My Turn: Lebanon, Yemen — Forgotten people

By RICHARD FEIN

Published: 02-29-2024 4:05 PM

 

This column is about the hardships facing people in Lebanon and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. I might have chosen any number of other countries to write about, so why these two? My concern is that the geopolitical issues relating to them are much in the news while the people living there are usually ignored.

Lebanon

There have been tensions and armed conflict among various groups, especially Christians, Muslims and Druze, for several generations. Lebanon’s current population is 5.3 million, 17% less than in 2016. At the moment there is no president and the government is not functioning. There is at best a weak social safety net and the Iranian proxy army Hezbollah is stronger than the official Lebanese army.

The World Bank publishes the Lebanon Economic Monitor. The fall 2023 report is titled “In the Grip of a New Crisis.” According to the report, “Four years into the economic and financial crisis, Lebanon’s macroeconomic framework remains severely impaired. … the spillover effects from the ongoing conflict centered in Gaza pose yet another large shock to Lebanon.”

Here is some of the data. The overall inflation rate has been in triple digits since 2021. Last year it accelerated to 231.3%. Food price inflation was 350%. Living conditions for much of the population has been described as “precarious.”

Foreign Policy magazine published an article titled “Lebanon as We Know It Is Dying.” It related this economic picture: Lebanon does not produce much; the country imports 80% of what it needs, including food and fuel. Its economy is based on real estate, banking, and transfers from the Lebanese diaspora. In March 2020, Lebanon defaulted on its debt. The lira has lost 85% of its value, and unemployment in 2022 was 12.6%.

The Foreign Policy article continued: “More than half the population is now in poverty or destitute. Not surprisingly, food insecurity is on the rise. Bartering is becoming a way of life for some, there is little electricity, and those who can are leaving for Canada and Europe.” Fortunately, hunger per se is currently not a widespread problem in Lebanon.

The situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon is worse than that of the general population. According to Al Jazeera, a Qatari government-owned news network, “Palestinians cannot own businesses in Lebanon and are banned from most decent-paying professions, including medicine and law. One person said, “It’s like living in a prison. The government controls where I live and where I work.”

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An estimated two-thirds live in poverty. The government will not give citizenship rights to Palestinian refugees, for fear it could make them stay forever. Further, according to Al Jazeera, “Unlike Lebanese citizens, Palestinians cannot obtain free treatment at hospitals. They are also barred from most public schools. UNRWA ( a U.N. humanitarian agency) has opened 67 schools and 27 clinics in Lebanon, but the clinics are only for general checkups, while refugees with serious illnesses, such as cancer, must seek help from other NGOs (non-government organizations).”

The cross-border shooting between Israel and Hezbollah has already caused 100,000 Lebanese to flee their homes. If the fighting escalates into a full-scale war, the situation of Lebanon’s population may deteriorate from hardship to humanitarian catastrophe.

Yemen

Yemen has a population of about 33 million. There has been armed conflict in Yemen since the 1990s. The Houthis, an Iranian proxy army, control the northern part of the country and the official government controls the south. The U.N. Refugee Agency recently reported that “Yemen remains one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. After ... years of devastating and unrelenting conflict, some 23.4 million Yemenis (73% of the country’s population) depend on humanitarian assistance to survive. About 4.3 million people are ‘internally displaced persons’” ( that means refugees in their own country).

Access to water is also extremely limited. Human Rights Watch published a report last year citing Yemen as one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. “The U.N. has found that more than 15.3 million Yemenis do not have access to sufficient, safe and acceptable water, including for drinking, cooking and sanitation,” the report stated. The Houthis have deliberately halted the flow of water into a major government-controlled city of Taizz.

Human Rights Watch also reports that “The Yemeni government and the Houthis impose unnecessary regulations on humanitarian organizations and aid projects, creating lengthy delays.” According to the U.N., “the health system is edging closer to collapse.” Even so, in January, the Houthis ordered U.N. and humanitarian staff holding U.S. or British passports to leave.

For Lebanese, life is very difficult and may get worse. For Yemenis, the situation is dire, much like the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. It is our moral obligation not to forget these people while the news media focuses on geopolitical conflicts.

Richard Fein of Florence holds a master of arts degree in political science and an MBA in economics.