Imagine for a moment that almost half of the population of Vilnius was Ukrainian refugees fleeing the civil war that rages on with the help of Putin's Russian army. That is the present situation in Lebanon, which is hosting several million Syrian refugees.
Gintarė Narkevičiūtė
© Ludo Segers @ The Lithuania Tribune

Lebanon has roughly twice the population of Lithuania and a similar income per capita. Lebanon, like Turkey, is located next-door to the Syrian conflict. Unlike Turkey, Lebanon is a country with a large Christian population and, in stark contrast to Turkey, the proportion of refugees living in the country compared to residents seems humanly impossible. Europeans see both of these countries as ideal places to 'park' the outflow of refugees from the conflict.

Ironically, the Lebanese diaspora is larger than the country's actual population. Some describe the latest wave of refugees trying to escape war-torn Syria as one of the biggest crises to besiege the EU, but their memories may be a bit short. In the aftermath of WWII, massive numbers of migrants and refugees moved across Europe, many from Lithuania, eventually settling in faraway places such as the USA, Canada and Australia. Like most of the present-day refugees, they were labelled as undesirable.

It is against this background that Gintarė Narkevičiūtė, International Secretary of the Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party, visited Lebanon recently. We spoke to Narkevičiūtė in Vilnius about the situation in Lebanon and how the country copes with the refugees and an internal fragile situation of cohabitation between Christians (40%) and Muslims (54%).

In between the interview with Narkevičiūtė earlier this month and the publication of this article, an important summit between the EU and Turkey took place in Brussels dealing with the flow of migrants. Following this summit, Narkevičiūtė was given the opportunity to review and edit all of her responses.

LT: How important is Lebanon from a geopolitical situation? And how can that play out in the future?

Gintarė Narkevičiūtė: I think it is the last chance for the West to keep Beirut as a capital and Lebanon Christian. They are the only Christians in the entire region. Lebanon with its diversity is the main cultural gate between the West and Oriental worlds. With a Christian President, it represents a different voice inside that society. It is also a chance for the larger democratic values that they are willing to implement inside the country. This is also part of the reconciliation agreement in the country that parties are willing to bring up as a guideline for the new Presidency. The deal is a clear ten-point document with a main focus on strengthening the state, forming an independent foreign policy, respecting international law and agreements, and changing election regulations. Having all these necessary changes done, one could say that Lebanon is potentially to become not only the gateway between the two worlds but also an island of liberty and a positive example for the Arabic states in the region.

How is all of that important in relation to Lithuania?

- For Lithuania, it is interesting to see how Christians were struggling in that time. Christians in Lebanon were not only struggling for their existence in the country but also for the sovereignty of their country. They have been fighting for religious and political freedom and existence, not only for themselves but also for all the Lebanese minorities. They were protecting the population against Assad's (Syrian) regime influencing government and military actions. From that perspective, it is important to know that it was not only us that had battles here for freedom and independence. It is also our counterparts' friends and allies in the Middle East that are still fighting for their battles for similar causes, rights and freedom.

It is also important to see how they are dealing with such large numbers of refugees coming into the country from Syria. That is one of the top questions for the European Union at this moment. And also to support Lebanon financially to help them cope with Syrian refugees inside the country and help them to find a joint solution for the refugee problem in the European Union.

Lebanon and, to some extent Syria, had large Christian minority populations before the conflict, making them unique in the Middle East. In most other countries (except for Israel), Islam dominates. In your view, how are these two countries different from other Middle Eastern countries?

- Prior to this visit to Lebanon, I had only been to Israel and Turkey in that region of the world. And here, I should point out that Christians make up almost half of the population in Lebanon. This is very important for the Christian world and for the principles of democracy. It is also crucially important for the West to keep this minority strong and stable. Historically, Lebanon has been a friendly place for all persecuted minorities in the region and it is important to keep it that way.

Lebanon is a country with many expats that have left the country during the various conflicts that have plagued their homeland and then saw many of those that have come back. What is the attraction of Lebanon?

- It is a beautiful and fascinating place. If I was Lebanese, I certainly would like to live there. People may have left the country for security reasons, but they may also have left for economic reasons. We should take into consideration that, in the recent decades, Lebanon has faced many ups and downs economically, politically and militarily. The Lebanese are skilled and educated people but, except for doctors and lawyers – well-respected professions that the country is famous for – their salaries are modest. People have faith in a good future for Lebanon and the situation appears to be much more stable than before. People are prepared to work for the betterment of their own country and lives. I would do the same if I were one of them.

Are those Lebanese with dual citizenships and part of a mobile middle class not just economist opportunists? Leaving whenever there is a conflict and then returning when things settle down?

- (After a long pause...) Yes, they are mobile. However, the economy is not doing well, as it should be as it is in the process of being reformed by the government. Unfortunately, the present government does not seem to be in a hurry to proceed. There have not been any elections for a long time; the last one was in 2009. Elections were planned in 2013 but were delayed until now. The term of the current President expired in May 2014 and there have already been 36 Parliamentary sessions for the new election but they did not reach a conclusion. New Presidential elections should happen as soon as possible and are scheduled for this year in order to stabilize a political arena in Lebanon, but a date has not been set and it is not clear that parliament will be able to do so.

Before the conflict, Lebanon and Syria, to some extent, were unique in the Middle East with their large Christian populations. In most other countries (except for Israel), Islam dominates. In your view, how are these two countries different from other Middle Eastern countries?

- Prior to this visit to Lebanon, I had only been to Israel and Turkey in that region of the world. I should point out that Christians make up almost half of the population in Lebanon. This is very important for the Christian world and for the principles of democracy. It is also crucially important for the West to keep this minority strong and stable. Historically, Lebanon has been a friendly place for all persecuted minorities in the region and it is important to keep it that way.

Some say that Europe is overrun by migrants and refugees, but they make up a very small percentage of the total EU population. In contrast, close to half of the Lebanese population are Syrian refugees. Migrant, refugees, economic migrants, and even mobile EU labour is all mixed up in the minds of many voters. Is there a role for government to clarify that?

- Frankly speaking, Lebanon today does not have any policies regarding refugees in place. It is a complicated issue for them. Moreover, the borders are not closed; they are not completely controlling the inflow of immigrants to Lebanon. They expect international financial assistance, but it is not coming in the amounts that Lebanon has requested. I think this is something the government in Lebanon should be regulating more inside the country. But for that, you need a government.

Many in Europe would like all these refugees to be kept in the Middle Eastern region, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia mentioned often, although they have no idea about the border control of the latter. Europe has promised money and other concessions to Turkey to deal with the situation. Have they offered financial assistance to Lebanon?

- I cannot speak for all of Europe but I travel a lot and I am often present at European and international discussions and meet with different European platforms. The idea of keeping the refugees in the Middle East, rather than having them come in such large amounts to Europe, is better for all of us. I therefore support the decisions made by the European Council to strengthen ties with Turkey. This is the priority joint plan with Turkey to fight the refugee crises. I also think that the European officials should pay more attention to Lebanon and Jordan. They should find the right action plans, as the number of refugees in these countries is really large. But, the most important thing is to solve the main cause of the problem instead of spending money and efforts on dealing with the consequences. We have to support breaking Assad and ISIS together and help re-establish a new Syrian state based on democracy and freedom Syrians can return to and live in.

Who do you refer to as 'all of us' in keeping the refugees in the Middle East?

- All of us? All of the Europeans.

Many in Europe refer to being overrun by migrants and refugees, though they are a fraction of a percent of the total population in many countries, whilst they make up close to 40 percent of the population in Lebanon. As you've said, Lebanon is still working on a policy and some accuse Europe of lacking a proper policy. What can we learn from this?

- I am not afraid of refugees coming, but we need a policy to deal with them. After the Middle Eastern refugees, we may see more refugees coming in from North Africa and other places. The European Union needs to come up with a joint plan to protect its borders. We should not allow ourselves to set a negative precedent with these Syrian refugees. Therefore, we need a well-thought-out policy as quick as possible.

We can learn a lot from Lebanon by listening to the experts on the ground in that country. One of their messages is that we should not expect [the refugees] to return to their home country once the situation is clear. That is why we should start calling them migrants once they are here. The first thing they want is to integrate and have solutions and benefits. We should not naively hope that they will all return. That makes having good solutions for this common problem even more important. Germany says that they need these people to do manual labour, which is something [Germany] lacks at present, jobs that have lower salaries.

That is not true; they do not want to do easy, simple and low-paid jobs. They want high social benefits and high-paid jobs, equal to all the others.

If they are interested in high-paying jobs, why do we then hear so many comments that they all want high benefits? Would they not all like to go to Scandinavian countries or Finland for that?

- Well, before mentioning Sweden and Finland, one of the Estonian leaders visiting a refugee camp in Greece invited these refugees to Estonia. Guess how many wanted to come? None.

There are no high social benefits that these people can get in the Baltic States or, for that matter, in Central and Eastern Europe. Of course, they are interested in high social benefits or high salaries. They are certainly not going to take a random job just for the sake of having one. They want either high social benefits or high paying jobs.

Also, I do not think that they will not integrate because they are Muslims. There are excellent examples of Muslims integrating. However, there are cultural differences that may prevent them to integrate, such as language barriers. I do not think that religion will prevent them from integrating successfully. Europe is not a racist continent.

So, if they are interested in either high benefits and high jobs, other than these two lone families, nobody in Lithuania need to fear that refugees would like to settle here?

- I really do not think so. And regardless (we have) relatively low social benefits compared to the Scandinavian countries. The number of refugees that are going to be received in Lithuania and other Baltic States is one that we will deal easily deal with. Thus, there is indeed no reason to panic.

Then there is the role that Putin is playing in this crisis. Did Putin's involvement in Syria and the even larger displacement of refugees aggravate the situation?

- As you mentioned racism before, that is certainly what Putin and the Russian propaganda is trying to do; instil more fear into European society. Introducing instability and disagreement into the European Union is part of his plan. We should not fall for these propaganda messages.

Lebanon, like Lithuania, has been living in fear of aggressive, expansionist neighbours. In the Lebanon's case, there are various factions or even warlords being supported by Iran and Syria that are in turn being supported by Russia. Leaders in Russia and Syria have been accused of serious crimes. Do you see parallels there between Lebanon and Lithuania?

- Well, Russia and Syria certainly have flexible ideas about borders. Putin is a good friend of Assad. I do not see this as an accident. Well, terrorists are certainly running both Syria and Russia. I am very supportive of the Lithuanian President, who has a knack for giving such people proper descriptions. In this case, they are both terrorists.

There is actually an Iranian minority living in Lebanon. They have asked for a larger proportion of representation in parliament at the expense of Christians. Parallels with Lithuania do exist in similar struggles. Lebanon had a Christian leader, Dr. Geagea, who spent eleven years as a political prisoner and, together with his people, kept struggling to unite the country's military power against its Syrian aggressor. These are joint efforts that may lead to a peaceful revolution and restore sovereignty and stability inside the country. We also had long years of resistance, revolution and our own battles to regain freedom. We are both small countries with neighbours with unfriendly leaders that believe in flexible borders.

I think it is important that Lithuanians know a bit more about Lebanon. A beautiful, multi-cultural country with places like Byblos, Sidon and Tyr. The instability and remaining security challenges have been a detriment to foreign tourism.

The strength of the Christian presence in a multi-cultural environment is something to see. I rarely see so many crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary Madonna as I see in Lebanon.

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