By Tom Perry
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon has weathered five years of Middle Eastern turmoil remarkably well but its stability should not be taken for granted and it needs long-term financial help to cope with a huge number of Syrian refugees, a senior U.N. official said.
U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag, speaking before a Syria donors' conference in London, said on Wednesday that the refugee crisis must be recognized as long-term and the response must move beyond meeting humanitarian needs.
"Our big message is really the need for sustainable, long-term predictable financing, and very much a focus on not only humanitarian but also what we call stabilization support ... job creation," Kaag told Reuters.
With many Syrian children stuck indefinitely in refugee camps, education is also a major priority. "The first response of humanitarians is always protect and save lives. But we are now looking at a generation that needs to go to school," she said in an interview.
Lebanon, a neighbor of Syria with its own history of civil conflict, is hosting more than a million registered Syrian refugees, equal to a quarter of its population.
Their arrival has been a huge strain on a tiny country with limited resources whose political stability hinges on a delicate sectarian balance. Rival Lebanese fought a civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, and conflict flared again as recently as 2008, albeit briefly.
While Lebanon has avoided its own conflict since the start of the Syrian war, its politicians are struggling to agree on anything. That has left the government largely paralyzed and the country without a president.
"Let's really keep our eye on the ball on Lebanon, let's support Lebanon, let's be active for Lebanon, but Lebanon needs to be in the driver's seat," Kaag said.
With a return of refugees to Syria unlikely for some time, Kaag said "we need to really look at the fragility and stability of Lebanon in holistic manner". "There's politics, there's security, and the socio-economic development side of Lebanon should really be propped up."
"BIG STEP FORWARD"
The London donors' conference builds on previous such meetings in Kuwait. U.N. agencies are appealing for a total of $7.73 billion to cope with Syria's needs this year.
The Lebanese government is expected to seek donor support for plans including infrastructure investment that will create jobs, and funds to support its public schools that are taking in Syrian children.
"As the economy has suffered from the crisis, unemployment has risen ... particularly in poorer areas and amongst the young people, so the debate on employment has always been very sensitive, and there was a reluctance to address it," Kaag said.
She acknowledged the risk of ill-feeling if Syrian refugees compete with Lebanese people for scarce jobs. Proposals from the Lebanese government would in any case allow them to work only in labor-intensive sectors such as construction and agriculture.
"But now I think six years into the crisis there is a realization that there is a large potential workforce. It may benefit the economy and therefore Lebanon, but we need to look at job creation for Lebanese alongside vulnerable refugees."
Kaag said while the debate was still in progress, an important program allowing for the temporary employment of Syrians had been tabled for the London conference.
The willingness to discuss the idea marked "a big step forward", she said, though it was still at the design stage.
Lebanese Education Minister Elias Bou Saab told Reuters the government would seek grants of $4.9 billion covering education needs in addition to development and investment projects. That could result in employment for Syrians in areas where refugees were already employed, he said, highlighting the agricultural sector.
But the hamstrung government still has to deliver.
Kaag said she hoped that "post-London, and with new plans in mind, that the government will really rally around implementation, and making sure it delivers for Lebanon".
(editing by David Stamp)