Lebanon, a country of slightly more than 4 million inhabitants, has been home to 1.2 million Syrian refugees for five years now, and to another 600,000 Palestinian refugees who have lived for decades in the land of the cedars.
The migrant reception in Lebanon is not an easy issue but shows problems and contradictions. The Lebanese government has decided not to set up formal camps for its Syrian refugees, who are spread throughout the territory and are encouraged to achieve a sort of self-reliance. This choice was made in order to prevent the establishment of new slums, but most of all because Lebanon’s experience with Palestinian refugees, some 500,000 of whom have now lived in the country for more than 60 years after UN camps were first established for them in Lebanon, has left deep scars. Many believe that creating formal refugee camps for Syrians would encourage them to settle in Lebanon permanently. Besides, Beirut fears that a massive influx of Syrian Sunnis may jeopardize the fragile political balance of the country (this would be the reason that, last July, led to the evacuation of 41 settlements near the border with Syria). The result is that refugees live in small clusters of shacks built on lands, which are leased, to Lebanese or Saudi owners. Refugees work the fields, often underpaid, to pay the rent to the landlords. The alternatives to the slums are small apartments, garages, or unfinished houses.
Syrian refugees pay the rent by working or also by completing the construction of the unfinished house, which is often, home to up to twelve people. Somehow, Syrian refugees may be considered as a blessing for the Lebanese economy. Many Syrians are employed in the construction field, and are paid lower wages compared to those of the locals. They do not have labour protection or warranties either. “This way companies save money by cutting work compensation costs”, says Said, who worked as a baker in Homs.
According to the Lebanese union of building entrepreneurs, about 350,000 Syrian workers are hired in the building sector. Seventy per cent of the Syrian refugees live below the poverty threshold (fixed at 3.84 dollars per day) and 90% of them are trapped in the vicious circle of debts. Poverty also favours child labour in agriculture. Children, like women, get starvation wages: 4 dollars per day, or even less. Over time, the Syrian refugees’ situation got even worse. Many of those who, at the beginning of the crisis could afford to pay a house rent, now are often forced to live in tents or to try their luck in Europe. The above mentioned reality along with geopolitical factors, explain why the influx of migrants towards the Mediterranean is destined to increase enormously.
Gestures of solidarity
There are, however, several signs of solidarity towards the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In order to favour Syrian children, some public schools implement double shift classes, which allow students, who cannot attend school in the morning, to have their classes in the afternoon. UNHCR and various donors cover all tuition fees for refugee children, as well as all the other expenses. Financial support to provide for refugees is also a problem. Turkey took 6 billion Euros from the EU to curb migration; Lebanon, to date has not received such generous financial support from the EU. Last April, the French President Francois Hollande, on his Middle East trip, promised to give Lebanon over 100 mln Euros to face the migration problem, along with several aids ‘to boost the country’s military capability’ in the face of the threat of the Islamic State.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), estimates that 1 billion 759 million dollars is the sum required this year for the Syrian refugees alone in Lebanon but, up to now, the UN agency was able to collect only 90 million dollars, barely 5 per cent, from donor countries. (J.L.)