In 2015, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that about 1.5 Million Syrian refugees were permanent residents of Lebanon. This means that this small country must deal with a population increase of 25 percent, besides general infrastructure issues and and a high poverty level. Accordingly, there is a shortage of housing and employment opportunities. Around 70 percent of Syrians live below the poverty level, 40 percent in informal tented settlements, construction ruins and building shells. Children in particular are affected by these precarious circumstances, as they have almost no access to education and are threatened by forced labor and sexual exploitation.
At the same time, Syrians were a welcome addition to the workforce in past years. They were always regarded as guests, as are the refugees currently. Lebanon is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, and therefore regards refugees as immigrants or guests that have to pay 200 USD yearly for their residence permit. Many cannot afford this and are thus driven into illegality.
For these “immigrants”, work permits are only obtainable in the construction and agricultural sectors and in city cleaning agencies. Accordingly, the opportunities for legal employment are therefore very limited. Because of this, many work illicitly and for little money, which also depresses wage levels for the locals.
Another reason for refusing Syrians an “official” refugee status is that the government fears a development similar to that of the official UN-Refugee Camps for Palestinian refugees. These permanent camps are home to more than 500.000 refugees and are often social and political problem areas. In addition, the demographic shift is awakening fears that the political system could be destroyed. This system is based on a proportional representation of Muslims and Christians, and all state institutions and therefore jobs, government contracts, and social benefits are bound to this system.
The political response was clear: No more refugees are allowed into the country. At the urging of the government, no more Syrians have been registered by UNHCR since May 2015.
Many Syrian refugees live in so-called informal camps in the Bekaa Plain, close to the Syrian border. There are no accurate numbers on how many people have fled to this valley, but estimates suggest around 500.000. They live in very close quarters, in homemade tents, often without electricity or running water. The UNHCR can only supply them with so-called “Shelter Kits” – some planks of wood and plastic tarps in most cases – thus at least winter-proofing the tents. The people's survival is dependant on the amount of money the World Food Programme can deposit on their their so-called E-Card, which enables them to buy food at local supermarkets. Germany is one of the main donor states here.
The tented settlements are home to social structures and dependencies that throw the gates wide open to exploitation, particularly of women and children. For example, the refugees have to pay rent and ancillary costs to landlords, mostly over middle-men who also sometimes live in the camps. The indebted families often have to send their children to forced labor in the fields, girls are being forced into prostitution under the cover of “temporary marriage”.
Many families cannot afford to send their children to public schools, that in addition are hard to reach and only accessible to children registered with the UNHCR. Without Lebanese NGO's like the Kayany Foundation that has already set up seven schools in the Bekaa Plain, countless children would be cut off from education. The principle of the NGO-schools is simple, according to the NGO's director, Nora Joumblatt, who is of Syrian descent herself: A clean and safe learning atmosphere and two small meals a day serve to create a refuge for the children. For the teachers, a cooperation with the American University Beirut (AUB) offers continuing training, also regarding dealing with traumatised children and their families.
By now, the Lebanese government has become active as well. An educational program, R.A.C.E. („Reaching all children with education“), which is mainly supported by German funds, aims at getting children from the whole country from the streets and into public schools. Many schools are working double shifts in order to supply Syrian children with elementary eduction in the afternoon. The government's declared objective is to get all refugee children to school by the summer of 2017.
The world was slow in reacting to the dramatic refugee situation in Lebanon. Five years after the first Syrians fled to Lebanon, heads of state and government attended a donor conference in London, entitled “supporting Syria and the Region”.
The support for Syria's neighbouring countries and host communities is sorely needed, independent from the hope, often expressed in these parts, that this would mean fewer people coming to Europe. This help, however, must find its target and flow to projects that also improve the living conditions of the Lebanese civil society. The FES has recently organised a conference, in cooperation with the Lebanese ministry for social affairs and the NGO “Delta”, that puts a spotlight on opportunities for more investments into Lebanon's economic and social infrastructure. For Lebanon's longterm support an investment into infrastructure in particular, is just as important as quick humanitarian aid. The educational program R.A.C.E is a first step into this direction. Such initiatives, however, cannot replace political solutions for the region's violent conflicts.
Contact:Felix Braunsdorf, Desk Officer Migration and Development