Lebanon and the Refugees from the War in Syria

Lebanon and the Refugees from the War in Syria

In the wake of the refugee crisis, Norway and a number of other European countries have experienced one of the most polarized debates in many decades. One of the most important questions in this debate is: Where can we best help the refugees – in Syria’s neighboring countries or help here in Norway?

  • What is the social, economic and political situation in Lebanon?
  • Why has Lebanon steered away from war in recent years?
  • How has the huge influx of refugees affected Lebanon?

Norway has received approximately 14,000 asylum applications from Syrians (out of a total of approximately 31,000 asylum applications in 2015 and approximately 2,800 in 2016). This is about as many as France, but much lower than Denmark and the Netherlands and very much lower than Sweden, Germany and Serbia and Kosovo.

This article sheds light on how the influx of refugees has affected Lebanon . A total of 4.5 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries , of which around 2.5 million to Turkey and probably as many as 1.5 million to Lebanon. About. 8 million others are internally displaced in Syria, mostly in government-controlled areas. How has the influx of refugees from Syria affected the political and economic stability of Lebanon? The answers will probably also be fairly similar for other neighboring countries with a high refugee density, especially Jordan.

2: Help in the local areas or receive in Europe?

Well-known British economist Paul Collier recently stated that accepting refugees in Europe is not an efficient use of resources. For every dollar spent on helping a refugee in the immediate area, $ 135 is spent in Europe.

Solutions “in the immediate area” have other advantages: Many refugees prefer to stay close to their home country and family. In addition, they prefer a culture where they know cultural codes and languages. In addition, it may be easier to provide temporary accommodation for Syrians in neighboring countries. Then it will be easier to believe that they will one day return to their homeland. Although most European countries now initially only provide temporary accommodation to Syrians, in practice there are economic, political and social reasons to believe that many will remain where they have ended up.

The argument that refugees should be helped in the immediate area does not take into account the fact that hundreds of thousands are already fleeing Europe . In addition, some Syrian refugees need protection that neighboring countries cannot provide them. According to the UN Refugee Convention, refugees who can neither receive adequate protection in their host country nor have the opportunity to return home have the right to be transferred to a third country . Regarding the Syrian refugees in the surrounding areas, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that approx. 10 percent (around 450,000) live without adequate protection. And these should be granted asylum outside the Middle East as quota refugees , it is said.

3: Main reasons why it has gone well

Lebanon is a small country in the Middle East, the size of Rogaland county (10,500 km2). The country is known for so-called “laissez-faire” market economy (very little state control and intervention), and the state is weak and divided. Lebanon is also known for fantastic beaches and expensive nightclubs, but also for great inequality and poverty, especially among ordinary Lebanese in pig-ridden areas and among the country’s 450,000 Palestinian refugees. The country was plagued by civil war from 1975 to 1990, in which neighboring states also intervened, especially Israel and Syria. All this indicates that things could have gone very wrong in Lebanon after the war broke out in Syria in 2011.

Lebanon today has the highest refugee density in the world. At the request of the Lebanese authorities, the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) stopped registering refugees from Syria in March 2015; the real number is still considered to be approx. one and a half million Syrians in Lebanon. This means that Syrian refugees, together with Palestinians and 42,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria, make up more than 30 percent of the population in Lebanon. How has this small country managed to take in so many without completely collapsing? And what are the main economic and political challenges of this large influx of refugees?

There are two main reasons why Lebanon has managed to receive 1.5 million Syrians, most of them ordinary workers, without collapsing completely. One reason is financial support from the international community. Lebanon has received over $ 1 billion a year from outside since the refugee crisis began in 2013. During a conference in London earlier in 2016, another billion dollars (about 8.5 billion kroner) was promised to Lebanon.

An international (intergovernmental) support group for Lebanon was established in September 2013 and includes the UN and several specialized UN specialized agencies, in addition to the EU, the Arab League and the five permanent members of the Security Council. The EU is the largest donor (donor country) and has donated approx. 820 million euros (approx. 7.5 billion kroner) to Syrian refugees and vulnerable groups in the host country (the refugees’ country of residence). This includes bilateral support for Lebanon, including to strengthen the judiciary and secure borders better. European donors, including Norway, see the crisis as an opportunity to improve infrastructure and public services in Lebanon.

International support for Lebanon has not covered all needs, but has nevertheless contributed well to an economic growth of 1.6 per cent. Among other things, support organizations have had a conscious policy of buying and using Lebanese products when they provide food and other support to refugees in the country. This has been beneficial for the Lebanese economy.

Also a significant commitment from civil society explains much of why the country has fared so successful. The Syrian crisis and international support have given impetus to a new type of welfare organization. People from the Syrian middle class have also established new, small organizations – some of them with ties to Syrian political and social elites, including the Muslim Brotherhood. But Syrian welfare organizations face legal obstacles and often have to be registered in the names of Lebanese partners.

In addition, the integration of refugees into the informal economy has eased some of the financial burden. Syria occupied Lebanon militarily between 1976 and 2005 and hundreds of thousands of Syrians worked in Lebanon even before the war broke out in Syria. Many Syrians therefore had family members living in the country when they came as refugees. Syrians in Lebanon could therefore act as a support and bridgehead for those who came later – often to take out loans. But it is mainly Syrians from the middle class and from urban, western Syria who have such opportunities, and not farmers from rural Syria. In addition, the history of the occupation creates difficult memories among many Lebanese, which worsens relations between peoples.

4: Challenges: labor market, infrastructure, education

Syrian refugees in Lebanon face a number of challenges, some of them legal. Lebanon has not acceded to the UN Refugee Convention and therefore does not consider Syrians in the country to be refugees legally. Syrians are referred to as ” displaced “, a term that implies fewer rights. In December 2014, Lebanon introduced a new law that makes it difficult both administratively and financially (very costly) for Syrians to renew their residence permits. As of November 2016, as many as 80 percent of Syrians in Lebanon do not have a formal residence permit. Unregistered refugees are very vulnerable. For fear of being arrested by roadblocks set up by the Lebanese military, they travel only to a very small extent outside their camp, village or neighborhood.

The refugee situation in Lebanon has created major economic challenges for the country. The biggest is to find a balance between ensuring the refugees’ economic survival and limiting economic negative ripple effects to vulnerable sections of the host population. About half of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees live in informal tents in agricultural areas. These often pay an exorbitant, high rent to the landowner to be able to set up their own tents. They often live below the poverty line and in miserable sanitation.

The refugee crisis in Lebanon has exacerbated infrastructure problems (including water and electricity supply, as well as health care) that already existed before the Syrian crisis broke out. Diseases abound, especially in the camps, groundwater is polluted and power cuts occur more and more often. The quality of the water and sanitation system, but also important public services, is gradually deteriorating. During the so-called “garbage crisis” in the summer of 2015, people demonstrated for eight months because the government was unable to organize garbage collection. As of November 2016, no lasting solution had yet been found; an important reason is that it is not possible to agree on the location of new landfills. In addition, both lakes and the coastline in Lebanon are heavily polluted, which means that most of the fish is imported to consumers.

It is difficult for Syrians to obtain a work permit in Lebanon. Therefore, most people work in the informal sector, where many children and women are often exploited in different ways. Although Lebanese schools are formally open to Syrian children and although some schools offer afternoon shifts, only approx. 40 percent of the refugees in school. In this lost generation of children, many must instead earn a living by selling chewing gum and roses on the streets of Beirut.

The Lebanese government is resisting pressure from civil society organizations to grant more Syrians work permits; they claim that this will destroy the labor market in the country. Syrians accept wages worth half of what Lebanese earn. And Syrians with some capital therefore invest in small kiosks or services; there they win the competition by selling at significantly lower prices and by the Syrians largely trading at “their own”. Today, Syrians are only allowed to work in the agriculture, construction and laundry industries. In reality, Syrians work informally – in very many other sectors, including the restaurant industry, for about half of Lebanese ordinary wages. This is leading to higher unemployment and poverty among Lebanese .

The total impact on the Lebanese economy can be read directly: The influx of 1.5 million Syrians as consumers and producers should indicate increased total consumption and production. It is therefore striking that GDP growth has fallen significantly, from 8.5 per cent in 2009 to 1.2 in 2016. The average income per employed person in Lebanon has thus been reduced by as much as 20 per cent .

Some groups of Lebanese have also benefited from the crisis : those who sell goods and services to the UN, land and homeowners who rent to refugees and contractors in the construction industry who gain access to cheaper labor. In sum, this means that many Lebanese workers – those who experience the most competition in the labor market – have probably lost as much as 30 percent of their previous income. According to the World Bank (2016), the number of Lebanese below the poverty line ($ 3.1 per day) has increased by 200,000 since the Syrian crisis began – these are in addition to the million who were poor already in 2011.

Direct investment from abroad has been halved to $ 2 billion and average productivity has been reduced by at least 10 percent. Admittedly, the faltering economy is also due to other factors. In particular, the closure of trade routes via Syria to the Gulf countries has greatly reduced export revenues . This alone can explain 7–8 per cent of the reduction in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Incidentally, a crisis in the tourism industry is due to the Gulf monarchies since 2012 having banned their citizens from traveling to Lebanon.

5: Political influence from the refugees

The enormous pressure on the labor market – together with the previous Syrian occupation history in Lebanon – has created strong anti-Syrian attitudes in parts of the Lebanese grassroots, not least among many Christians. It is also the Christians who express the strongest distrust of the Syrian refugees.

The refugee issue in Lebanon has never been seen only from a humanitarian perspective; it was politicized from the very beginning . Each of the various political factions in Lebanon treated the refugees based on how they viewed the Syrian war. Since the vast majority of refugees are Sunni Muslims, Christians are afraid that they will remain in Lebanon and upset the fragile demographic and political balance (page 1-2). In the last year, however, more and more Sunnis have also begun to view Syrian refugees as primarily an economic burden and not primarily as fellow believers. Since the spring of 2016, a united Lebanese government has advocated considering returning Syrians to “safe areas” in Syria.

Syrians are – often unjustifiably – blamed for the increased insecurity in Lebanon in recent years. Following terrorist attacks – cf. November 2015 and June 2016 – refugee camps are raided and many Syrians are arrested. Random attacks on Syrians in many parts of the country are documented on social media, but are rarely cracked down on by the authorities. Cities have introduced curfews, most often against “workers” (read Syrians) or directly against Syrians.

Although the friction between Syrians and Lebanese has so far not led to the ignition of refugee camps, or the like, there have been cases where Syrian van drivers have been attacked in the Shia-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut. For members of the Syrian opposition, Lebanon may be directly insecure; at least some of them claim that the Lebanese intelligence service has cooperated with the Syrian and extradited several of their peaceful activists to Syria.

6: Lebanon: a political powder keg

According to SUNGLASSESTRACKER, there are many indications that the Syrian war could have spread to Lebanon, since the ethnic-religious and political composition of both countries is fairly similar and complex . Since 2005, Lebanese politics have been polarized between two political camps named after demonstrations that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri . The two camps each support their side in the Syrian war and their respective parties in the regional power game between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Christians are divided.

  • The March 8 alliance is dominated by Shiite Hezbollah, Shiite Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement led by Lebanese President General Michel Aoun (Christian). These are supporters of Iran and Syria, and support the Assad regime in Syria – Hezbollah also militarily with about 6-10 000 soldiers.
  • The March 14 alliance brings together Sunni politicians in the Future Movement , led by Saad Hariri (last: now as new prime minister), son of the assassinated former prime minister Rafik Hariri and their Christian allies: the Falangist Party (Kataib) and the Lebanese Forces. The future movement has provided political and somewhat economic support to the Syrian opposition – mainly the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army. Islamist movements, including Salafi leaders, are also mobilizing among the Sunnis.

It is estimated that about 900-1000 Lebanese Sunni Muslims, members of the Salafijihadi movement, have traveled to Syria to fight ( foreign fighters ). These are not affiliated with the March 14 movement, but they are strong opponents of Hezbollah. They have traveled at their own risk and initiative. So far, neither IS nor the Nusra Front have wanted to open a front in Lebanon. They would rather keep the country as a ” resting place ” – a resting place for people fighting in Syria. This is another reason why Lebanon has remained relatively stable in recent years.

Another reason is that none of the actors in Lebanon, neither the Future Movement nor Hezbollah, has anything to gain, nor extra forces to spare, for an additional confrontation in Lebanon. Adult Lebanese also have a fresh memory of the 1975-1990 civil war and do not want to return. Lebanon has thus remained stable so far, but this stability is both relative and vulnerable. Although there are a number of political and military challenges, the problems in the labor market, infrastructure and sanitation system are greatest. This may indicate that Lebanon is at the breaking point and will not for a long time withstand the pressure from as many refugees as the country has received.

Lebanon and the Refugees from the War in Syria