Two years of grinding conflict in Syria has led to more than 2 million refugees fleeing the country. Of these, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered 716,285 individuals in Lebanon as refugees or asylum seekers and counting. The total number of Syrians in Lebanon, however, is estimated to be 1.5 million and includes people who may have entered the country illegally and/or have not registered.
Despite these enormous numbers, the Lebanese government has attempted to maintain a principle of non-intervention in the Syrian conflict, offering no formal support to refugees and not permitting refugee camps within Lebanon’s borders. Instead, Syrian refugees have been forced to disperse—staying in rented accommodations, the homes of strangers, and makeshift shelters—and to compete— for school places, apartments, and livelihood amid the host population.
Only as of August 31—over two years after the first Syrian refugees entered Lebanon—did the Lebanese government open its first official refugee reception center for Syrian refugees. As a result, providing services to the Syrian refugee community has been an unprecedented challenge for UNHCR, and the conditions for the asylum seekers or migrants in Lebanon are so poor that many face an untenable and undignified future.
To guide efforts, we conducted focus groups with Syrian refugees hosted in a number of Lebanese communities between May and July 2013. The participants were men and women from a variety of family structures and represented an array of social and economic groups. Focus groups discussed their living conditions, primary concerns, and coping strategies, in addition to the kinds of support that would make the greatest difference for them. The discussions provide a powerful narrative of the challenges of survival, impossible choices, and lost futures. They also highlight the urgent need for a new approach to the refugee crisis in Syria.
This article draws primarily from the focus group discussions, analyzing them against publicly available international reports and media, with conclusions drawn from the discussions themselves, applicable experience elsewhere, and recognized best practices.
A refugee crisis of unprecedented scale
“I was feeling insecure, I was feeling scared over my wife and kids, I can handle whatever happens to me but for my family it’s very hard. It happened to a neighbor that they killed the children and raped the wife then left the husband to suffer alone, so I wanted to save my family from the same…”
–Male focus group participant, approx. 40 years of age, from Homs. Interviewed May 2013.
In 2011, refugees coming to Lebanon settled mostly in the northern region, in the cities of Wadi Khaled and Tripoli. Since March 2012, the Bekaa valley, which is closer to Syria, has also become a refuge for those fleeing troubles in nearby Homs. As conflict grew in intensity and ferocity in Aleppo and Damascus, migration increased exponentially from one or two families per day to several thousand people crossing the Lebanese border daily, as shown in the graph below.
It should be noted that this graph accounts only for registered refugees. While the total number of refugees is probably underrepresented, the sharp growth may be exaggerated by circumstantial evidence. Data provided by UNCHR.
The physical proximity between Beirut and Damascus—a mere 88km—was the primary factor driving many refugees’ decision to come to Lebanon. But others travelled much farther to reach Lebanon, choosing more favorable conditions over a country that was closer. Horror stories of squalid conditions in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq made Lebanon appear to be an attractive alternative, where a normal life might be possible.
Additionally, most of the focus group participants shared the perception that Lebanon and Syria have a special relationship: the two countries share the same language and culture, and many of the sects found in Syria also exist in Lebanon.
Another attractive characteristic of Lebanon is that there is no passport requirement for a Syrian citizen to enter the country, whereas a passport-less Syrian refugee travelling to Turkey or Jordan would be required to register in a camp. In an effort to retain independence, many Syrians chose to drive across the border and present an ID card, after which they were granted a visitors pass to enter Lebanon. Although the process is relatively easy, as the crisis has lengthened it has proved to be a double-edged sword.
Though the Lebanese government allows Syrian nationals to pass through the border without passports, the government does not allow them to stay indefinitely. Syrians must also return to the border at least every six months to extend their stay in the country.
But many refugees are unwilling to take the risk of renewing entry passes out of fear that border officials throw them in prison or (for the men) force them to enlist in the army or hold them hostage. Family members of political refugees are also at risk, as they could be held hostage in their family member’s place.
“And sometimes men go to renew at the border and they are seized there and they never come back. The women, if they have a husband or a brother who is wanted, when they go to renew they are seized too with the hope that their husband or brother would give themselves up. So now people stopped renewing altogether. I have two wanted brothers, so there is no way I am going to renew.”
–Female focus group participant, approx. 28 years of age, from Damascus. Interviewed July 2013.
Consequently, a growing number of refugees who have been unable to renew entry passes or replace official documents that may have been destroyed or lost in transit reside in Lebanon without up-to-date paperwork, a decision that carries risks of its own.
Once an entry pass expires, the status of a Syrian within Lebanon becomes very ambiguous. Lebanon is neither a party to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor its 1967 Protocol, which removed geographical and temporal restrictions from the Convention itself.
The Convention establishes the principle that refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or presence in the host country.
As Lebanon is not a signatory to the convention, it has not committed to the principle of providing special treatment for refugees and instead treats refugees and asylum seekers as ”illegal immigrants” or leaves them in a status-less limbo.
“I thought Lebanon was like Paris – but it is worse than Syria”
For the refugees themselves, the focus group discussions demonstrated clearly that life in Lebanon has become increasingly difficult, particularly over the past several months. As the graph demonstrated, the rate of entry for new migrants has risen exponentially in the last few months. Between the two focus groups conducted a mere two months apart (May to July), the additional stresses and challenges brought on by the rapidly increasing Syrian refugee population were palpable.
The Lebanese economy has already been severely affected by the instability in Syria. The investment and the tourism sectors are almost inactive, with a decrease in the latter leading to an estimated 5 percent drop in GDP. General growth has dropped to only 0.78 percent over the past year. Furthermore, estimates of the economy and key markets found that as a direct result of the influx of refugees, the average hourly wage has fallen from 15,000LL to 8,000LL (approximately 10 to 5.5USD).
The Syrian refugee population is placing more pressure on host communities and local municipalities, especially in the poorest regions of Lebanon: the north and the Bekaa valley, where residents struggle to stay above the poverty line and have little to share.
Refugee accommodations in Naamé, just outside Beirut.
In the absence of refugee camps, Syrians must compete with the Lebanese for housing, employment, health services, and other resources that were insufficient even before the crisis began.
Reports on how refugees have been received by the local communities in Lebanon differ vastly. While the generosity of the host communities is evident, some Lebanese blame the refugees for shrinking wages and job opportunities, and increasing rents and prices for groceries, car repairs, and other necessities.
Disturbingly, there are reports that some Lebanese have attempted to profit from the incoming refugees. Sadly, the focus groups reflected numerous cases where they have been subject to price gouging and wage exploitation.
The landlord from which we rent the flat has a small shop and he obliges us to buy only from him. He has bread that we don’t like the quality of, and sometimes the children want a certain item from another shop but we can’t, we have to buy from him. If we buy from the other shop around the corner, he has a bad attitude for a week and he starts considering whether he should throw us out.
–Female focus group participant, approx. 30 years of age, from Homs. Interviewed July 2013.
Both men and women confirmed that labor exploitation is a widespread problem. Minimum wage is not guaranteed; neither is time off nor other benefits, yet the need for income is often so great that refugees must continue working under these poor conditions.
Most of the focus group participants reported that they had already exhausted their savings, and were struggling to make ends meet. Some families are under so much financial strain that their children have taken jobs to help meet the basic needs of the family.
“My children are overachievers, they tried to work, one of them is 18 years old, he went to work at a poultry factory, he would work from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. for 5,000LBP (USD 3.30) a day. Then the owner made it 6,000LBP (USD 4) a day but excluding lunch. So now I’m willing to go to any country, apply for emigration anywhere just for my children to continue their education.”
Female focus group participant, approx. 45 years of age, from near Damascus. Interviewed July 2013.
As the struggle to survive has become widespread, one participant reported a new idiom that has been coined: “Souri andanbouri,” which means, “the Syrian who has no money.”
Without a means to make a living, refugees lack easy access to the most basic services: food, housing, medical care, and education for their children.
Exacerbating the situation, some landlords believe the refugees are or will be the recipients of generous international aid, and feel entitled to profit from it, whereby they demand higher rent.
Several participants reported that they were threatened with eviction unless they paid whatever the landlord asked. They felt they had no choice and shared the perception that finding another place to stay would be difficult, because there is a shortage of acceptable housing and competition is intensifying as the refugee population swells:
“When the first refugees came in, rent was in the USD 200-250 range then after a while it became USD 250-300, now they call us tourists and you can’t find a house below USD 400. They are renting out storage spaces to live in for USD 300, and there are no bathrooms or anything. There is nothing.”
Female focus group participant, approx. 30 years of age, from near Aleppo. Interviewed May 2013.
Participants also noted that the cost of care in Lebanon far exceeds what they can afford and what they were accustomed to pay in Syria. Those who suffer from chronic diseases have had to forego treatment, and others said that they have asked friends to bring their medication from Syria where it is less expensive.
Poor access to health services contributes to the overall sense that Syrians are unwelcome in Lebanon, and has forced refugees to make desperate choices:
“I witnessed a married woman who is selling herself for 25,000 LBP in order to get food for her babies, and treatment for her husband who needed also a wheelchair. She didn’t even have 5,000 LBP to buy the ‘medical container for urination.’”
Male focus group participant, approx. 60 years of age, from Damascus. Interviewed May 2013.
Violence against women, sexual harassment, and abuse are becoming increasingly prevalent, as competition for basic resources drives levels of desperation upward. Said one woman: “Syrian girls are taken advantage of. Either she has to smile and do what they want, or they start telling lies about how bad she is.”
While the adversity has made women more vulnerable, it has unexpectedly also broken down some barriers in traditional gender roles. For example, women are more successful than men at gaining access to highly sought aid supplies. As one woman said, “When we were in Syria, I used to cover my face and never leave home unless it’s by car. My husband would never allow [me to go on foot] and always took me in the car. Now, you should see how it is. First I took off the face veil and then if there’s aid I go to receive; if there’s registration, I go; medicine, I go.”
But not all welcomed this change. Said one man: “My wife started working and I feel she got stronger when it comes to her personality, so that was a good thing. But I still wish she just stays home and take care of the children.”
“I don’t mind living in a tent, as long as I am in my country”
While the participants of the focus groups universally expressed a desire to return home, it is unlikely that there will be a swift resolution to the Syrian crisis.
The short-term, predominantly humanitarian aid-dependent approaches currently used to deal with the Syrian refugees are simply not enough. In fact they are more likely to exacerbate the rising tensions between the host community and the refugees. Thus, a shift in mentality is urgently required.
Firstly, the Syria Regional Refugee Response plan, which calls for 3 billion USD to address the acute needs of refugees until December of this year, is currently only 38 percent funded.
But the scope of targeted populations must broaden. Humanitarian aid has been exclusively directed at registered Syrian refugees, putting other vulnerable groups even more at risk, including host communities who were excluded from accessing support under the current system.
Rather, new methods, modalities, partnerships, and approaches should be considered to address the deficiencies faced by both refugees and host communities in terms of access to education, water and sanitation, health, shelter, employment, and most importantly, to help mitigate sectarian conflict. Consideration should be given, for example, to small and medium-scale infrastructure projects aimed at helping both hosting and refugee communities overcome challenges jointly, leaving a lasting benefit for the Lebanese and creating local employment for both Lebanese and Syrians.
This brief was co-authored with Mary Ann Perkins, and was published by Columbia Journal for International Affairs on September 30th, 2013.