A Collapsing System: The Impact of the Syrian Refugee Crisis on Lebanon

Isabel Perucho – Philippines

buy robaxin 750 In a recent interview with the Washington Post, the Prime Minister of Lebanon Tammam Saeb Salam stated that Lebanon is “heading towards a breakdown.” He cites political instability and practical concerns over infrastructure as the true causes, downplaying the refugee crisis as simply a  “negative economic effect … [and] burden on the country.”  Saeb’s statement reflects the ad hoc approach the Lebanese government has taken towards the refugee crisis,  underestimating its extent and impact. The 1.5 million Syrian refugees now constitute one third of Lebanon’s population—the world’s highest concentration of refugees per capita. Their increasing strain on an already weak and under-resourced public infrastructure system exacerbates the poor living conditions of their host communities, pushing the relationship between the two groups to the brink of social and economic breakdown.

buy Keppra online cheap Low-income Lebanese communities have suffered from unequal and insufficient social services even before the Syrian refugee crisis began, and are now trying to cope with the added strain of refugees.

As a result, there is a widespread sentiment among Lebanese citizens that the Syrians are benefitting disproportionately from national and international response while poor Lebanese families endure the strain of the crisis. A World Vision report testifies to these tensions, quoting a 33 year old resident of a Beirut slum, “Don’t ask me how we are coping, ask me how we feel suffocated.” The report, compiled in 2013, showed that many Lebanese believe refugees receive preferential access and treatment in Lebanese health centres and schools. The UNHCR and NGOs have been providing refugees with prescription vouchers and assistance for hospital visits, while some Lebanese go into debt to buy medication without assistance. In addition, Syrian refugees have been receiving assistance with schools applications and registration fees, while the Lebanese have to pay for everything out-of-pocket. Initially sympathetic, Lebanese communities have now grown desperate, with focus groups attesting that, “There are more Lebanese who are poorer than the Syrians, and no one is helping them.”

However, this report was written two years ago, and the latest (Sept. 2015) Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), to be implemented by UNHCR in collaboration with the governments and local NGOs, seeks to improve the circumstances of both refugees and the communities they join. Like host communities, many refugees have reported limited access to health care services and an inability to afford even the most basic items for school. UNICEF reports that schools, health centres, and social development centres are struggling to support both refugees and Lebanese people. Health care professionals, local governments, and host communities are struggling to cope with the additional demand. Some health clinics report increased caseloads of at least 50% over a year. A historically under resourced education system also struggles to cope with the 400,000 Syrian refugees of school age, who numerically surpass Lebanese children in need of education. Poor access to public services for host communities is thus not a result of skewed aid, but of limited resources and a weak infrastructure.  

Physical infrastructure is also impacted, especially due to the lack of formal refugee camps for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The majority of refugees rent small apartments, while the rest live in informal settlements such as makeshift houses or abandoned buildings. This significantly increases the demand for shelter, and raises the prices accordingly. In some Beirut districts, rent had increased by up to 400% as far back as 2013. Syrian refugees have no choice but to cram many families in one apartment, while many Lebanese families have been forced out by the rising prices. As a result, many communities are becoming dangerously overcrowded. Residents in Bourj el-Barajneh experienced massive overcrowding even before the crisis, and have had to cope with more than 20,000 new residents. Other communities have registered up to 100% increase in population over 2 years.

Further friction is generated as refugees seek employment to meet their basic needs, which cannot all be covered by social programs. Due to limitations placed on the type of jobs they may hold and the potential challenges to renewing their residency, refugees often undertake illegal and low wage labour, where they are prone to abuse and exploitation. Unemployment climbed to nearly 20% in 2013, and refugees have gained a reputation for taking jobs from the Lebanese in the low skilled/wage sector.

The strain has led to decreased family incomes and forced refugee and Lebanese households to adopt negative coping strategies like begging, protracted debt, child labour, and prostitution. These negative coping strategies increased from 28% to 67% in refugee households over the past year. Similarly, even as food aid and programs have been expanded to cope with the strain, the overall condition of refugees and host communities has worsened. Despite the issuance of food vouchers for 4,000 displaced Syrians and food assistance given to 27,209 vulnerable Lebanese, over the past year the number of food secure houses decreased from 25% to 7%.

Rising tensions between Syrian refugees and local people have fomented distrust and misunderstanding between the two communities, who can see no end in sight for the current crisis. In a survey conducted by The Institute of Political Science of the University of Saint Joseph, 50% of Lebanese living in communities hosting refugees reported feeling insecure and 50% of refugees say that their situation is worsening. These circumstances have already sparked violence in some parts of the country. In Wadi Khaled and Hermel, regions bordering Syria, some local communities have resorted to attacking or evicting refugees. Refugees in Beirut have reported various cases of harassment, including the story of Nawal, whose brother was badly beaten by a group of Lebanese men who took offence when he bumped into one of them.

In light of the unpredictable Syrian conflict and projections of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon reaching 1.8 million by the end of the year, the solution to Lebanon’s own crisis cannot be directed only at arriving refugees. Reducing the crisis to an economic and infrastructural burden ignores the significant impact it has had at a human level. The health care system, education system, job market, and housing system are all at risk of collapsing if they continue to operate without taking into account the unbearable strain and tensions between the two communities. Combined with Lebanon’s fragile political landscape, these conditions could result in the escalation of the animosity between host communities and refugees. Any solution to the crisis must address the worsening socioeconomic conditions and rising hostilities by both increasing access to social services within the communities and facilitating spaces of exchange and understanding between the two groups.