Lebanon’s tipping point: how the Syrian crisis is punishing the generosity of its neighbours

Syrian refugees could soon account for 30% of Lebanon's population. Its people fear it will fall back into yet another conflict.

As the Syria civil war shows no signs of abating, the hospitality of countries absorbing Syrian refugees is progressively sinking them into crisis.

"My crime is that I am a mother to my sons," Yalda said. We were sitting in the old and crumbling outhouse she calls home near Saadneyil, central Lebanon, when she told me her story. I had made my visit to the region to see for myself what the civil war was doing to its people, and I was shocked by what I saw. After her second son died in the Syria civil war, Yalda travelled with the remaining members of her family from Idlib, near Homs, to cross the border with fake identification papers. They now reside on the outskirts of a makeshift refugee settlement. Her husband has been forced to work through his severe back injury and none of her remaining three children are in education. They struggle daily to make ends meet.

While the current humanitarian crisis in Syria has been highly publicised – and rightly so – the spill over effect into neighbouring states, such as Lebanon, has gone largely underreported by the media. With no official refugee camps for the Syrian refugees, further pressure has been placed on these host communities. I saw firsthand the sheer devastation this crisis has caused Syrians and Lebanese alike, with stories like Yalda’s echoed across the country.

In the past two years, more than half a million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon. This number is expected to increase to one million by this Christmas. Around 4,000 refugees cross the border every week into a country half the size of Wales. This means 30% of the population in Lebanon could be refugees by the end of the year, compared to 0.3% of the population in the UK. This is the equivalent of 15 million refugees seeking refuge in the United Kingdom. I cannot imagine how we would begin to cope.

On my first day I visited an informal settlement of Syrian refugees with international children’s charity World Vision on the outskirts of a town in the Bekka Valley. The horror of the situation there is all too apparent. Hundreds of refugee families are living in dozens of makeshift tents in unsanitary conditions. As more and more refugees arrive to this camp and thousands like it, it has becoming impossible to maintain any semblance of normality. Rubbish and food scraps are collected irregularly from the overstretched local government, causing further unsanitary conditions for the refugees and their Lebanese neighbours. The work that NGOs and UN agencies are carrying out to address this is vital. Recently, World Vision has implemented WASH (Water and Sanitation Hygiene) projects in refugee camps, providing much needed toilet and shower facilities and water filtration devices.

It was just outside this community where I first met Yalda and her family. During our meeting I was struck by the resourcefulness of her three children and the senseless waste of their potential. The eldest, Sabeen, had planned to continue her studies at a prestigious Syrian University but was unable to complete her final year of study. The youngest, a boy of fourteen, was forced to work as a mechanic and take on the mantle his elder brothers had presumably once held. However, the child that struck me most was 16-year-old Fayzeh, who had dreamt of becoming a journalist before she was forced to leave her home and flee to a foreign country. This assertive, confident girl told me she had felt the need to burn all of her writings in Syria through fear they would be found by the Assad regime. She said that although still a child, the civil war had forced her to grow beyond her years. She told me about the horrors she and her family had faced living in Syria, of the senseless murder of her friends, family and neighbours.

She put in writing what was too difficult for her to say out loud: "I am a Syrian girl from Homs; Homs, the victim which has tasted the bitterness of life; Homs, bereaved of its children; Homs, the widow, the orphan; Homs which was violated". She wrote about her grief, the loss of her brothers and how her land had been abducted "I will follow in the steps of my brothers, the hero martyrs, who refused to surrender their land and their honour to those who wanted to rape it". What struck me were her perseverance, her attachment to her country and her desire to survive: "I did not give up and I will not give up".

Tragic stories like Fayzeh’s are all too often heard up and down the country. Tens of thousands of refugee children have had no education since leaving Syria. Lebanese schools are struggling to cope with the influx and many children have been unable to find a place. Aid agencies like World Vision have attempted to fill the gap through Accelerated Learning Programmes, which offer refugee children a three month burst of intensive education. But funding for this is also scarce. It is crucial that the UK government leads the way by increasing funding to NGOs and the international community so that these children can again return to education and reach their full potential. This present situation does need to be their reality.

Witnessing firsthand the suffering of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the impact their arrival is having on Lebanese host communities; it became clear to me that greater assistance is urgently needed to prevent destabilising the country and its precariously balanced system of sectarian politics. Lebanon and the Lebanese have done a commendable job in hosting Syrian refugees. However, the situation is unsustainable and their continuing generosity is coming under strain, with reported incidents of intra-communal violence on the rise. The aid required under the new UN plan is $1.3bn by the end of this year for Lebanon alone.

This enormous amount will undoubtedly be difficult to raise, but ignoring Lebanon and leaving the country to continue on the same path will have dire consequences. Beirut is a confident and buoyant capital with glittering sky scrapers and scenic harbours lined with yachts, but in the outskirts of the city and across the country there is a real underlying fear that this country, a country which should be the jewel in the Middle East’s crown, a country where Sunnis, Shias, Alawites and Christians all live side by side, will fall back into yet another conflict. It is the children like Fayzeh, brimming with potential, who will be the ones to suffer if we allow this to happen.

Rushanara Ali is speaking at a fringe on Syria on Monday the 23rd September at 17:30 in the secure zone at Labour party conference. The event is in partnership with Islamic Relief. 

Syrian refugees fill jerry cans with water at a pump inside a refugee camp in Baalbek, Lebanon. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rushanara Ali is Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and shadow international development minister.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.