09/23/2016, 19.07
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Caritas: as poverty creates tensions between the Lebanese and Syrian refugees, there is risk of conflict

Caritas Lebanon director Fr Paul Karam warns of great potential "social conflict" between locals and refugees. He will talk to Pope Francis about the “tragic situation”. The local Church is involved in mediation and tensions reduction. Those “who make weapons also run the war and manoeuvre it to make it go on”

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The danger of "social conflict" between the local population and the refugees who fled war-ravaged, jihadi-affected Syria and Iraq is growing. As people start "to sell everything", the government remains "weak" and no longer able to protect and take care of a population "increasingly in difficulty,” said Paul Karam, head of Caritas Lebanon, who spoke to AsiaNews.

The Catholic charity has played a leading role for the past four years in helping families fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere. The clergyman is coming to Rome for a meeting between Caritas workers and Pope Francis. “We are going to tell the pope the way things are,” he said. “We are going to talk about a tragic situation.”

In more than four years, Lebanon has received almost 1.6 million Syrian refugees, bearing the demographic, economic imbalances, political, and security burdens that it entails. According to UN figures, registered refugees number 1.2 million.

To these must be add at least 700 Christian Iraqi families from Baghdad, Mosul and Erbil, and tens of thousands of Palestinians from Syria. All this in a country of about 4.4 million that is hard-pressed to manage the emergency situation.

At present, World Bank experts are discussing aid for Lebanon and its refugee burden. In this regard, a meeting was held recently in New York, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, to outline new ways to address the issue’s “the many challenges”. 

Since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, the European Union has been the main international donor for refugees, with € 800 million (US$ 900 million), including € 356 in humanitarian aid, 87 so far in 2016, and more than € 250 million through the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy. The goal is to help Lebanese authorities provide assistance and basic services to refugees.

The EU is also the largest donor in the Syrian conflict, with more than € 6.6 billion provided by Brussels and individual Member States in humanitarian aid and development assistance.

However, the emergency in Syria grows more and more and, according to the latest UN estimates, at least 13.5 million people need "urgent help".

Talking about the emergency, the director of Caritas Lebanon noted that Lebanon does face a "serious risk" of internal conflict. The country “is stifled,” he warns, “and if the United Nations and the international community do not find a solution to end the Syrian conflict, the situation could blow up."

There is a "constant flow" of refugees crossing the border "via non-legal routes," Fr Paul Karam noted. This helps to "fuel tensions. The local community has looked on as food and aid goes to refugees, whilst they become progressively poorer." In some areas of the country, people " live below the poverty line. Poverty is growing among both refugees and the Lebanese. "

The Lebanese Church has to mediate the tensions to lower the level of confrontation and limit the danger of clashes between the two groups who are united by need and want.

"We do what we can but the refugees are certainly not all Christians,” the clergyman said. “Many of them are Muslims and there are no direct relations. With Christians and local residents, we try to calm things down, but people are starting to react vocally. 'Count me as a refugee’ is one of the slogans that are becoming increasingly popular."

For the director of Caritas Lebanon, more than food, aid or money, which are a necessity, "the most important thing is to end the conflict in Syria"; otherwise, “tensions, divisions, and terrorism will grow."

The poor are the first to pay for great power bickering. For a while "we hoped for an agreement between the US and Russia, but the reality on the ground seems to be quite different," said the priest.

Citing the Lebanese prime minister at the UN, he said that “We do not see a peaceful solution for Syria.” In any case, "Peace must be based on justice and all-out fight against arms sales and trade,” Fr Karam said.

“No poor can manufacture and trade weapons and the Syrian war also rotates around this,” he added. “Aid is not infinite and those who make weapons also run the war and manoeuvre it to make it go on.”

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