Syrian refugees in Lebanon: living in a hostile economic and social environment

The Syrian refugees in Lebanon today live in a socially and economically hostile environment creating an entanglement for them, as they cannot return to their crumbling birthplace. Lebanon today faces an almost impossible economic challenge and is not at all sure that the new Hezbollah affiliated government will be able to meet this challenge. Most of the Syrian population in Lebanon today are refugees who fled Syria since 2011 at the beginning of the Syrian civil war and in the years that followed. The arrival of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has resulted in an increase in the number of refugee camps placing a certain burden on the Lebanese state resources, creating immense tensions between Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees (who are Sunnis) are without legal status, and in addition, are restricted to certain areas of activity (usually construction and services), and movement. While Lebanese workers are subject to a labor law that protects their rights, foreign workers are subject to the bond law. They cannot work in Lebanon without having a Lebanese vouch for them. In principle, a foreign worker cannot live, work, or hold a home or family without being directly subject to the conditions of the guarantor. The “bond” creates absolute dependence; the absolute dependence contributes to the occurrence of racism. The Syrian refugees were not exposed to racial discrimination in Lebanon until the ruling parties decided to take advantage of the refugees’ presence and make them hostages of their political considerations. Former Lebanese Foreign Minister (of the Free Patriotic Movement), Gebran Bassil a distinct Hezbollah ally, has verbally used the word racism stating that he is a “racist for my homeland, Lebanon”. Incitement followed the racism expressed by attacks, arson, and curfews (imposed on the Syrian refugees), an issue detailed later in this article.

This refugee population does not intend to return to its country of origin in the near future due to the security and humanitarian situation in Syria and is a further burden on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructures (the refugee health system provides medical treatment and the integration of refugee children in to the educational system) increasing a large burden on its economy.

Although and because of the economic burden, there is a Lebanese interest in obtaining financial assistance from the European Union and the IMF in light of the refugee problem. Therefore, a kind of paradox exists in which Lebanon will not take real and effective steps to send the refugees back, having a desire and interest to receive widespread financial assistance for them.

Since 2011, Lebanon has been facing an economic burden that is incompatible with its socio-economic structure. The large number of Syrian refugees has exacerbated the problems that Lebanon is already suffering from. The figures indicate a 20% increase in the unemployment rate, in addition, there has been an increase in the scale of the unorganized economy as a result of refugee workers arriving in Lebanon and the cheap labor force of Syrian workers compared to Lebanese workers who are not willing to work for low wages.

However, Lebanon’s economic problems cannot be assigned to the Syrian refugees only. In attributing all the problems on the Syrian refugees, there is a great deal of exaggeration and misleading, since the Lebanese economic problems did not begin in 2011 nor will they end with the departure of all the Syrian refugees from Lebanon. For example, in 2010, the poverty rate in Lebanon stood at 30%, the same rate that remained in 2019. Another example is the corruption not created by the Syrian refugees but has been imbedded in the social and governmental Lebanese traditional culture for many years.

According to UNHCR figures, there were more than 1 million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon in 2016. Whereas the Commission has stopped registering new Syrian refugees, the number above does not include the refugees waiting to be registered. Current data is inaccurate, and the latest estimates suggest there are between 1.5 to 2 million refugees. i.e.: The ratio being approximately one Syrian refugee to every three Lebanese civilians.

Given that the total population of Lebanon (including refugees) numbers 6.8 million people, 1.5 to 2 million Syrian refugees make Lebanon the country with the largest number of refugees.

Many of the Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon live in rented domiciles, partly due to the absence of official refugee camps (similar to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon). The main areas the refugees live in are Beirut and the Beqaa (most of the informal “refugee camps” are concentrated in tent camps, which are now considered as a “ticking time bomb” with the threat of the spreading Corona virus) in the northern and southern areas of Lebanon. More than 80% of the refugees rent apartments at an average price of $200 a month. The remainder, whose figures have increasing – have had to live in unfinished and abandoned buildings, car parks, workplaces, and illegal campsites.

Syrian refugee camp in the town of Ghazze in the Lebanese Beqaa

Since the downsizing of the war zones in Syria, the Lebanese have demanded that the refugees return to their country, alongside a growing negative attitude of the Lebanese authorities towards them. In June 2019, the Lebanese government gave the Lebanese companies a one-month ultimatum to regulate the employment status of “foreign workers”. If the status is not regulated, Lebanese authorities have called on employers to deport “foreign workers” and replace them with Lebanese workers. As a result, many Syrian refugees lost their jobs triggering the employers’ anger. Many employers claim they have no choice but to employ Syrian refugees, as Lebanese workers demand high wages as opposed to foreigners. Many employers want and are looking to employ Lebanese workers in concrete works, agriculture and restaurants, but cannot find such.

Despite many employers’ complaints about the ban on hiring Syrian refugees, they were forced to fire them, as the Lebanese government began enforcing the ban on illegal employment of foreigners. In posters that the government hung in lieu of this campaign, it called on employers to employ Lebanese only. In addition, authorities conduct searches at shopping malls and various companies trying to apprehend illegal working foreigners.

Lebanon has many foreign workers other than the Syrian refugees, such as Filipinos, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese, and Egyptians, working in households and gas stations. Although the campaign against illegal workers is allegedly directed “against foreigners of all nationalities”, it is widely believed that this is an attempt to exert targeted pressure on Syrian refugees to return to Syria.

Currently, Lebanon’s economic situation and public pressure are doing the job; many Lebanese have fired dozens of Ethiopian and Sudanese household workers. In early June, dozens of Ethiopian housekeepers gathered in front of the Ethiopian embassy in Al Hazmieh a suburb of Beirut, after their employers abandoned them due to the worsening economic situation and their inability to pay their wages in Lebanese dollars or pounds. Many Ethiopian workers found themselves homeless and unable to return to their home country in light of the closure of Beirut International Airport due to the Corona crisis, forcing them to settle out under the open sky near the Ethiopian Embassy. At the same time, a number of Sudanese foreign workers decided to try their luck crossing the border into Israel; IDF forces apprehended some as they crossed the fence while Lebanese military forces in Lebanon detained others.

Ethiopian household workers near the Ethiopian embassy in Beirut (

The Covid-19 that has spread across the world and Lebanon in recent months, in addition to the “Caesar act” that went into effect on June 17, 2020 (within the framework of the “Caesar act”, the United States imposed additional severe economic sanctions on Syria and anyone financially connected to it. Lebanon has strong economic ties with Syria), only aggravated and worsened Lebanon’s already precarious economic situation intensifying the negative impact on the foreign workers in Lebanon in general and on the Syrian refugees in particular.

Of the difficult economic situation in Lebanon in light of the Covid-19, one can learn from the comments of Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab on May 21, 2020: “The Covid-19 has dramatically impacted Lebanon’s economic crisis and forced the Lebanese government to freeze the state budget, which has had serious social and economic consequences …”

Diab added, “Lebanon is facing a hunger crisis and many civilians have stopped buying basic food products such as meat, fruit, and vegetables, the fear is that they will stop buying bread…” The negative attitude of the Lebanese authorities displayed towards Syrian refugees, among other things, in the demolition of their homes, which constitutes another incentive for refugees to return to Syria. In the village of Aarsal, in northern Lebanon, the municipality ordered Syrian refugees to demolish all their concrete-built homes. In late July 2018, authorities demolished Syrian homes with bulldozers, forcing the refugees to move into tents, because of the authority’s directive, prohibiting the refugee camps to become permanent places of refuge for refugees. In some Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, the tensions have risen due to the burning of tents and the demolishing of others at the Lebanese authority’s directive. In June 2019, the situation called for the closing of an entire refugee camp. Tensions began on 5 June 2019 when a fire broke out in the informal refugee camp of Deir El Ahmar, known as “Caritas”, located in Baalbek. According to one version, the fire broke out accidentally, but other versions claimed the fire was intentional. (Link to the video of the fire can be seen here).

Hours later, the Civil Defense Director of the area announced that refugees threw stones at a fire truck because of its belatedly arrival to the camp. However, according to another version, the stone-throwing incident occurred since the fire truck driver ran over two tents that had children inside them, causing outrage among the camp’s refugees.

Building demolition orders also reached Syrian refugees in southern Lebanon, ordering the destruction of buildings if the necessary building amendments were not met.

Aid agencies warned that no fewer than 15,000 Syrian children would be homeless if the Lebanese Government continued its plans to demolish buildings built by Syrian refugees in southern Lebanon. Furthermore, humanitarian organizations, media and Lebanese activists called on the relevant parties in Lebanon to halt the decision to demolish the Syrian refugee camps by taking into account their humanitarian status, or providing them with appropriate alternatives.

In addition to the negative attitude of the Lebanese authorities towards the Syrian refugees, a negative attitude from some of the Lebanese citizens exists. This negative attitude demonstrated by Lebanese civilians against Syrian refugees occurred a few times. In documentation released on social networks on October 2019, one can observe a group of people attacking another claimed to be Syrian refugees. The attack occurred in front of one of the city’s banks in the city of Zahlé in eastern Lebanon. The video shows a group of refugees (women and men) standing near an ATM, and shortly thereafter another group of people running after the same group of refugees, banishing them in a degrading manner while shouting at them (link to the video of the fire can be seen here).

Many Lebanese support the measures taken against Syrian refugees. In the Lebanese public opinion, there are many claims that Syrians receive monthly assistance and free education as well as medical care, while Lebanese are unable to obtain basic services and that thousands of Lebanese are in search of jobs.

In the summer of 2018, three initiatives were taken to send refugees back to Syria: The first was a Russian initiative and the other two were Hezbollah and Lebanese security organizations initiatives. All the Lebanese political parties that support the Syrian regime, including the “Free Patriotic Movement” party (the Christian party that has a political alliance with Hezbollah and is headed by Lebanon’s president – Michel Aoun), supported these initiatives. These initiatives were supposed to send a large part of the Syrian refugees back to Syria. The main goals of these initiatives were: the relief of the burden caused to Lebanon from the Syrian refugees, strengthening the Syrian regime’s claim and its allies to victory in the Syrian war and accelerating Russian efforts to achieve the political and rehabilitation solution in Syria.

These initiatives have not yielded any noteworthy success. The UN estimates that the number of Syrian refugees returning to Syria during the period between July 2018 and March 2019 did not exceed 15,000. According to the Lebanese General Security Department, about 100,000 Syrian refugees returned, and according to the Russian government, only 55,000 refugees returned.

There are a number of reasons for the failure to return Syrian refugees from Lebanon to Syria: refugee’s personal security concerns, refusal of the Syrian regime allies to give the refugees any guarantees on their behalf, security checks by Syrian security forces, compulsory military service into the Syrian army and the poor living situation in Syria.

The United Nations and the EU do not support the settling of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. On the other hand, they do not support the return of refugees to Syria as long as there is a lack of security and a lack of basic services.

Lebanon’s UN Coordinator Philippe Lazzarini stated on 23 September 2019, during a conference of the UNDP’s Syrian Crisis Management Program Advisory Committee (the United Nations Development Programme) in Lebanon, that the integration of Syrian refugees into Lebanon is not on the agenda. According to Lazzarini, the dialog today is focused on ways to help the Lebanese people deal with a very difficult situation, so that Syrian refugees can return home voluntarily, with security and with dignity.

The EU has also stated that it did not support the Syrian refugee settlement in Lebanon. In a statement issued by the EU representative in Lebanon (on 29 November 2019), expressing their unanimity with its “Lebanese counterparts that their stay (of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon) is temporary”, stressing that the return of refugees to Syria should be done voluntarily, safe and in accordance with international law.

In addition, the UN delegation praised Lebanon for “the extraordinary hospitality it gave to those who fled the Syrian conflict”, noting that it has been aware of the heavy burden that has been on Lebanon since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, and stresses that Lebanon should not bear this burden alone. According to the announcement, in order to reduce the burden of Syrian refugees on the state’s economy and infrastructure, the EU has greatly increased its assistance to Lebanon, and it provides a great deal of assistance to the Lebanese local communities affected by the presence of Syrian refugees, including providing basic services and improving local infrastructure, education and health.

The Union’s representative emphasizes in its announcement that the programs sponsored by the Union in Lebanon were set in consultation with the Lebanese government, and that these programs were not designed to prolong the stay of Syrian refugees in Lebanon but to satisfy the basic needs of all needy groups.

The issue of Syrian refugees has become a tool for political exploitation by various political forces in Lebanon. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, mainly the “Free Patriotic Movement” party highlighted the issue of refugees in their campaigns. The campaigns aimed against Syrian presence in Lebanon targeted Christian voters, who had concerns raised by intimidation and false information while at the same time weakening the competing Christian parties, which were opposed to the Syrian regime, such as the “Lebanese Forces Party” (led by Samir Geagea), a bitter rival of the “Free Patriotic Movement “.

Unlike the “Free Patriotic Movement “, there is hardly any discussion among the Lebanese factions and parties regarding the Syrian refugees. The avoidance of the matter stems in part from the following reasons: a common interest in obtaining EU financial assistance intended for the refugee problem, silent agreement on positions against the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the lack of a desire to confront public opinion. In the midst of protests in Lebanon, which began in October 2019, the political discussion on Syrian refugees disappeared. In our estimation, the disappearance of the discussion stems primarily from Lebanon’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and the desire not to thwart the potential obtaining of external economic assistance for the Lebanese economy facing bankruptcy.

The plight of Syrian refugees makes them a potential recruitment reservoir for terrorist organizations and pushes them into the open arms of these organizations.

On 9 February, the Lebanese Department of Homeland Security tweeted a referral to its journal site, publishing 20 details on the arrest of a Syrian refugee’s involvement in ISIS. Among the published details are the following: the refugee, Ibrahim Salem, was born in the town of Arbid in the Aleppo Governorate in 1999. He moved with his family to Lebanon in 2013 and lived in the Al Ouzai neighborhood in the southern entrance of Beirut.

Salem swore allegiance to ISIS through his handler, Abdullah Tunzi, establishing contact via social media with ISIS elements planning to set up terror cells and provide them with weapons. In addition, he planned to carry out attacks on influential Lebanese party centers and kill their activists (the name of the party is not mentioned; most likely it is Hezbollah, in light of the hostility between the two organizations). He also planned to carry out an attack against the US embassy in Lebanon using an exploding drone, thereby sabotaging Lebanon’s foreign relations.

On 17 May, a Syrian refugee shepherd infiltrated Israel from Lebanon in a spot where there is no border fence in the Mount Dov area (“Shebaa Farms“). The shepherd, equipped with a walkie-talkie, was shot and wounded after trying to flee from IDF forces. From our knowledge of Hezbollah’s pattern of operations, most of the shepherds are “employed” by Hezbollah as proxies for the purpose of intelligence gathering and reporting on IDF activity. In this case, we estimate with high probability that the shepherd was recruited and equipped with a walky-talky by Hezbollah, while his movements in the area were intended to observe the IDF forces response, noted for Hezbollah’s ongoing intelligence gathering activities.

The Syrian refugees in Lebanon are caught up today in an entangled situation. On one hand, they suffer hostility from the Lebanese authorities and Lebanese citizens as the result of the economic situation and the racial setting. On the other hand, they cannot (and probably do not want to) return to their country due to the security and humanitarian situation in Syria. In addition, various terrorist organizations exploit the refugee population for their purposes, whether it is to carry out or assist terrorist operations within Lebanon or whether it is to carry out or assist terrorist acts against Israel.

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Sarit Zehavi & Tal Beeri

Sarit Zehavi & Tal Beeri

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