Lebanon Straining Under Pressure of Syrian Refugees
By Gabi Yamout
Boats filled to the brim with desperate families escaping a war-torn nation and crowded, dusty camps in the outskirts of cities: these are the images of the Syrian refugee crisis painted in the Western mind. Better yet, add a clip of an American politician discussing the possible security threats associated with the crisis. This depiction of the mass migration of Syrians is all too familiar, and in large part misrepresents the experiences of many refugees.
Driven by the harsh conditions of the Syrian civil war, families have been leaving the country for surrounding nations in search of better lives. 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian aid as of October 2016. Although media coverage largely centers on the pressure the refugee crisis has placed on European Union states such as Germany and France, countries that border Syria, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have faced the most significant impact.
Pressure has been building In Lebanon, where over one million Syrian refugees currently reside. In a country where the net population is around 4.7 million, nearly one in every four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Although initially Lebanon maintained its traditional open door policy for refugees, soon the migration became too much of a strain. The state was forced to implement stricter border policies, including visa-like requirements and minimum cash balances. Because Lebanon already houses hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, the state does not provide refugee camps for Syrians. Instead, Syrian refugees stay in host communities, mostly in the poor areas of Bekaa and north Lebanon, and are given cash allowances for life expenses. There is a stark difference between refugees’ lived experiences and the media’s reports.
The impacts of the refugee crisis in Lebanon are varied and wide reaching. First, Lebanon’s already struggling economy has been put under great strain. Because it is against the law to hire a Syrian refugee, an illegal labor market for cheap labor has arisen, putting many small Lebanese businesses in the red. Furthermore, the lack of refugee camps has forced Syrians to spend their life savings on shelter, outspending poor Lebanese citizens and expelling them from their homes. The poorest areas are suffering the most. Already unstable neighborhoods have had to cope with huge population and housing price increases. To make matters worse, tourism rates have dropped, along with Syrian exports.
Of course, things aren’t easy for the refugees either. Education for Syrian children is severely lacking. Before the crisis, Lebanon’s public school system was already suffering. Only 30 percent of school-age children attended public schools. Now, less than half of the school-aged Syrian children are enrolled in school, risking a lost generation for children’s education. Despite measures taken to try to accommodate refugees, including waived fees, increased hours for teachers, and overlooking the lack of legal residency, the system can’t cope with the increased burden without implementing greater reform or external aid.
Health care is deteriorating for Syrian refugees and the Lebanese as well. Because most refugees are in poor areas where sanitation and access to clean water already isn’t guaranteed, public services have been quickly slipping out of reach for many. Access to basic health care services isn’t secure for refugees either. Those injured in the conflict or in their flight from Syria, as well as those with a pre-existing condition are at great risk. Trash is left uncollected in the streets because public utilities can’t keep up, only decreasing already low sanitation standards.
This confluence of factors has made conditions worsen in Lebanon. Some programs exist to take small amounts of refugees from Lebanon and transition them to European countries such as Italy, but only a few hundred individuals are able to navigate through the system and be accepted to transfer to a different state. Underfunded and under-supported, Lebanon is buckling under the strain of the migration crisis. Instead of only giving 62.8 percent of the funding for the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, more international aid should be directed to the country. If there’s any hope of improving the situation, Lebanon will need more money and more media attention. The dramatics of security risks in Europe and sea crossings to Greece don’t shed light on the great pressure put on countries bordering Syria. We should reconsider the way we perceive the refugee crisis, and give thought to the impact it has internationally, not just through a Western lens.