The number of refugees in Lebanon is hovering over 1.2 million, nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Such large numbers are indisputably threatening the fragile economic, social and political balance of this small country. But can Lebanon benefit from this sudden influx of refugees?
A lot has been written about the rising numbers of refugees in Lebanon and their social and economic impact on the country. UNHCR estimates the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon at 1.2 million, to which should be added an as yet uncounted – but growing – group of Iraqi newcomers. Lebanon’s population has increased by 25% in the past three years and although the government announced last month that the country will stop accepting displaced Syrians, numbers will keep rising as refugees seek unofficial roads to safety.
Most reports on refugees in Lebanon emphasize the threat that they present to the country’s fragile stability and overstretched infrastructure. Lebanon’s weak state institutions are already struggling to keep the country afloat, let alone manage a humanitarian crisis. Having failed to elect a president earlier this year, the parliament now faces growing criticism for renewing its term unconstitutionally. As for public services, most Lebanese avoid the overcrowded state hospitals and schools if they can. According to the latest numbers published by the World Health Organization (WHO), government spending on health per citizen has gone from $245 per year in 2011 to $190 in 2012, but this only covers 29% of what the average Lebanese spends on health every year. The country is also struggling to provide water and electricity to its population – power cuts and water shortages are a main source of dissatisfaction as most people must pay private companies to complement the public supplies.
So it is not surprising that many Lebanese, including the press, civil society groups and government officials, argue that the large presence of refugees is pushing the country to breaking point. This reflects a wider trend in the portrayal of refugees worldwide, which tends to present them as a burden to their host societies and a major cause of tensions and conflicts. A 2006 study by the University of California argues that large groups of refugees within a country often contributed to civil strife or full-on wars, and one of its case studies is Lebanon, where the mass presence of Palestinians and their militarization is often seen as a factor leading to the 15 years of civil war.
In line with the belief that refugees can only be a burden for a country, the Lebanese government has done very little to facilitate their inclusion. In a move to avoid the emergence of pockets of poverty similar to the Palestinian camps (some of them over 65 years old), policy makers decided to ban the creation of refugee camps for Syrians. However, although Syrians and Iraqis have not been forced into geographical isolation like the Palestinians, they are being socially marginalized and many have ended up in tented settlements all over Lebanon which, as opposed to official camps, are more difficult to manage, and harder to track by aid organizations. Other refugees managed to rent flats in the cities but due to soaring housing prices many of them can only afford insalubrious attics or garages, or choose to squat in abandoned buildings or parks.
Much criticism has been raised concerning the government’s response to the Syrian crisis. It has been accused of disregarding the needs of newly arrived refugees and failing to distinguish their legal and social situation from that of other migrants. Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention and its laws are designed to discourage refugee settlement. In 2003, Lebanon’s General Security and the UNHCR signed a Memorandum of Understanding stating that Lebanon is not a country of permanent refuge and that UNHCR must find resettlement places elsewhere for the refugees that it recognizes. Lebanon also criminalizes refugees who enter the country unofficially: they are liable to between one month and 3 years in jail, a fine and deportation. As Lebanon is bound by international treaties forbidding refoulement (sending refugees back to their country), Iraqi and Syrian refugees without valid residency permits have been kept in indefinite detention until they ‘voluntarily’ chose to return to their country. This can only be called forced deportation.
Lebanon also imposes high visa fees on refugees which many families cannot afford to pay. They then have two options: return to Syria so as to obtain a new visa upon re-entry to Lebanon, or not to renew their visa and live in constant fear of arrest. Both options present obvious risks – the latter forces refugees to limit their daily trips and social interaction so as to avoid checks by security forces, particularly after the recent increase in the number of checkpoints even within cities.
As a result of these alienating policies, nearly 1.3 million people live in Lebanon without the means or the opportunity of contributing positively to the country’s economic and social life. In such conditions, the refugees can only become a burden. But can they also bring positive change to their host society? After experiencing the trauma of war, loss and displacement, refugees usually long for a normal life: to work, to see their children go to school, to take decisions, make friends, go shopping and help others. Research has shown that when refugees are allowed to interact with and participate in their host society, they overcome their trauma faster, and demonstrate admirable adaptability, determination and creativity in rebuilding their lives, using old skills and developing new ones.
Not only should refugees be allowed to help themselves, they should also be allowed to help the country which took them in. Refugees are consumers, workers, renters and entrepreneurs. A UNHCR report in May 2014 stated 81% of refugees in Lebanon pay rent at an average of $200 a month, a sum which has surely increased since, as the number of Syrians in the country and rent prices have gone up. The report further adds that “an estimated $34 million is injected into the local economy monthly through refugee rental payments”, challenging the common-held belief that Syrians are draining the Lebanese economy. In addition, aid targeting Syrians and Iraqis in Lebanon has boomed and as most aid organizations these days buy their relief goods from the local economy, Lebanese businesses profit. UNHCR estimates that aid organizations procured over $50 million worth of construction materials from Lebanese businesses since November 2012.
But refugees can benefit the country more than just financially – their presence has social and political benefits as well. Responding to the refugee crisis in a coherent and effective manner could be a useful strategy for the government to boost its own legitimacy and demonstrate pro-activeness and a concern for pressing social issues, while countering those who criticize it for being inactive and bogged down in sectarian squabbles. Above all, a hands-on approach by the government would allow it to control the flow of refugees, prevent diseases, illegal trade, crime and drugs and eliminate the factors that push refugees towards radicalization. Some municipalities in Lebanon have already implemented projects and policies in response to the crisis, such as agreements with aid organizations to increase relief operations in their areas, cooperation with relevant ministries to develop inclusion strategies for refugees, increasing waste-management capacities in response to the sudden increase of population in their municipality, or bolstering security in certain areas, particularly after sunset when fights and petty crime have become more frequent. This contributes to a renewed dynamism in these government offices and new partnerships with important humanitarian actors in the country.
Of course, having a country’s population increase 25% in a few years is alarming, and has undeniable negative consequences, not least the strain on natural resources, the lack of space in urban areas, inflation and wage decrease. But it is important for Lebanon to acknowledge the potential of the refugees who now live in its territory, and how policies encouraging this potential could reduce the negative impact of their presence. Such a large group of refugees includes workers, doctors, teachers, artists, engineers, scientists, activists. Most of them are young and determined to rebuild their lives in a meaningful way. Now comes the time to offer them the chance to help themselves, and by doing so, help Lebanon.
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