The EU’s 1 billion-euro gift will hurt Lebanon and its people

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Last month, the European Union (EU) unveiled a 1 billion-euro ($1.07bn) aid package for the Lebanese state. During a visit to Beirut, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared that the EU seeks “to contribute to Lebanon’s socioeconomic stability”.

The funds will go towards strengthening basic services, enacting financial reforms, supporting Lebanese security forces and managing migration, she said.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the abuses committed by, or with the direct knowledge of, the EU’s border agency Frontex against desperate refugees and migrants seeking to enter the union would have cause for concern. Sea-Watch, a search and rescue organisation operating in the Mediterranean Sea, described the deal as “another cash-for-border-violence deal” wherein Europe is “exchanging money for border violence and death”.

Indeed, the EU’s financial support will encourage the criminalisation of people on the move and undoubtedly result in more suffering for refugees, especially Syrians, who are already facing abuse and misery in Lebanon. But this money will also undermine any efforts and any hopes of the Lebanese people to rid themselves of a corrupt and deeply dysfunctional political elite.

Endangering Syrian refugees in Lebanon

The announcement of the EU aid package for Lebanon comes on the tail of similar deals aimed at “tackling migration” with other countries in the region. In the past year, Egypt, Tunisia and Mauritania have all received large amounts of EU funds in exchange for cracking down on people trying to cross into Europe.

Libya, which has received financial support from Brussels for years, has seen some of the worst abuses. In March 2023, a United Nations fact-finding mission declared that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that migrants” in Libya, including those forced back through the EU-Libya deals, are “victims of crimes against humanity and […] acts of murder, enforced disappearance, torture, enslavement, sexual violence, rape and other inhumane acts”.

There is growing concern among human rights organisations and activists that Lebanon will be heading in the same direction of heightened abuse of refugees.

In Lebanon, the situation was already worsening before the deal, as the uptick in the number of boats leaving Lebanese shores shows. The UN has verified that at least 59 boats departed from Lebanon in the first four months of 2024, compared with three boats in the same period last year. The Cedar Centre for Legal Studies (CCLS) put the number of boats at about 100 in 2023.

Many of those attempting the dangerous journey are Syrian refugees, but there are also Lebanese citizens who are desperately trying to escape a collapsed economy and almost non-existent social provision.

In the past, Lebanese authorities used to turn a blind eye to these departures, but in recent years, they have increasingly cooperated with push-backs under EU pressure. According to local human rights organisations, Lebanon and Cyprus have had a “non-public agreement” to coordinate efforts to return refugees and migrants to Lebanon after they reach Cyprus. But the Lebanese authorities have also engaged in violent border patrolling.

In April 2022, the Lebanese navy deliberately sank a boat carrying dozens of Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian nationals. According to witness testimony collected by Megaphone news, the CCLS and Febrayer Network’s Investigative Lab, a navy vessel rammed the boat and then moved away, while it sank and people drowned. Seven bodies were found, including a 40-day-old baby, while 33 people remain missing to this day. Forty-five survived.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are particularly vulnerable to an intensified crackdown by the authorities. For years, they have been facing daily acts of violence from state and para-state actors, with major parties – from the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement to Hezbollah – routinely dehumanising them in their rhetoric.

In addition, the Lebanese authorities have been forcibly deporting Syrian refugees, including opposition activists and army defectors who are at immediate risk of torture and death at the hands of the Syrian regime. Human rights organisations have repeatedly made clear in reports that Syria is not a safe country to return refugees to. The Syrian regime has killed so many detainees that it has amounted to, in the UN’s own words, the “extermination” of the civilian population.

More recently, the UN Syria commission of inquiry described Syria as an “abyss” where a “plunging war economy and a devastating humanitarian crisis are inflicting new levels of hardship and suffering on [the] Syrian civilian population”. This is the same abyss that the EU wants refugees to “voluntarily” return to. Part of the 1 billion-euro package will go into “exploring how to work on a more structured approach to voluntary returns to Syria”, per von der Leyen’s statement.

The EU has effectively signed off on the Lebanese state’s violent scapegoating of the most vulnerable group of people in Lebanon today: Syrian refugees.

Propping up a corrupt elite

The EU’s generous package will also go towards solidifying the grip of Lebanon’s corrupt elite over the Lebanese state against the will of the Lebanese people.

It comes amid a years-long economic crisis triggered by decades of incompetence, corruption and mismanagement at the highest levels of government. That political and economic elite brought the country to its knees by running what economists have called “a nationally regulated Ponzi scheme, where new money is borrowed to pay existing creditors”.

In 2019, the Lebanese people took to the streets in the country’s largest non-sectarian uprising to demonstrate their rejection of the corrupt Lebanese elites. Hundreds of thousands of protesters occupied city squares across the country. Echoing the 2011 Arab Spring, those protesters chanted, “The people want the downfall of the regime.” The government of billionaire Saad Hariri responded by resigning.

The uprising failed to produce immediate political change and the economic crisis only deepened when the COVID-19 pandemic hit a few months later.

Then in August 2020, some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate blew up in the port of Beirut, killing 218 people, injuring about 7,000 and devastating the capital city. Hassan Diab’s government set up to replace the Hariri one resigned shortly afterwards. Diab would remain caretaker prime minister until another billionaire and former prime minister, Najib Mikati, took over in September 2021.

The Lebanese journalist Lara Bitar described post-blast life in Lebanon as facing “attempted murder [by the state] on a daily basis”. The ruling oligarchs and warlords have effectively enacted daily structural violence as a way to maintain power.

This state of affairs can be traced back to the post-war period of the 1990s when the Lebanese people witnessed the rise of what scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has called the “anti-state state”, namely the organised abandonment of state services by the very people who run the state.

In 2021, recognising the role of political and economic elites in the Lebanese crisis, the EU set up a regime of sanctions against Lebanese politicians accused of corruption; it was renewed again in 2023.

The EU, along with the UN and the World Bank, also launched the Reform, Recovery and Reconstruction Framework (3RF) aimed at “a people-centred recovery that returns sustainable livelihoods to the affected population”.

But one has to wonder where the “people-centred recovery” is in the 1 billion-euro donation to the very same oligarchs and warlords who caused the multiple crises in the first place. Von der Leyen sealed the deal in May with a handshake with a smiling Mikati, a billionaire prime minister in a country where more than 80 percent of the population lives beneath the poverty line.

The deal will solidify the existing state capture by the country’s ruling elite and send a clear political message: the EU does not care about accountability for crimes in Lebanon as long as its elites, no matter how corrupt or violent, take part in Europe’s border regime.

It is no longer an exaggeration to describe the civilian population in Lebanon – citizens and residents – as hostages to an unaccountable, and violent, class of oligarchs and warlords. And the EU just gifted it 1 billion euros.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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