Stoking up fears over new influx of refugees to Lebanon

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A VIDEO doing the rounds in Lebanon opens with ominous string music reminiscent of a horror film and the title “Before it’s too late”.

Red stains spread across a white map of the tiny coastal country, marking areas where Palestinian refugees settled after they fled or were driven from their homes with the creation of Israel in 1948. Once settled in Lebanon, the video says, the refugees threatened its sovereignty, attacked its army and helped cause a 15-year civil war that killed more than 100,000.

Now Syrians are coming in similar numbers. “Will history repeat itself?” asks the video, which has had thousands of hits on YouTube and been shared on Lebanese blogs and websites.

Some Lebanese said it was racist, but many agreed with it, reflecting concern that the fall-out from Syria’s 22-month revolt against president Bashar al-Assad may threaten the fragile peace between its diverse ethnic and religious groups that has held since 1990.

Those Lebanese see the arrival of tens of thousands of mostly Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees as a replay of the flood of Palestinians that altered Lebanon’s communal balance and challenged its Christian-dominated power structure decades ago.

The debate about what to do with the Syrians has raged on social networking websites and in the corridors of power, paralysing the country’s response to the influx. Lebanon, unlike Turkey and Jordan, has not set up formal camps for the Syrians.

“In Lebanon, there is no political consensus or national consensus about how to deal with the refugees,” social affairs minister Wael Abu Faour said.

The issue is sensitive because of “historical fears” around the Palestinian camps, he said, while noting the significant difference between the two groups; while the Palestinians were prevented from returning, the Syrians will presumably be able to go home when the war ends.

More than 200,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Lebanon, equal to 5 per cent of the country’s four million population. The United Nations says there may be a million Syrian refugees in the region by June.

Energy minister Gebran Bassil, a Christian, recently proposed shutting the border. Other Christian politicians have made similar suggestions. The YouTube video – whose exact origin is unclear – claims that by 2020, Syrian and Palestinian refugees will outnumber Lebanese.

“We must act before we become guests in our own country,” it says, urging people to put pressure on politicians to do something, without saying what.

There are few countries where demographics are so sensitive. French colonial rulers carved Lebanon out of Sunni-majority Syria largely to give a haven to the area’s Maronite Christians.

The country is also home to Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Armenians and a medley of other groups. No-one knows how many there are of each as Lebanon has not carried out a census since 1932.

Resentment of Christian dominance helped trigger civil war in 1975. For a decade and a half, rival ethnic and religious factions carved the country into warring fiefdoms.

Many Lebanese trace the war’s origins to the arrival of tens of thousands of mostly Sunni Palestinians. Over the years, they took up arms to fight Israel but also clashed with Lebanon’s army and Christian militias. Tit-for-tat raids and massacres escalated into full-blown war.