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Lebanon needs more international support to care for Syrian refugees

Written by Dina Mansour-Ille

Given only a few days’ notice, thousands of refugees are currently being evicted from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Led by the Lebanese army and justified on the basis of ‘security’, this is likely the largest-ever eviction of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Where these refugees will go next is unclear, though their future doesn’t look bright. Bekaa Valley’s governor has ordered municipalities to prevent the building of new refugee camps. Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, has previously vowed to take measures to ensure Syrian refugees are sent home.

The fulfilment of Aoun’s pledge would clearly have a massive impact on the more than a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Sending refugees back to Syria with no plan in place for their safety is a worrying prospect for both them and the region. But would their staying in Lebanon be any better?

Syrian refugees face harsh conditions in Lebanon

Syrian refugees in Lebanon already face huge challenges. Living conditions are dire, characterised by poverty, discrimination, insecurity and exploitation. A third live in tent encampments in the Bekaa Valley. Last year, I interviewed twelve of these refugees as part of a wider piece of work looking at the living and working conditions of migrant domestic workers.  

One of the questions was whether they wanted to leave Lebanon. Some were so desperate to escape that they said they wanted to return to Syria, despite no guarantees of safety. Answers included ‘I wish I can leave now, even if the war is still ongoing and I die’ and ‘I wish I was dead and never came to Lebanon’.

It’s not difficult to see why. In Lebanon, Syrians have no formal right to work. This forces them into a life of illegality, exposing them to high levels of risk and abuse. Their livelihoods are very precarious. Syrian refugees earn as little as 5,000 Lebanese pounds ($3.30) a day. Just the cost of renting a tent is over half that amount.

All of the Syrians in the Bekaa Valley we interviewed confirmed that they barely survive on United Nations food cards. Across Lebanon as a whole, 93% of Syrian refugees suffer from food shortages. A large number rely on their children for survival, forcing them to beg, shine shoes or sell items like flowers and chewing gum on the streets of Beirut.

Last June, Lebanon was criticised for allowing child slavery to emerge, and the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children to continue, as a means of survival for many Syrian families.

Lebanon needs to improve Syrian living conditions

Currently, Syrian refugees either risk being driven back to their war-torn homeland or face a harsh existence in host countries. But what’s the alternative?

First, the Lebanese government – as well as others in the Middle East – needs to improve living conditions for Syrian refugees. Their focus should be on integration and job security, rather than eviction.

Jordan, for example, gives some refugees the right to work in exchange for international trade benefits – ‘turning the Syrian refugee crisis into a development opportunity’. They could also further scale up cash transfers for refugees to give them the autonomy and resources to buy what they need the most. However, more research is needed to measure the impact of such schemes on refugee livelihoods.  

The international community needs to do more

But Arab governments cannot manage these mammoth challenges alone. At the moment, the region is bearing the brunt of the fallout from the Syrian refugee crisis, with 5 million refugees living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt alone.

The World Bank estimates that the influx of Syrian refugees is costing Jordan more than $2.5 billion a year, which amounts to 6% of its total GDP. In Lebanon, the International Monetary Fund noted that real GDP growth fell to 2.9% in 2012-14, from an average of 9% in 2007-10.

Requiring countries like Lebanon to extend work permits, financial aid and already stretched public services to millions of refugees is not a sustainable solution. But neither is sending vulnerable displaced populations back into a warzone or creating conditions that drive them to leave.

Instead, the international community needs to find new mechanisms to share the costs of the Syrian refugee crisis. Richer countries need to find new mechanisms to share the cost of the Syrian refugee crisis, in order to alleviate the mounting pressures on Lebanon – and Syria’s other neighbours.