Lebanon is buckling under the weight of the Syrian refugee crisis
by Marie Baleo
An unprecedented refugee crisis
On 15 March 2011, civil protests erupted in the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Daraa, in response to the imprisonment and torture of a group of 8 to 15-year-old Daraa schoolboys, arrested for spray-painting the Arab spring slogan “The people want the fall of the regime” (الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام) on the walls of their city. Four years later, the unrest has turned into a seemingly endless war, causing the death of thousands, the exile of millions, and the rise to international fame of Daesh / ISIS. Faced with no other option, many Syrians have fled to neighboring countries; thus began the slow and steady trickle of refugees into Syria’s smallest neighbor, Lebanon.
In April 2014, Lebanon welcomed its millionth Syrian refugee. As of May 2015, the number had risen to 1.5 million officially registered refugees, making up just over 25% of Lebanon’s small population. Syrian refugees have settled down in no less than 1,700 different residential areas, villages and neighborhoods, their destination often based on religious and social affiliations or political sympathies. Only 15% of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees live in camps. The majority of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees (35%) currently reside in the Bekaa valley, while 28% live in the capital, Beirut, and the mountains nearby, 25% in the northern city of Tripoli, and 12% in the South. Incidentally, the North, the Bekaa and Mount Lebanon are home to almost 80% of those Lebanese who live below the poverty line (set at $4/day). In other words, refugees are majoritarily flocking to the poorest areas in Lebanon. NGO Caabu notes that 3.3 million of the now 5.9 million living in the country are in need, and that by the end of this year, 3.4 million will be living below the poverty line.
From wages to rent to infrastructure: the economic implications of the refugee crisis
In 2008, Lebanon’s economic growth rate peaked at 8%; in 2012, it had fallen down to 0%. The massive arrival of Syrian refugees appears to have caused investments to decline and the deficit to increase, while a recent World Bank report found that Lebanon’s economy would likely continue to deteriorate in the near future. However, as underlined by French researcher Fabrice Balanche, the stellar growth rate of 2008 was largely a mirage: caused inter alia by the return of the the large Lebanese diaspora’s capital in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, it mainly drove Beirut’s economy, while the remaining, poorer areas of the country, found themselves in already dire straits.
In fact, Lebanon’s underprivileged are bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis, as the country’s poorer classes are left to vie for jobs and cheap housing with Syrian refugees, or, as they are commonly called, the “displaced”. Many Syrian refugees are currently employed in menial jobs in the agricultural, construction, or domestic services sectors (where they are competing with poor Lebanese workers for less qualified jobs), and receive low wages. The ILO reports that 92% of the Syrian refugees currently working in Lebanon have no employment contract, and that “56% work on a seasonal, weekly or daily basis; only 23 per cent earn regular monthly wages”.
The arrival of this cheap, plethoric workforce has created strong tension on the employment market, pulling wages down and exacerbating social discrepancies. Thus, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies reports that in some areas, the wage rate for day labor has decreased by 60%, while the World Bank claims that “by end–2014, some 170,000 additional Lebanese will be pushed into poverty. … An additional 220,000–324,000 Lebanese are expected to become unemployed … most of them unskilled youth which would about double the unemployment rate, to over 20 percent”.
However, many observers reject the idea that the arrival of Syrian refugees is exclusively an economic burden for Lebanon. Instead, some argue that the rents paid by refugees and the increase in demand for retail goods (caused by the fact that Syrian refugees are spending their meager humanitarian stipend and dismal wages in Lebanese grocery stores and supermarkets) are fueling the Lebanese economy and agricultural production in Lebanon’s fertile Beqaa valley. But this fails to take into account the logical reverse mechanism: the Syrians bringing their purchasing power to Lebanon are no longer making use of said purchasing power in their homeland, and thus Lebanese commodity exports to Syria have crashed. For instance, the Lebanese American University (LAU) mentions that “Syrians’ consumption of Lebanese produce dropped by around 70 percent due to the population’s lower purchasing power in the war ravaged country.”
The arrival of the Syrian bourgeoisie and of its capital has also been hailed as a tangible economic benefit for Lebanon, with these wealthy Syrians renting expensive apartments and spending and investing their money in Lebanon. Some go as far as to argue that the refugee crisis has allowed a happy few highly-qualified Lebanese graduates to find jobs in the humanitarian field…
However, according to former Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas, as quoted by newspaper Al Akhbar, the increase in domestic demand generated by the presence of Syrian refugees in no way compensates for the damage incurred by the employment market, where the trend so far has been replacement, rather than integration. This means that cheaper, unprotected labor offered by refugees is becoming, for many employers, a more attractive and advantageous option than the hiring of national workers.
“If Lebanon indeed needed more agricultural and industrial labor”, Charbel Nahhas says,“the effects of the presence of Syrian workers – who come from refugee families – could indeed be considered a gain. However, production in Lebanon was not disrupted because of labor shortages. In all likelihood, the additional labor will not cover the shortage in resources available to local production. Rather, it will probably replace Lebanese labor of the same category, namely the poor, or replace foreign workers already present in Lebanon.”
Finally, the added strain on already subpar public services is clearly felt, and resented, by many Lebanese. One telling example is that of public hospitals and public health services: the Daily Star reports that “the refugee crisis had caused Lebanese to avoid the country’s primary health centers and public hospitals, due to overcrowding, increased waiting time and perceived decreased quality of care.” The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies notes that Syrians accounted for 40% of primary health care in the country in 2012, back when there were only 130,000 refugees in the country… But sanitation, water, housing and education are also negatively affected, with services struggling to adjust to the rise in population and to adapt their capacity to the new circumstances. The power supply, which is traditionally unreliable, has worsened in many areas, while rents have also increased, with many Syrian families sharing apartments, thus able to pay higher rents than many individual Lebanese households.
The preexisting state of the infrastructure and the extent of the increase in population are cause for worry; to adjust, Lebanon will have to make considerable efforts which would be much facilitated by clear political governance, something Lebanon currently lacks.
A threat to Lebanon’s precarious political balance
Prior to the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Lebanon and Syria had entered into bilateral agreements, which provided that Syrian nationals could spend six months in Lebanon as temporary residents without needing to procure a visa. However, in the past few months, Lebanon has adopted a stricter, more rigid approach. In late 2014, the Council of Ministers approved a policy paper which defined three aims with regard to the refugee crisis:
“To reduce the number of arrivals by stopping displaced persons at the border, apart from exceptional cases; to bolster security by deploying the Internal Security Force and municipality units to keep displaced persons under control; and to ease the burden by the strict enforcement of laws governing displaced persons to protect the Lebanese in their places of work and employment as a whole.”
Lebanon then issued a list of professions reserved for Lebanese citizens exclusively and reduced the available professions for foreigners.
Finally, in January 2015, the Lebanese government turned to seemingly drastic measures in order to tighten its borders. Syrian refugees are now virtually disallowed from crossing the Lebanese border for humanitarian reasons; instead, they are required to invoke one of the seven following motives for entry: study, tourism, work, trade, health care, embassy consultation, or leasing or owning property. Among other requirements for entry are a bank account with a certain amount of cash, a hotel reservation and specific dates of their planned return to Syria. If a person does not fulfill one or more of these requirements, they must provide a Lebanese sponsor.
Further, renewing their status has become much more complicated for current refugees, and refugees registered with the UNHCR must sign a document certifying that they will refrain from working in Lebanon. Finally, the Lebanese authorities recently requested that the UNHCR stop registering refugees. But, as LSE Middle East Centre’s Filippo Dionigi remarks, this policy is liable to backfire by rendering thousands of additional unregistered refugees “invisible” to the authorities, and consequently less accountable.
In the past, Lebanon has failed to sign international conventions on refugees, including the United Nations Convention of 1951 and the 1967 extension Protocol. Lebanon notably refuses to grant immigrants the status of refugees. The country has, on multiple occasion, deported what it considered to be illegal immigrants.
This strict policy is perhaps best explained by the fact that Lebanon fears a repeat of the Palestinian refugee situation: starting in 1948, Lebanon took in tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees. What initially appeared as temporary asylum has taken a permanent turn: the twelve Palestinian refugee camps which were built in Lebanon between 1948 and 1963 are still here today, and are now home to over 400,000. Lebanon has had a tempestuous history with its Palestinian population, notably during the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War; in 1982, Lebanese right-wing militias massacred and tortured hundreds of Palestinian men, women, children, and infants living in the Sabra and Shatila camps in southern Beirut.
Lebanon’s coexistence with its Palestinian refugee camps remains problematic today, and Lebanon continues to adopt a harsh stance towards these refugees: as noted by the Electronic Intifada, “They are forbidden from owning property, working in over 70 professions receiving proper health care, and moving and traveling freely. They do not hold Lebanese citizenship”. The Lebanese government has traditionally aimed to prevent long-term refugee presence on its territory by prohibiting the formation of refugee camps such as those which currently exist in Turkey and Jordan.
Today, this policy is more than ever unlikely to change, as the influx of Syrian refugees poses a very direct threat to the careful political balance the country has somewhat managed to strike. According to Fabrice Balanche, Lebanese Christians and Shi’a Muslims are especially reluctant to the idea of camps because a majority of Syrian refugees are Sunnis, whose long-term presence in the country would radically alter the delicate balance between religious communities in Lebanon.
In Lebanon’s confessionalist system, originally created by the 1943 National Pact adopted as Lebanon gained its independence from Syria, the distribution of political power rests entirely on the supposed or agreed respective weight of the numerous religious communities. The President is, under the Constitution, a Maronite Christian, while the Prime Minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shi’a Muslim.
The Ta’if Agreement of 1989, designed to end the 15-year-long Lebanese Civil War and to ensure mutual coexistence between the different religious communities and fair representation in the political arena, maintained the confessionalist system but shifted some of the power away from the Christians to the Sunni community.
Because the issue of the demographic weight of each community is manifestly highly sensitive, no census has been conducted since the year 1932, with the last verified demographic statistics thus predating the creation of the modern Lebanese State. Each religious community advances its own estimates, with an oft-heard estimate mentioning 40% Christians and 60% Muslims. Unsurprisingly, Palestinian refugees, approximately 90% of which are Sunni Muslims, are not taken into account in these statistics.
The presence of 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon thus spurs many political challenges and popular fears. An unforeseen development, it puts Lebanon in a dire situation, further decreasing its chances of exiting a long-lasting political crisis. On 23 April 2014, presidential elections were held in the Lebanese Parliament in order to replace President Michel Sleimane, whose six-year term was about to reach an end. But the members of Parliament were unable to reach the required quorum to elect a president (68 out of 128 MPs). A second round was organized, followed by a third, a fourth… April 2015 marked the 22nd failed attempt, and the end of an entire year of presidential vacuum.
The Lebanese are growing weary of this political stalemate, compounded by tensions around the Hezbollah’s role in Syria, pressure created by the Syrian refugee crisis, ever-unsatisfactory infrastructure, and the so-called Islamic State’s constant threats on the nation, among others.
The political and economic consequences of the refugee crisis have been felt by the Lebanese, and anti-Syrian reactions (sometimes under the form of violent attacks or harassment) have arisen as Syrians begin to be considered as competitors for employment, public services and housing, specifically in poorer areas of the country, all the while benefiting from humanitarian aid which the local population evidently cannot claim. However, this competition is largely a matter of perception, as the ILO notes that Lebanese workforce in the Bekaa valley still receives wages double those of Syrian workers. The strain on infrastructure is a more valid reason for distress. Al Akhbar writes that “the existing Lebanese system uses all its tools on hand to promote racism by the poor against the poor. Poor Lebanese are pitted against impoverished refugees”, while Rashid Derbas, Lebanon’s Minister of Social Affairs, declared that: “The Lebanese society can no longer withstand this situation, not even for a few more months. We lost a lot. We lost our land borders and the infrastructure which is being eroded.”
In one of his last articles before his assassination by cowards on 2 June 2005 in Beirut, brilliant journalist, essayist, and scholar Samir Kassir criticized the widespread Lebanese hostility towards Syrians living in Lebanon, and wrote that Syrian workers in Lebanon were victims of Lebanese racism due to the “miserable image which the Syrian regime gives about its citizens”. Ten years later, the issue has changed but the result remains the same: underprivileged Syrians living in Lebanon are liable to be resented, and sometimes even attacked, by the population, whose state of exhaustion and exasperation has become almost untenable. One can only hope that Lebanon will remain capable of coping, however precariously, with this complex, demanding situation.
Notes:  Figures retrieved from: Longuenesse Elisabeth, « La société libanaise à l’épreuve », Confluences Méditerranée1/2015 (N° 92) , p. 9-17, www.cairn.info/revue-confluences-mediterranee-2015-1-page-9.htm,DOI : 10.3917/come.092.0009. Note that these are informal settlements, since the creation of camps is illegal under Lebanese law (see below).  As reported by Al Akhbar.  See Balanche Fabrice, « Éditorial. La crise syrienne révèle les faiblesses du Liban », Maghreb – Machrek 4/2013 (N° 218) , p. 5-8. www.cairn.info/revue-maghreb-machrek-2013-4-page-5.htm. DOI : 10.3917/machr.218.0005.  Read more here.  The UNHCR reports that 80% of Syrian refugees rent housing for approximately 200 dollars per month.  Granted, figures on the agricultural sector should be put in perspective, as this sector only accounts for 5% of the Lebanese GDP.  See also: Longuenesse Elisabeth, « La société libanaise à l’épreuve », Confluences Méditerranée1/2015 (N° 92) , p. 9-17. URL : www.cairn.info/revue-confluences-mediterranee-2015-1-page-9.htm. DOI : 10.3917/come.092.0009.  As reported by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.  Ibid.  Read more about the new border policies on the LSE Middle East Centre blog.  Read more about the new border policies on the LSE Middle East Centre blog.  Read more here.  Read more here: Balanche Fabrice, « Éditorial. La crise syrienne révèle les faiblesses du Liban », Maghreb – Machrek 4/2013 (N° 218) , p. 5-8. URL : www.cairn.info/revue-maghreb-machrek-2013-4-page-5.htm. DOI : 10.3917/machr.218.0005.  For more on confessionalism in Lebanon, read, for instance, this short fact sheet.  As quoted in Al Akhbar.  Read more in Al Jazeera.