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The New Arab

International donors shrug as Lebanon's economic crisis hits Syrian refugees hard

Syrian refugees have been forced from Lebanon [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 February, 2020

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Syrian refugees in Lebanon are facing worsening living conditions amid a period of political uncertainty, including growing calls for their repatriation despite Syria still largely unsafe.
Lebanon's protest movement has seen calls for action against a "corrupt" political elite and a greedy class of bankers who have pushed a potentially prosperous country into a state of bankruptcy.

Less well-known however is the solidarity the activists have shown with Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the country, where the economic crisis has worsened their already grim financial situation and made them targets of racist rhetoric and attacks.

The voluntary return of Syrian refugees is unlikely due to the country being still gripped by war and ruled by a cruel regime that views returnees with distrust, amid reports many of them face arrest, forced conscription and even torture and death.

The Lebanese government has stated it will not force refugees to return home given these evident dangers, but there are also growing complaints in Lebanon about the "burden" of hosting 1.5 million Syrians, including by government ministers

The economic crisis cannot be ignored, particularly amid a period of donor fatigue when pledges of international aid are not being met and donations are in decline.

This quandary facing the Lebanese government and NGOs was the subject of discussion at a special South Asia & Middle East Forum session on the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis of Lebanon in London last week.

Lebanon's Ambassador to the UK Rami Mortada said Beirut has sustained various waves of mass migration since the 1948 creation of Israel, which resulted in thousands of Palestinian refugees heading to Lebanon and their status in the country still undetermined.

Since 2011, around 1 million Syrians fled the war and moved to Lebanon, many living a bare-bones existence in refugee camps and other temporary accommodation.

The war has led to a huge impact on the Lebanese economy, Ambassador Mortada said, due to the Syria war cutting Lebanon off from its biggest export market and decreasing foreign investment due to the instability.

"All this has led to economic hardships in Lebanon, which we should not see it exclusively through the optics of the Syria refugee crisis, but this is definitely one component," Ambassador Mortada told the forum.

He said that migration theory presents Lebanon with three solutions. The first is the integration of the refugee population into the host country.

"No country can integrate [the equivalent of] one third of its population, it is totally destabilising and I think the Lebanon we know today would cease to exist if this would take place, so for us it is totally out of the question," he claimed.

The second long-term solution is for resettling refugees in other countries, although he said that the numbers of Syrians who have moved out of Lebanon are limited, with the EU taking only 30,000 refugees.

This leaves Lebanon with the third option, which is not yet a workable solution, Ambassador Mortada said.

"Repatriation is the only sustainable solution for Syrians… not only to cater for the host countries' needs but I think it is also because Syria needs its people and magnificent social fabric which I think should be protected… notwithstanding a political solution," he told the panel.

"We had IDPs during the Lebanese Civil War and we defined repatriation of these IDPs as an element for the local reconciliation. When people go back you have a human aspect to the reconciliation process… the human experience should be encouraged, so we should at least remain open to the eventualities."

Yet he admitted that this can only take place when a safe environment in Syria can be guaranteed and a political process has been enacted.

"[Lebanon] is fully committed to the safe and voluntary return [of refugees] and for us this is a standing principle that we would never question."

Fears

Patrick Cockburn, The Independent columnist, said Syrian refugees in Lebanon he has spoken to fear the regime's security forces and forced conscription in Syria.

He also called for an end to the war but did not state how this might be achieved or how a post-war Syria would take shape.

Cockburn suggested that ending sanctions on Syria might kick-start the economy and create more jobs for returnees, although such economic incentives would ignore the concerns about Assad's security state.

Assurances were made by Bashar al-Assad's regime to Lebanon that returnees would not be harmed, when a process of voluntary repatriations by Hezbollah and the Lebanese government were initiated.

But in 2018, Lebanon's caretaker Minister of Refugee Affairs Mouin Merehbi said that least 20 of these returnees had been detained and murdered by the regime, including two teenagers.

This put the process of repatriation into question, which Syrian activists had warned coincided with threats and coercion against the refugees.

Other speakers voiced their concerns that a hostile environment in Lebanon might force more refugees to return home where they would face dangers from regime intelligence and armed factions.

With no chance of return and the economy in Lebanon tanking, the situation for Syrians is becoming grimmer.

Thousands of Syrians already struggling in low paid jobs before the economic crisis hit are now unemployed with restaurants empty, construction projects on hold, and businesses folding.

Many unemployed refugees have been forced to live off loans with creditors becoming increasingly impatient with their debtors, according to Máiréad Collins from Christian Aid.

The refugees in Lebanon have been reduced to a terrible purgatory existence. Around one-third are housed in non-permanent structures with one Syrian family who Collins met living in an electricity cupboard - and paying rent for the "privilege".

The statistics laid out at the forum by Máiréad Collins and Georges Ghali from Oxfam International were staggering and highlighted the difficulties Syrians face in escapting the poverty trap, particularly when many are illegally in Lebanon.

Ghali stated that 74 percent of Syrians living in Lebanon - including around half of children - are undocumented, which presents numerous problems for refugees finding legal work and getting their children into schools.

As with other countries during times of economic crisis, Syrian refugees have been made scapegoats over the past year. One myth currently spreading is that refugees are living in Syria and then returning to Lebanon to collect benefits or aid money.
Migrants can present opportunities for the host countries so I think together we should look for these opportunities.
- Ambassador Mortada

This was judged by the panel to be false and financially impractical, but the speakers warned that such rumours perpetuate the idea that Syria is safe place for refugees to return to.

"In any situation, and it applies to this country as well, rumours and exaggeration abound a great deal when you are a displaced person. They make a good headline and inform the public erroneously," Collins said. 

Donor fatigue

NGO workers have complained of growing donor fatigue, making it difficult to fund projects for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

There are hopes that a conference in Brussels in April will generate desperately needed aid, which could help alleviate the situation and boost the Lebanese economy, and generate more jobs for locals and refugees.

"Nine years into the crisis it is time to think of some creative schemes where we look for a win-win situation for the host country and the refugees," said Ambassador Mortada.

"Migrants can present opportunities for the host countries so I think together we should look for these opportunities."

Many Lebanese understand this experience after the civil war forced thousands to flee Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s and recent economic problems have led to a further exodus.

Their education and skills helped them find work and start businesses across the world and some have moved back to Lebanon after many generations abroad.

South Asia & Middle East Forum Chairman Khalid Nadeem said he hopes a Marshall Plan-style funding initiative could be implemented by Gulf states and the west to help plug the gap caused by funding shortfalls

Yet given that many Palestinian-Lebanese have lived for generations in Lebanon and are still in a state of legal limbo, this might not by a long-term solution for Syrian refugees.

As the panellists agreed, Syrian refugees will only be able to leave Lebanon once they can return to safe and dignified lives but with the current regime still in place means the current state of anguish is set to continue.

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