Lebanon has the highest per capita assemblage of refugees worldwide as it shelters approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees and roughly 450,000 long-term Palestinian refugees. The country also hosts a small percentage of Ethiopian, Iraqi, and Sudanese refugees. In certain areas, refugees outnumber local residents. To further put things into perspective, 25% of individuals living in Lebanon are refugees. Initially, Lebanon welcomed refugees with open arms, however, refugees’ living conditions have been far from ideal especially as the national economic situation deteriorates.
The History of Refugees in Lebanon
The ongoing civil war in Syria, which commenced in 2011, has resulted in the largest global refugee crisis in the last 50 years. Peaceful demonstrations by Syrians protesting the dictatorship and calling for freedom and change sparked a violent response by the government security forces. The conflict developed into a full-blown civil war that has killed at least hundreds of thousands and prompted the displacement of millions. Ten years later, approximately 13 million Syrians are still in need of humanitarian assistance. Neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have hosted the vast majority of refugees (approximately 5.5 million). Lebanon, however, has hosted the most Syrian refugees, relative to its population size.
Additionally, scores of Palestinians sought refuge in Lebanon in the aftermath of the 1948 Nakba when the establishment of Israel caused the forced displacement and destruction of Palestinian society. By 1949, Zionists had already committed 223 atrocities including lootings, bombings, and massacres. In 1949, approximately 750,000 Palestinians had fled their homeland. Since then, Israel’s ongoing occupation and settlement program have caused even more Palestinians to be forced out. By 2012, Israel had control of more than 85% of the Palestinian land, with the government’s Zionist policies still continuing the oppression, ethnic cleansing, and dispossession of Palestinians to this day. As a result, Lebanon has hosted 450,000 Palestinian refugees, 40,000 of which first sought refuge in Syria, meaning they were “twice refugeed.”
Poor Living Conditions Before 2019
The living conditions for refugees in Lebanon have been exceptionally poor, even before the 2019 Lebanese Financial Crisis and the spread of COVID-19. Ever since the Lebanese civil war, the country’s economy has been suffering. Thus, housing almost 2 million refugees is a significant challenge for a country dealing with its own troubled affairs.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon are being housed in abandoned buildings or decades-old Palestinian camps, as they do not have any formal refugee camps to reside in. They also live in cramped tent settlements, which do not protect them from mud, rain, and cold winters.
Moreover, approximately 90 percent of Syrian refugees live in poverty, as they generally only make less than half of the national minimum wage. This is because employers are aware they can exploit them for cheap labor as there are few alternate opportunities to generate income. As such, employed refugees earn around $36 USD per month and thus cannot afford basic necessities for themselves, such as food and education. In 2018, 58 percent of Syrian children seeking refuge in Lebanon were unable to access formal education.
Furthermore, due to Lebanon’s decision to prohibit refugees from registering under the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), over 80 percent of refugees don’t hold legal residency. Unable to go through the UNHCR, refugees have to get approval from authorities, obtain sponsorship from a Lebanese citizen, and pay an annual fee of $200. These criteria are undeniably unattainable considering poverty rates and how difficult it can be to acquire approval. Syrian refugees are exposed to exploitation and deportation. In 2019, 2,500 refugees were forcibly deported by authorities.
The case for Palestinian refugees is comparable, as they also endure abysmal living conditions, experience high poverty rates, and lack access to education. They also lack formal citizenship, leaving Palestinians without political, social, or economic liberties in Lebanon. Unlike Syrian refugees, Palestinians reside in official camps. After 1948, Lebanon built temporary shelters for Palestinian refugees. However, these shelters have not been sufficiently maintained or updated and are being used to this day. The ageing and deteriorating buildings are the only options for Palestinians due to their miniscule income and their non-citizen status.
How COVID-19 and the Financial Crisis Worsened Life for Refugees
Lebanon is currently facing a severe financial crisis, by which the Lebanese currency has collapsed like never before, food prices have skyrocketed, and more than 50 percent of Lebanese families are currently living under the poverty line. They are also facing a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, which Lebanon cannot handle properly in light of its crumbling economy. Struggling to survive under the already substandard living conditions, refugees are now further at risk as COVID-19 spreads and the Lebanese financial crisis continues to play out.
In terms of COVID-19, housing for refugees is highly overcrowded, as some tents hold more than 20 individuals at once, which highly increases the likelihood of an outbreak. Sanitation is also a big problem— a report published in 2019 found that 26 percent of Syrian refugees lack basic sanitation services. Statistically, Palestinian refugees are three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than members of the general Lebanese population. Within a year of the COVID-19 pandemic in Lebanon, around 5,800 Palestinian refugees have been infected, with 200 dying from the virus. The vast majority of Palestinian refugees who passed away from the virus had previous health conditions that were worsened by poverty. Death rates for Syrian refugees are four times that of the national average.
Furthermore, refugees fear deportation if they choose to test or seek treatment for COVID-19, as the majority are unregistered. While they may receive the treatment, they may also attract security authorities due to their lack of paperwork. With vaccines rolling out in Lebanon, they face the same problems with registrations and access to information. While refugees constitute over 25 percent of Lebanon’s population, as of April 2021 only 2.86 percent of those vaccinated are non-nationals. The Lebanese government did, however, encourage refugees over 75 years of age to apply to receive the vaccine. Despite this, refugees are still visibly “left-behind.”
The financial crisis has also severely impacted refugees. Poverty rates have been soaring for Lebanese citizens, especially for refugees, as daily labour opportunities have become scarce. Statistically, 9 out of 10 Syrian refugee families are currently living in extreme poverty, below the survival line. While the average monthly income for refugees was around $36 USD before the financial crisis, it has dropped to roughly $25 USD as a result of the economic situation.
Stories of refugees have come to light, as their unthinkable means of living have become more and more dreadful. For instance, Ahmad, a Syrian refugee who resides in Lebanon, recently contemplated suicide, as his current living conditions have become completely unlivable. To survive, Ahmad’s daughters sell tissues on the streets for the family to eat. He sleeps on the floor of his house on a mattress, as a strong stench of sewage hangs in the air. In a similar situation, Syrian refugee Raed Mattar, also lives in extreme poverty. Mattar went from earning $13 a day to less than $2. During the month of Ramadan, where Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, Mattar family’s Iftar, meaning the meal eaten after fasting, consisted of only an onion.
The Crisis Continues
As of 2021, refugees have yet to receive hopeful news to better their situation. Despite their living conditions, refugees decide to stay put in Lebanon. Going back to Syria is not in question, as either their homes were completely destroyed, or they fear retribution from the government they fled. Additionally, Lebanese locals have begun to develop a strong resentment towards refugees, as the crisis worsens for citizens. It is believed that the Lebanese government has begun intentionally worsening their living conditions, in hopes for refugees to leave. The effectiveness of their efforts, however, remains minimal. Refugees continue to put up with extreme poverty, poor housing arrangements, and unsanitary conditions, all while facing COVID-19 and the financial crisis.