Written by: Simon Daunat
Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.
Syrian Refugees in Arsal (Lebanon), March 2014.
The saying goes, ‘whenever it rains in Syria, the Lebanese have to open their umbrella’. Indeed, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis Lebanon has been host to massive numbers of Syrian refugees. With a population of 4.5 million inhabitants, the ‘Cedar Country’ welcomed at least 1.5 million Syrians, accounting for approximately 25 percent of its population. Added to the 450,000 Palestinians already present, this massive influx of refugees makes Lebanon the country with the highest concentration per capita of refugees. Whereas Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently re-affirmed he would not force Syrians to return, Lebanon does not have the capacity to bear such a responsibility, affecting both Lebanese and refugees.
In 2017, the World Bank stated that educational and health infrastructures were struggling to manage such a population increase. For instance, in 2016, demand for hospital care increased by 40%, putting the health sector on the precipice. This sharp increase in the population also pressured the labour market and augmented prices of commodities and rents. As a result, since 2011 170,000 Lebanese were pushed into poverty (Oxfam). Moreover, the crisis exacerbated socio-political tensions in the country; with a political power-system distributed along sectarian lines, the massive arrival of (mainly) Sunni Muslims in the country has increased fear within the broader population. Indeed, the large arrival of Sunnis triggered the memories of the Palestinian exodus, which contributed to a certain extent to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90). Hence, a national opinion poll conducted in 2013 highlighted that 74% of Lebanese respondents agreed with the statement that ‘Syrian refugees were posing a threat to the national security and stability’. Whereas tensions have not yet reached the point of violent escalations, they have considerable repercussion on refugee integration.
Thus in 2015, Lebanon took a tougher stance towards refugees marked by the introduction of visa restrictions, and more difficulty to access to residency permits (and their renewal). Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Refugee convention. Consequently, 80% of Syrian refugees lack legal status (Human Rights Watch), subsequently leaving them exposed to arrest, abuse and exploitation. Furthermore, the lack of status and residency permits affects refugees’ access to jobs and basic services: according to UNCHR, in 2016 58% of refugees in Lebanon lived in extreme poverty (a growing number compared to previous years); and 500,000 Syrian aged 3-18 had no access to education, endangering their future economic and social integration in the country. Without any prospect of access to legal status, jobs and education, the integration of Syrians is unlikely to occur.
Nevertheless, the main constraint to refugees’ integration derives from the Lebanese confessional system. This system is supposed to represent the demographic share of each religious community. Therefore, political power is distributed proportionally among Lebanon’s 17 religious groups. However, such a system prevents any possible integration/ naturalisation of refugees by fear of triggering sectarian tensions due to sudden demographic imbalances among those communities. The Palestinian integration in Lebanon is a striking example. Many Palestinians arrived as early as in 1948 and today still face severe economic social and political difficulties. In 2016, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA) indicated that more than half of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon still live in camps, where poverty, unemployment, and poor housing conditions remain prevalent. Palestinians face consistent discrimination in hiring and employment opportunities, and rare are those who are granted Lebanese citizenship. The cause of their non-integration was not dictated by economic growth, job market or the infrastructural capacities of the host country (which since their arrival have known prosperous days). Instead, it is mainly due to the incapacity of the current system to integrate refugees in their societies, obliging them to live as ‘second-class citizens’. Today the situation is occurring once more, but this time with millions of more refugees. As Saad Hariri recently declared “Lebanon is on the verge of a breaking point”.
What future can we imagine for refugees in Lebanon? This is what two Lebanese Professors, Karm Medjad and Dr Abdel-Maoula Chaar tried to answer in a report published in 2016 describing three possible outcomes to this crisis. One of them, ‘Phoenexia’, is a scenario where Lebanese society reinvents itself along secular lines, neutralising political tensions, and increasing the integration of refugees. Enabled by strong political and financial assistance from the international community, this would be the only positive and long-term solution to the current crisis. The two other scenarios (keeping confessionalism as the main political system) only predict further instability, deeper sectarian divisions, and in a worst case a balkanisation of Lebanon.
We cannot accurately predict which path Lebanon will take but our only certainty is that Lebanon needs more support from the international community. In a recent UNHCR report it was stated that $2.8 billion is needed to cover the Lebanese Crisis Response Plan 2017-20 to provide “direct humanitarian assistance and protection to vulnerable individual”. However, to this day donors have only committed to $350 million (2018-2020).
Whereas Lebanon shares a large part of the refugee crisis burden, this magnanimity came with a cost. Therefore, it is up to the international community, and particularly Europe (that failed to fulfil its humanist duty) to assist Lebanon in the management of this crisis, in order to provide a brighter future for both Lebanese and refugees.
UNCHR for Syrian Emergency: UNHCR provides humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and helps the most vulnerable refugees to meet their most urgent needs – including water, food, medicine, blankets and warm clothes and jerry cans:
UNWRA to protect the rights and dignity of Palestine Refugees:
- Christophersen, M. Liu, J. Thorleifsson, C. and Tiltnes, A. (2013) ‘Lebanese attitudes towards Syrian refugees and the Syrian Crisis’ (Lebanon: ANALP).
- Human Rights Watch, (2018) ‘Lebanon: Speech Restrictions, Stalled Reforms’ 18 January, Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/18/lebanon-speech-restrictions-stalled-reforms, Accessed 4 February.
- Kukrety, N. (2016) ‘Poverty, Inequality and Social Protection In Lebanon’, Oxfam, 20 January.
- McDowall, A. and Maclean, W. (2018) ‘Lebanon says will not force Syrian refugees to return’ Reuters, 02 February.
- Medjad, K. and Chaar, A-M (2016) ‘Lebanon with a View: A 2030 Vision of the Refugee Crisis’ The Scenario Factory.
- UNHCR, (2018) ‘Survey finds Syrian refugees in Lebanon became poorer, more vulnerable in 2017’ 09 January, Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2018/1/5a548d174/survey-finds-syrian-refugees-lebanon-poorer-vulnerable-2017.html, Accessed 4 February.
- UNHCR (2018) ‘Syria Regional Refugee Response: Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal’ Available at: http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122, Accessed 6 February.
- UNSCOL, (2017) ‘Funding for Lebanon Response in 2017 Demonstrates Sustained Solidarity by International Partners but Level of Disbursements needs to increase’ 8 June.
- UNWRA (2017) ‘Protection Brief Palestine refugees living in Lebanon’, October.
- The World Bank (2017) ‘The World Bank in Lebanon’ April 01, Available at: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/lebanon/overview, Accessed 05 February.