More than six months have passed since the May 6 parliamentary elections in Lebanon and the deadlock over the formation of a new cabinet seems deeper than ever. A few weeks ago, the major obstacle of Christian representation appeared to have been cleared. However, a new one emerged when Hezbollah insisted that a Sunni minister be named from outside the bloc of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and that this minister come from Hariri’s share in the government.
The demand was unacceptable to Hariri and brought the government-formation process to a halt. Hezbollah’s foes viewed the sudden emergence of this obstacle as inspired by Iran, and Western diplomats in Beirut agreed. They said that Iran, facing harmful U.S. sanctions, could be holding Lebanon’s government hostage as leverage. Tehran aims to push back against sanctions and hasten European measures, such as a Special Purpose Vehicle that would handle transactions with Iran outside the international banking system, to safeguard the Iranian nuclear deal and prevent a sharp decline in Iran’s oil sales.
Whether the delay is an Iranian ploy or not, the long wait for a Lebanese government is economically perilous. The country has the third largest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world, and it is rising. According to a recent World Bank report, “Lebanon’s macro-financial conditions are under heavy scrutiny,” and the debt will continue to rise “in an unsustainable path” toward 155 percent of GDP by the end of this year. The report downgraded Lebanon’s growth forecasts for 2018 from 2 to 1 percent. Lebanon needs a government as soon as possible to address its fiscal challenges, as international pledges made at the Cedre Conference last April to provide critical funding for Lebanon’s infrastructure are not open-ended. The donors, mostly European states, stipulated that fiscal and public-sector reforms were needed before the funding could be provided. Without these, Lebanon could be heading toward an economic meltdown.
Not surprisingly, Lebanon’s economic pain is having an impact on its most vulnerable populations, above all refugees. Given the mounting difficulties, Syrian and Palestinian refugees are taking to the sea again, seeking to reach the shores of the European Union. This time their target is Cyprus, around 260 kilometers away from Lebanon’s shores. The problem first came to public attention in September, when a boat carrying 36 Syrian refugees sank off the Lebanese coast, leaving one child dead. In October, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon saved 32 refugees who had been stranded for days without fuel and food. Despite this, the Lebanese authorities say previous successes have encouraged refugees to make the journey.
Cyprus is already struggling with the growing numbers, having registered, per capita, a record number of asylum seekers in Europe this year. In the period September 1–4, 140 refugees arrived on the island. In the first eight months of 2018, some 4,000 asylum requests were filed, a 55 percent increase from last year. The Cypriot media have published regular reports of Syrian refugee boats arriving on the island from Lebanon and Syria. As in the rest of Europe, the growing refugee flow is feeding xenophobic tendencies. A Cypriot politician, Christos Rotsas, has told the Cyprus Mail that he was establishing a new movement to address the flow of migrants from the eastern Mediterranean. “There have been mass arrivals of migrants and no one has done anything to stop them,” Rotsas declared, before adding that terrorists might be among the refugees.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon seem to have a greater sense of urgency to leave than their Syrian counterparts in. On top of Lebanon’s economic difficulties, Palestinians have long suffered from discrimination in jobs and have been legally barred from engaging in 36 different types of employment. The Trump administration in the United States has added to their suffering by cutting off all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is essential for Palestinians, driving them to seek refuge in Europe.
Earlier this month, the Spanish and French authorities arrested members of a smuggling ring that helped at least 1,200 Palestinian asylum seekers to travel from Lebanon to Spain after taking connecting flights to Ethiopia, Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador. Some were left stranded in Ecuador. This is a safe route, one that generally costs around €8,000 for those lucky enough to sell their homes in the refugee camps. However, Palestinian sources in Lebanon say that 1,500 people, not 1,200, left through this smuggling ring. Others have taken a more perilous and cheaper route, either through Turkey, or even worse, Libya. Although Palestinian refugees have been consistently leaving Lebanon for years, the recent departures have been proportionally higher and have affected every Palestinian camp.
The Lebanese response has been inadequate due to a lack of political will and capacity. For the current government, the massive refugee crisis that Lebanon faces has been to blame for the country’s economic difficulties. According to this narrative, international actors, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, are plotting to permanently settle Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Since the overall cost of the refugee problem far exceeds the international aid that has been provided to Lebanon to deal with the situation, the Lebanese political establishment has no incentive to halt the departure of thousands of people to Europe. Indeed, many officials welcome the decline in refugee numbers.
But even if the political will existed, Lebanon’s weak navy is poorly equipped to counter a large wave of migration. So far, the authorities have only managed to arrest a handful of human traffickers. If the political deadlock persists and the country’s economic situation continues to deteriorate, the Lebanese coastline could become harder to manage as more refugees seek a better life elsewhere. This could potentially spark Europe’s second refugee crisis in half a decade.