebuked the Kremlin’s attempt to strong-arm Moldova over a new gas deal, saying a commodity like gas should not be used as a geopolitical weapon.
WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING
ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…
We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as Europe’s looks towards a busy finish of this year. Here’s what’s coming up next week:
- COP26 UN Climate Change Conference starts
| Sunday, 31 October 2021 (until 12 November) | Glasgow, UK
- Russia suspends NATO missions in Moscow, Brussels
| Monday, 1 November 2021 | background here
- Nordic Council meets, NATO Sec-Gen Stoltenberg address
| Tue-We, 2-3 November 2021 | Copenhagen, Denmark
- Russia’s Putin due to sign integration agreements with Belarus
| Thursday, 4 November 2021 | Minsk, Belarus
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