In various places in the Lebanese capital Beirut, you can come across Syrian refugees who work in many sectors such as tourism, construction, and other professions. Some of them also resume their studies in Lebanese universities or schools. In fact, the majority of them are looking for alternative places, just like Lebanese citizens are, after the Lebanese crisis reached a deadlock and especially after the designate prime minister Saad Hariri stepped down over differences with President Aoun.
There are about 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. According to official estimates obtained by Majalla from the UN Bureau in Beirut, as of March 31, 2021, only 855,172 Syrian refugees were registered at the UN Refugee Agency in Lebanon.
Dalal Harb, UNHCR Communication Officer for Lebanon, told Majalla that the agency stopped registering Syrian refugees in Lebanon in 2015 at the request of the Lebanese government.
“The economic downturn, steep inflation, COVID-19 and the Beirut blast have pushed vulnerable communities in Lebanon - including Syrian refugees - to the brink, with thousands of families sinking further into poverty and vulnerability,” Harb said.
She also expressed the UNHCR’s deep concern about the increasing level of despair of refugees due to the precarious economic situation.
“Years of displacement and lack of solutions, a deep economic crisis in Lebanon compounded with the devastating impact of the COVID crisis have pushed refugees deeper into poverty and despair,” she added.
The UNHCR officer referred to one of the most concerning indicators of how the compounded crises impacted Syrian refugees in Lebanon which is “the sharp increase in the proportion of households living under the extreme poverty line.”
“Today, close to 90% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the extreme poverty line, up from 55% last year, according to the 2020 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees (VaSyR),” she explained. “Nine out of 10 Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty, on less than LBP 308,728 per person per month – less than half the minimum wage. “
She revealed that Syrian refugee families are struggling to make ends meet, “Most tell us that they don’t know how they will survive another day in this situation.”
“Fewer possibilities to earn a stable income, coupled with monthly payments of rent, food, medicine and other basic expenses, has depleted any savings refugees carried with them as they fled to Lebanon. Instead, most have built up hefty debts to landlords, shop keepers, relatives and people in the community who have been kind enough to lend some money. The 2020 VaSyR also shows increased levels of debt per household,” Harb stated, as she counted the burdens of the refugees.
“The increasing challenges to parents to provide for their children is leading to unimaginable additional burdens on refugees. Thousands of refugee families are finding it hard to manage all these challenges with no end in sight.”
Reflecting on the consequences of the crises which the refugees are facing, Harb said, “Despair is leading to serious mental health issues and increasing stress to their already stretched out abilities to cope with years of displacement. In the past few months, UNHCR call center has witnessed a notable increase in the reporting intents of suicide and self-harm.”
Harb gave us an account of the forms of assistance provided by the UNHCR to the refugees saying, “(The agency) assists the most vulnerable refugees through a multi-purpose cash assistance program aiming to reduce families’ use of harmful coping strategies, such as skipping meals, restricting food consumption, forgoing health care and education for children, incurring debt, or delaying rent payments. In line with other cash assistance programs in Lebanon, UNHCR cash assistance programs are currently disbursed to beneficiaries in LBP.”
With the funding currently available for humanitarian assistance, Harb says that the UNHCR is able to reach 57 per cent (as of July 2021 – 171,100 Syrian refugee households) with monthly cash assistance (LBP 400,000 LBP per family per month).
“In total, together with WFP’s monthly cash and food assistance program, UNHCR and WFP are able to reach 80 per cent (as of July 2021) of the total Syrian refugee population with monthly cash or food assistance, or both,” she added.
The UN official confirmed that “humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, have stretched the safety net as much as possible to cover more families as extreme poverty has increased, and to increase the amount of assistance to partially compensate for the steep inflation, but this remains insufficient by far, to cover even their most essential needs including food, medicine, and rent.”
On the issue of refugees returning home, Harb said that the agency “started tracking refugees returning from Lebanon since 2016 and the number of returns has been increasing (except for 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions).”
She explained that “voluntary repatriation remains the preferred solution for refugees themselves, and UNHCR,” suggesting that that refugees should be “able to make an informed decision.”
Harb pointed out that “to help refugees gain confidence and realize this overall desire to return, the findings of return intentions surveys conducted by UNHCR suggest that national and international actors should continue to help equip refugees with the information, tools and experience needed to rebuild their lives and future in Syria.”
She gave an example on how to help achieve this, by “continuing to support education and vocational training, as well as access to health services and civil documentation.”
A number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon have already made the decision to return home. Thus, “when possible, UNHCR staff meet with refugees before their return to ensure they possess the proper documentation such as birth and school certificates and provide support as needed.”
Various factors influence the decision of Syrian refugees to return home. Harb explained that most refugees hope to return to Syria, but they tell the Refugee Agency that they “remain concerned about a combination of factors, including safety and security, housing, access to essential services such hospitals, schools, and livelihoods.”
Meantime, she confirmed that in Syria, “the humanitarian community, including UNHCR, support refugee returnees through ongoing humanitarian programs,” adding that “UNHCR is stepping up its activities in return areas in Syria, including shelter interventions to help Syrians whose homes were damaged.”
Syrian Youth in Lebanon
The deepening economic crisis in Lebanon has led to a decline in the income of Syrian refugees working in Lebanon, as their wages has not been adequately adjusted to keep up with foreign exchange rates.
“I have been in Lebanon since the start of the Syrian crisis and I work here to support my family,” a Syrian young man working in a coffee shop in downtown Beirut told Majalla. “My financial resources had been acceptable, but after the recent crisis, everything has changed.”
Some Syrian refugees have started leaving Lebanon as its economic situation deteriorated. However, number of refugees returning home is still limited. According to dozens of Syrian young men who spoke to Majalla, mandatory military service imposed by the Syrian government on people above 18 years prevents them from returning home, because they refuse to join the ongoing war in Syria which broke out more than a decade ago.
A Lebanese public security source told Majalla that most of people who leave Lebanon to return to Syria are the elderly, women, and kids, noting that their number doesn’t exceed one thousand refugees every few months.
Jiwan Soz is a researcher and journalist who focuses on Turkish affairs and minorities in the Middle East. He is also a member of Syndicat National des Journalistes (National Syndicate of Journalists [SNJ]).
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