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Lebanon Needs Help to Cope With Huge Refugee Influx
Lebanon Needs Help to Cope With Huge Refugee Influx
Yemen’s Hodeida Offensive: Once Avoidable, Now Imminent
Yemen’s Hodeida Offensive: Once Avoidable, Now Imminent
Crowds of Syrian refugees wait to enter Lebanon at a border point in eastern Bekaa. 22 January 2013. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Lebanon Needs Help to Cope With Huge Refugee Influx

Lebanon hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, more refugees per capita than anywhere in the world. International support is needed to keep this fragile country from reaching the breaking point.

Lebanon, a small country whose population hovered around four million, has gained an astounding million and a half more residents in under four years, mostly refugees from neighbouring Syria. By contrast, the U.S. government proudly announced that it reached its target this year of granting asylum to 10,000 Syrians – to be settled in a population of more than 320 million – in the face of opposition from citizens worried about a flood of refugees and migrants. 

Any serious attempt to deal with the global refugee crisis should acknowledge these startling disparities. The UN and U.S. are hosting back-to-back summit meetings on the refugee emergency on 19-20 September in New York, but advocates are pessimistic that the discussions will result in more equitable resettlement among the world's richest countries or adequate support to front-line states.
 
To frame an international response commensurate with the Syrian catastrophe, it is vital to understand what is happening in a front-line state like Lebanon. As the Syrian war escalated, Syrians began fleeing primarily to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Lebanon, in particular, received the swiftest and largest refugee influx in its history. Around one million are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while an additional 500,000 unregistered refugees, migrant workers and wealthier Syrians have melted into the local population. 

Such a sudden influx would pose a big challenge to any country, but Lebanon is without an effective government or significant resources, and has historically been unstable. Its resilience so far in the face of this shockwave is therefore remarkable. Yet the inflow has exposed a series of worrying fault lines. 

The state’s endemic dysfunction is glaring: Syrian refugees arrived in a country sunk in a deep malaise. In recent years, Lebanese politicians have been unable to agree on electing a president or holding parliamentary elections, or even on a policy to collect garbage from city streets, whose pungent smell wafted through the capital last year. In view of such a dismal state of affairs, seeing the government implement a policy to address the refugee crisis would have been nothing less than a miracle. 

Beirut’s default response of inaction has had serious consequences. In the absence of official camps established specifically for refugees, the majority of Syrians have sought shelter in Lebanon’s most deprived areas. This has put new strains on places that already lacked infrastructure and whose population was already struggling. Gradually, and not surprisingly, host communities have become resentful toward the refugees. In turn, many Lebanese officials have used the refugee issue to deflect criticism for the state’s failings, further feeding tensions. 

Changing demographic realities are another source of concern. The arrival of refugees who are, for the most part Sunni Muslims, has alarmed Christians, Shias and Druze eager to preserve a delicate sectarian balance in a multiconfessional political system. Even Lebanese Sunnis, however, share their compatriots’ concerns about an enduring refugee presence. The refugee crisis has produced an uncommon consensus among Lebanon’s communities: everyone blames the Syrians for the country’s many ills. 

Add to this Lebanon’s history with Palestinian refugees, estimated at 300,000 to 400,000 and mostly living in camps created after 1948. What was envisioned as short-term refuge turned into a seemingly permanent exile for these Palestinians, whose militarisation became a major trigger for the civil war a generation ago. As the Syrian war continues without an immediate end in sight, there are concerns that Syrian refugees may likewise become a long-term presence.

The spectre of renewed conflict has led the Lebanese authorities to adopt a heavy-handed security approach toward the refugees. They have repeatedly raided whatever encampments exist and arrested hundreds of men. Moreover, they have allowed local councils to impose discriminatory measures, such as night-time curfews, on Syrians. 

Lebanon needs help to cope with the refugee crisis, both to aid Syrian refugees and to preserve the unity of the state. What refugees need most immediately is an easing of visa requirements to regularise their status. The international community should focus on long-term development projects that would benefit both Syrians and deprived host communities. Moreover, it should condition any security assistance to the army and police – the only functioning parts of the state – on the conduct of these forces toward the refugees in a manner consistent with international law and human rights standards.

If the world stands by as Lebanon dissolves under the extraordinary burden it has shouldered with remarkable magnanimity, we may be confronted with a much greater international refugee crisis – as well as new rounds of violence, which in turn will generate more refugees. 

Workers inspect damage at the site of an air strike on the maintenance hub at the Hodeida port on 27 May, 2018. Abduljabbar Zeyad/REUTERS

Yemen’s Hodeida Offensive: Once Avoidable, Now Imminent

When the plan for consultations between Yemen's warring parties, scheduled to begin in Geneva on 8 September, collapsed, the frozen battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeida resumed. It could prove fatal for many of the millions already on the brink of starvation.

Over the last two weeks, the latest attempt to set Yemen on the path to peace has collapsed, triggering what could become the bloodiest battle of a war approaching its fourth anniversary. In a 14 September letter to the UN Security Council, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that it planned to renew its campaign to wrest Hodeida, a port city on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, from the control of the rebel Huthi movement. This came a week after precursory peace talks were meant to start in Geneva. The Huthis have pledged to battle UAE-backed forces to the last man.

Although not unexpected, the swift collapse of peace efforts is deeply disappointing. In June, UAE-backed Yemeni forces agreed to pause their campaign to take Hodeida, first to allow for negotiations over a Huthi withdrawal and then for UN Envoy Martin Griffiths to lead consultations between the Huthis and Yemen’s internationally recognised government. The pause came after mounting pressure from both the U.S. Congress – which threatened to cut off U.S. arms supplies to the Saudi-led coalition – and the Trump administration, which was able to use the threat of Congressional action as leverage with its partners in the Gulf. But an avoidable tragedy now looks inevitable absent swift and forceful intervention by UN Security Council member states, the U.S. in particular.

On 8 September, Huthi representatives who were meant to travel to Geneva for consultations, or “pre-talk talks”, told Griffiths’ team that they would not be coming. At the last minute, they demanded to be transported out of the capital Sanaa using an Omani aircraft rather than a UN one and to take wounded fighters out with them. Saudi Arabia, which controls Yemeni airspace and stops any non-UN flights into Sanaa airport, balked. The UN sought a compromise – saying it would certify the passenger manifest of an Omani flight – but the Huthis in turn declined to allow any inspection. With the coalition and the Huthis exchanging mutual recriminations, Griffiths had to postpone the consultations and the fight for Hodeida resumed.

The coalition’s strategy seems to be to seal the Huthis into Hodeida and squeeze.

The UAE was clearly ready for this to happen. As the prospect for talks dimmed, Emirati-backed forces – who had used the pause in fighting to develop a better position on the ground after a series of military missteps along the Red Sea coast earlier in the year – launched an assault to seize control of the eastbound road out of Hodeida linking it with Sanaa and other population centres in the central highlands. On 12 September, they announced that they had taken control of the road, although the Huthis have since declared they have retaken it. Meanwhile, the UAE told the UN Security Council in writing that it believes the only way to get the Huthis to negotiate seriously is for its local allies to continue with the Hodeida campaign. The coalition’s strategy seems to be to seal the Huthis into Hodeida and squeeze. But doing so will deprive millions of people upcountry, many of them on the brink of starvation, of access to food and basic goods coming through the port.

The Saudis and Emiratis have spent recent weeks shoring up another important flank in Washington, DC. On 12 September, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his sign-off on a certification, a condition of the recently enacted National Defense Authorization Act, for continuing to supply U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The certification stated that Gulf states were acting to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure, making a good-faith effort to support UN-led negotiations and working to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The certification came only weeks after two incidents in which Saudi bombings killed scores of civilians, suggesting that the Saudi air force had yet to take such actions.

An Immense Human Cost

As Crisis Group has warned in the past, a battle for Hodeida will come at an immense cost: urban combat – if it reaches that point – is brutal and bloody, and Hodeida’s civilian population of 600,000 will be caught in the crossfire. Neither the Huthis nor the Saudi-led coalition has demonstrated a real interest in protecting ordinary people during past fighting. A UN Group of Eminent Experts report on Yemen released in August found that coalition airstrikes have caused most direct civilian casualties in Yemen and that the coalition’s restrictions on naval and air access to Yemen constitute violations of international humanitarian law. The report also calls out the Huthis for their use of wide-area-effect weapons in urban warfare (weapons that by nature are indiscriminate), their ballistic missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and their restrictions on humanitarian access around the city of Taiz in particular.

As fighting progresses, Hodeida’s population will become even more susceptible to rapidly spreading preventable diseases like cholera. The UN estimates hundreds of thousands of people could die as a result. And it is hard to see how fighting will not prevent basic goods from entering Hodeida port and being transported across the country. For the approximately 18 million people who live in Yemen’s Huthi-controlled areas, Hodeida accounts for around 70 per cent of all food imports to Yemen and is a vital humanitarian and trade lifeline. Any disruption of the supply chain from fighting in or around the port, or on the roads connecting the city with the rest of the country, could be deadly. Yemen has been described as being on the brink of collapse for more than a decade, but the loss of Hodeida as an import route would likely prove a tipping point for what the UN describes as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.

Everyone is to blame for the coming fallout. The UN should have known that the same logistical issues that arose every time it held talks in the past would come up again, and should have concluded the details well in advance: the Huthis should have been consulted on flights and brought to Geneva earlier to prevent last-minute gamesmanship. The Huthis, who like to play victim and argue that they are willing to engage in a peace process if the terms are fair, sent a clear message that they are not serious. In doing so, they confirmed the suspicions of the coalition, which had argued it needed to take Hodeida to force concessions from the Huthis, and considers criticism of its intransigence unfair. (By contrast, representatives of the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi showed up in Geneva, with the coalition’s backing). The U.S., by certifying that the Saudis and Emiratis are meeting the requirements laid out in the National Defense Authorization Act without any caveats, has sent the wrong message at exactly the wrong moment, namely that the coalition can continue to act with impunity as it advances on Hodeida.

A battle for Hodeida would be catastrophic. Crisis Group’s position remains that the best solution is a mediated settlement for the port of the kind under consideration in June. Then, the Huthis offered to hand over the port, remove reinforcements from the city and cooperate with the UN on the city’s internal security. But the coalition increased its demands from a port handover to a complete Huthi withdrawal from the Red Sea coast. Absent a deal, the Huthis should demonstrate that they are capable of acting in good faith and hand the port over to neutral Yemeni technocrats and the UN. This would significantly diminish the UAE’s rationale for attacking the port and city and could allow Griffiths to restart consultations.

Allowing Aid Through                    

If they cannot reach a compromise, the Huthis and the coalition should recommit to allowing basic goods to pass through Hodeida into Yemen’s most populated areas even if fighting breaks out in the city. In June, international aid officials repeatedly raised the issue of the Sanaa-Hodeida road with Congress, the U.S. government and the coalition. They received repeated assurances from the coalition that it would keep the road open, according to a senior aid official. Less than three months later, the road has become the main front line in fighting between UAE-backed forces and the Huthis as the coalition attempts to encircle the city.

The Security Council reiterated in a May 2018 resolution that man-made humanitarian and hunger crises can be considered war crimes. The Security Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, should make clear that the UN Panel of Experts and Group of Eminent Experts under their respective auspices, which have been equally critical of the Huthis and coalition, will closely monitor the battle for Hodeida. At the same time, Griffiths and Security Council members should work closely with UN humanitarian agencies – the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in particular – the coalition and the Huthis on an agreement to treat the port and the northbound road out of Hodeida, currently free of fighting, as neutral spaces and to place these routes and the port under UN supervision. The Security Council should issue a presidential statement or resolution underwriting this agreement with clear penalties for any breaches up to and including sanctions under UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which target any party acting in a manner detrimental to Yemen’s peace and security with financial and other sanctions.

The Huthis should be held to account for throwing the peace process into tumult. Censuring the group in public statements while keeping the door open to a peace process – and negotiations over Hodeida – will be a tough balance to strike. Griffiths, who visited Sanaa on 17 September to meet with the Huthi leadership, must rebuild a measure of trust between the group and the UN as well as their coalition rivals. Criticism from the U.S. and the coalition, who the Huthis see as their adversaries, is unlikely to alter the rebel leadership’s position. EU states that have friendlier relations with the group, as well as Oman, which is hosting Huthi representatives, should send strong messages that the Huthis only hurt their own case with their last-minute shenanigans and threaten to temporarily cease contact with the group’s already isolated leaders. So should Russia, which has put itself forward as a neutral facilitator.

The coalition also needs to be reined in. The U.S. is best suited to do this. Unfortunately, by certifying the National Defense Authorization Act as he did, Pompeo gave away the leverage Congress had handed him. The certification requirement proved too weak to restrain a Trump administration intent on giving the Saudis and Emiratis considerable slack. Congressman Ro Khanna has said that he is willing to lead an effort to force a vote on the U.S.’s involvement in intelligence-sharing and in-air refuelling that is crucial to the coalition’s operations. Should the Democratic Party take control of the House after the November elections, it could make more stringent legislation a reality. If the UAE and Saudi Arabia are not careful, they could find their alliance with the U.S. – and their campaign in Yemen – constrained as a result of new Congressionally-imposed restrictions. And if the now likely offensive on Hodeida proceeds, the U.S. will shoulder the blame for its failure to use its considerable influence to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. That is a result that Washington can and should want to avoid.