The Future of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Syrian refugee family in Lebanon (DFID via Flickr)

by Gareth Smyth

After a cold winter, spring has arrived with vigor in Lebanon, coating the mountains with the red, yellow, and blue of anemones, daisies, and lupines. Down on the coastal plain, garden centers enjoy a brisk business, with many Syrians entering the trade.

Some Syrian refugees in Lebanon are doing well. Damascus-style fatteh can be savored on the Beirut seaside corniche, and there are many large four-wheel drives with Syrian license plates. Even before Syria’s war erupted in 2011, many Syrians worked in Lebanon, whose per capita annual income of $10,000 was four times higher than Syria’s. With the war, many Syrian workers brought over their families, and some are now starting to look and feel settled.

For Hala Naufal, professor of demography at Lebanese University, assessment and prognosis must begin with statistics, which are notoriously unreliable in Lebanon. Due to sensitivities over the sizes of its 18 sects, the country last carried out a census in 1932, before the modern state was founded.

Naufal draws tentative quantitative and qualitative conclusions from research as an advisor to the Lebanese Family Planning Association (LFPA) and in fieldwork with UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, which deals with sexual and reproductive health. “Before 2011, there were 600,00o-700,000 Syrians working in Lebanon,” says Naufal. “With the crisis, they brought their families. UNHCR [the United Nations High Commission on Refugees] has under 1 million registered, the government estimates 1.5 million. I believe there are over 2 million. They are spread all over the country, in every locality.”

With Lebanon’s population at around 6 million, Samir el-Daher, a former senior official at the World Bank and economics advisor to former Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati, has calculated Lebanon’s population density, including 1.5 million Syrian refugees, at 600 per square kilometer. “This is the fifth highest in the world if you discount the city states,” he says. “You can say it’s like 110 million Mexicans arriving in the United States, but it’s worse, because population density in the United States [currently 35] would be only 45 per square kilometer even after such an influx.”

Lebanon’s infrastructure—including electricity and water—is creaking. The refugees, at least in some sectors, have depressed wages, and rents have risen. Demographic changes common to much of the Third World have accelerated, as migrants from the Syrian hinterland have come to Lebanon’s wealthier cities, especially on the Mediterranean coast. Beirut has a growing chasm between rich and poor as the better-off move behind security gates in high-rises. One new development just outside Beirut Downtown promises a “vertical village” comfortably above the Syrians selling packets of Kleenex to motorists stuck in jams. Monot Lofts, at present still a hole in the ground, has a billboard proclaiming itself “trendy/chic/urban.”

Naufal believes the Syrians could be an asset for Lebanon “with a strategy for assimilation and adequate regulations.” But the Lebanese government’s haphazard management and the country’s political divisions are stirring up an explosive mix.

Previous Waves

When Syrians first fled the war, Lebanese politicians could not agree how to respond. Looming large was the specter of the Palestinians, who came in the 1947-8 nakba as the state of Israel was created. Living mainly in shanty towns still known as moukhayam (many tents), the Palestinians have sometimes destabilized Lebanese politics while remaining in a stateless limbo, distinct from Lebanese society. Granting citizenship to the Palestinians is ruled out not just because of a wider Arab claim that they will return to their homes and land in Israel/Palestine but because they are overwhelmingly Sunnis and so would tilt the balance of Lebanon’s political system between Sunnis, Shia, and Christians. By contrast, the Christian Armenians who fled the 1915 massacres in the Ottoman Empire were granted citizenship because Lebanon’s Christians were then the dominant group.

Refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria after 2011 were overwhelmingly Sunni. Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist party, and other allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, resisted building camps, as was done in both Turkey and Jordan, for fear that they would become bases for mainly Sunni anti-Assad rebel groups.

Instead, the Syrians panned out across the country and are now in nearly every locality. As more Lebanese start to fear that the refugees are a permanent presence, political divisions are again paralyzing government policies. Taking the lead in articulating growing anti-Syrian sentiments is the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian party whose leader, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, recently said Lebanon will have “no government” if the refugees stay.

The FPM is allied to Hezbollah. Both parties, the ones most insistent on the refugees’ departure, are allied to Assad. By contrast Mustaqbal, the Lebanese Sunni party led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri that has sympathized with Syrian rebels, argues the refugees’ return requires change in Syria. In other words, they want Assad to concede some powers to the opponents he feels he has vanquished. The result is an impasse.

The refugees clearly see little reason to head home anytime soon. President Michel Aoun, FPM’s founder, claims that 167,000 refugees have returned, while the General Security in December estimated 100,000. But UNRWA has verified just 16,000 returnees. An UNRWA poll found that, although 83 percent want to go home, only 5 percent plan to do so in the next year.

The State of Syria

The obvious reason is that much of Syria lies in ruins. The Syrian Network for Human Rights last year estimated 3 million homes to be completely or nearly destroyed. Although President Assad’s government puts reconstruction costs at a staggering $400 billion, the European Union and the affluent Arab Gulf countries, like Mustaqbal, say political reform is a precondition for assistance. Russia, whose air power is a major reason Assad remains in power, is offering nothing. Although Iran provided an important $4.6 billion wartime credit line, including oil supplies, it faces recession at home, and its help for reconstruction will be largely limited to what Damascus can pay for.

So, in Lebanon, even Syrians in the worst circumstances are staying put. In 2017, a UN survey found that 76 percent of the refugees lived in poverty. West of Baalbek, near Yammoune nature reserve and dam, a Lebanese army position overlooks a settlement of tents. Children play amid the wild spring flowers just 30 kilometers from the Syrian frontier. The sun is now shining, the ground is dry, but this has been a hard winter.

“Many children and babies died in the cold, but these people lack choices,” says Naufal. “There’s no job and perhaps no home to go back to. Here in Lebanon, NGOs offer health and other services, including for the non-registered. In Syria, this isn’t the case.”

Security is another important issue. The German and French ambassadors, Georg Birgelen and Bruno Foucher, argued in a recent article that “the main barrier [to return] is the climate of fear and injustice in Syria…[with] detention by the Syrian security agencies…so arbitrary that no refugee can ultimately be sure of a safe return.” The ambassadors demanded that Damascus allow UNHCR to “freely move within Syria to access and protect all refugees.”

Assad, meanwhile, feels no hurry. Critics accused his regime of ethnic cleansing even before the war. “I think it’s fair to say that most Lebanese wants the refugee burden to end, but unless the Syrian regime shows that it is willing to repatriate them…they will not return soon,” says Michael Young, senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

The regime is using the refugees as leverage both on Lebanon and on the international community to normalize relations with Damascus. So, we’re in a stalemate at least for the near future, but pressure will build to begin to forcefully repatriate refugees. The international community will rightfully condemn this, but many Lebanese, I fear, will support such a decision.

If the refugees do settle in Lebanon, there may be some parallels to the aftermath of Israel’s invasion of south Lebanon when thousands of Shias fled to Beirut. These refugees swelled the southern suburbs of Beirut, the so-called Dahia. They also squatted areas like Zuqaq al-Blat near Beirut’s downtown where they remain today. This was a major demographic shift whose political consequences included the rise of Hezbollah.

As non-nationals, the Syrians lack voting and other rights. But this might not preclude them from having some political role. They are disproportionately young. According to the UNHCR, around half of registered refugees are under 18 and over 50 percent of school-aged children are not in school. Disenchanted youth living in informal housing and in black-market work can be fertile ground for extremists. The age profile of the refugees also favors Salafi recruitment.

Militant Sunni groups have long had toe-holds in the northern city of Tripoli and in some Palestinian camps, especially Ain el-Helweh in Sidon. In 2013, the Abdullah Azzam brigades claimed a double suicide attack on the Iranian embassy that killed 30, while the Islamic State was among those claiming responsibility for a wave of bombings in 2013-14 in Beirut’s southern suburbs that killed around 70 people.

Another possibility, seen among the Palestinians, is demoralization. “The Palestinian population here is falling,” says Naufal. “I would say there are 200,000 rather than the 500,000-plus registered with UNRWA. They lack rights here, including the right to work, so they’re emigrating, especially the youth. They try to reach the United States, or Europe, including on these small boats.”

Some Lebanese suspect that international aid for the Syrian refugees is really designed to keep them in Lebanon. The UN target this year of $8.8 billion in assistance is aimed 37 percent at the displaced within Syria and 63 percent at refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Of the $7 billion pledged by donors at a three-day conference last month in Brussels, $2.2 billion is from Europe and $375 million from the United States.

“The Lebanese government is happy to take the money from international donors, but I can’t see this as long-term solution,” Chibli Mallat, law professor and lawyer, says. “Sooner or later, if the Syrian refugees see no future back home or in Lebanon, they will try and reach Europe, with another season of migration to the north.”

Gareth Smyth, who has reported from the Middle East since 1992, was 2003-7 the chief correspondent of the Financial Times in Iran.

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