Author’s note : It goes without saying that Lebanon and all of the people living on its territory are facing the hardest of times. They are at odds with a three- headed monster — the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing failure of the political class, and a financial crisis which has devalued the Lebanese pound to never-before-seen lows and led to a rise in the prices of basic household supplies.
And yet, as solution-driven journalists, we cannot allow the emergence of an additional problem to be used as an argument against the solving of existent issues. In this article, we look at how refugee communities are receiving support from Lebanese and international stakeholders in an effort to develop solutions through mutual assistance.
March 15, 2021 marked 10 years since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. Of the estimated 5.6 million Syrians displaced to neighbouring countries, due to the conflict that has ravaged their homeland, more than 1.5 million of them live in Lebanon. Almost half of these refugees are children.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that poverty and food insecurity are on the rise in refugee communities living in Lebanon. According to an article recently published by UNHCR staff, ‘’school enrollment and access to healthcare are shrinking, and the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out much of the informal work that refugees rely on’.” A Lebanese non-profit worker told Al Jazeera in March that ‘’women-headed households right now are really struggling to generate any income’.”
Another report published in March by the faith-based ACT Alliance suggests that, as of March 2021, 89 percent of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon fall under the extreme poverty line, which the World Bank defines as living on 1.90 US Dollars (USD) or less per day.
While inflation continues to run rampant (Lebanon’s average inflation rate is at its highest since 1992, sitting at almost 85 percent), the price of certain basic items required by those raising children has jumped at rates that vastly outpace inflation. For example, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reports that the price of food and non-alcoholic beverages in Lebanon has increased by up to 500 percent, while the price of clothing and footwear has increased by as much as 660 percent.
The UN’s World Food Programme, as well as its Food and Agriculture Organization, recently declared that acute food security is set to rise in Lebanon between the months of March and July, pointing to the fact that refugee communities are still very much at the midpoint of a nutritional crisis, with no end in sight in the short term.
Access to Schooling and Medical Services Remains a Challenge
From difficulty obtaining COVID-19 screening tests to challenges with receiving vaccines, refugee communities are on the margins of the country’s already weak-willed response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The failure of the Lebanese government to formulate a plan or act on behalf of Syrians living on its territory has created a situation where any aid strategies will either come from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or from the international community.
One Lebanese NGO worker told Al Jazeera in March that ‘’it’s up to us as humanitarian agencies to improve this, but at the end of the day, we’re not the government. We cannot play that role.’’
There are many examples of organizations on the ground spearheading relief efforts, whether they’re directly or indirectly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, Anera (an American NGO that provides humanitarian and developmental aid to refugees in vulnerable communities, such as Palestine and Lebanon) has recently kicked off a menstrual health awareness and supply distribution campaign in the refugee encampment near Arsal, offering personal hygiene awareness workshops with a focus on environmentally responsible products and practices.
Meanwhile, a mental health epidemic within refugee communities is also making headlines. A number of mainstream media outlets, including Reuters and L’Orient-Le Jour, have reported on Syrian refugees claiming that they had contemplated suicide. As mental health awareness increases both in Lebanon and around the world, following the global confinements and isolatory measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important not to forget the compounded trauma and difficulty faced by refugees during a time such as this.
In parallel, aid workers also point to the difficulties in providing education for refugee children. With a majority of educational institutions closed during the past year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNHCR reports that “most school-age refugee children did not attend school, even remotely” in the past year. The UN claims that up to two-thirds of refugee children in Lebanon, aged 6 to 14, were enrolled in schools during 2020, but that only 17 percent of children in that age group took part in online learning programs. According to the UN’s report, most families pointed to insufficient access to the Internet as the reason for this phenomenon.
International Aid to refugees in Lebanon has been flexible, but will it be enough?
In response to the hyperinflation that has crippled the Lebanese economy, the UNHCR has raised the amount of the monthly cash stipend it distributes to Syrian refugees in Lebanon from 260,000 Lebanese Pounds (LBP) to 400,000 LBP per family. However, as Lebanon suffers a devastating economic crisis, mass inflation, extreme poverty, and high unemployment rates, tensions between Lebanese locals and Syrian refugees have been exacerbated.
A number of factors explain these tensions, including personal disputes, communal clashes, and discrimination. For instance, as L’Orient-Le Jour reports, hundreds of Syrian families were forced out of Bsharri, a town in North Lebanon, following the killing of a Lebanese man by a Syrian man. Some 30 kilometers north of there, in Bhanin, a refugee camp was burned to the ground following a dispute between Lebanese and Syrian residents of the area. This should come as little surprise, as history shows that Lebanon’s political elite have often allowed and benefited from different communities within Lebanon’s borders turning on one another in times of crisis.
Early on-the-ground surveys of Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon indicate that most refugees are not seeking to return to war-torn Syria unless and until the security situation drastically improves. According to the surveys, many refugees fear reprisal for having fled the country and forced military conscription in addition to economic hardship similar to that found in Lebanon.
Many Lebanese are loath to accept a long-term Syrian presence in Lebanon, citing the economic crisis, security concerns, and resentment towards the Syrian regime and its previous treatment of the Lebanese people. Yet with little prospects for resettlement elsewhere and a vengeful Syrian regime that has proven remarkably resilient, these communities are left in a kind of cruel waiting room in Lebanon, unable to create a life where they are or return to the one they once had. Lebanese authorities have repeatedly refused to address the possibility of regularizing the status of regional migrants or refugees, along with achieving virtually nothing by way of alternative solutions.
Just as there are costs to policies that benefit refugees, there are immense costs to inaction. The past year has demonstrated the inseparable nature of any community’s fate from that of its neighbors, particularly when it comes to health. But in addition to allowing a deadly pandemic to fester in populations that are by no means isolated from the rest of Lebanon, Syrian refugees that are left with their basic needs unmet will continue to be forced to compete with Lebanese for limited resources, exacerbating tensions and conflict, and will be more vulnerable in the face of extremist groups that would take advantage of desperation and resentment among marginalized youth. Issues of gender-based violence, child labor, and child marriage will continue to proliferate, and an entire generation of Syrian children will grow up traumatized, embittered, and deprived of crucial skills needed for any eventual rebuilding of Syria.
It is evident that the challenges faced by refugees as well as the locals hosting them must be addressed by both short-term and long-term solutions. While the government should continue seeking a political solution for the future of these asylum-seekers, it should also be seeking ways for refugees to participate in a more mutually beneficial relationship with Lebanese society, rather than continuing to eke out an existence on its margins.