After more than ten years of conflict, millions of Syrians have fled the war and taken refuge in neighboring countries. While the vast majority of refugees have settled in Turkey, no less than 850,000 individuals who registered with the United Nations High Commissioner (UNHCR) are living in informal settlements in Lebanon. According to Lebanese officials, this number brings the total Syrian population in Lebanon to 1.5 million.
Taking into account other refugee communities, Lebanon has the highest density of refugees per capita, with Syrians making up about 20 percent of the population. With few resources, weak infrastructure, and a lack of political will to address the needs of refugees, this massive influx has posed significant challenges to Lebanon and made the entire Syrian population severely vulnerable.
The situation of Syrian refugees continues to worsen as Lebanon faces a socioeconomic and health crisis.
The latest UN report vulnerability assessment estimated that the situation of Syrian refugees continues to worsen as Lebanon faces a compounded socioeconomic and health crisis. Notably, 88 percent of Syrian refugee households were still below the Survival Minimum Expenditure Basket (SMEB) – the absolute minimum amount required to cover lifesaving needs.
This means a large majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are still deprived of basic human essentials, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation, health, shelter, and education. The UN has noted an increase in food insecurity with 94 percent of Syrian refugee households facing “challenges when accessing food.”
At the same time, because Lebanon stopped allowing UNHCR to register Syrians as refugees in 2015, more than 80 percent of Syrian refugees have no legal residence and have become dependent on finding a Lebanese national, or even government official, to sponsor them. They also must pay the annual $200 renewal fee for residency permits. This decision has made life increasingly difficult for the Syrian community, with many lacking legal residencies and over half of the refugee families still living in overcrowded or collapsing shelters.
Fatima, a mother of four who fled the Islamic State assault (aka IS, ISIS, ISIL) in 2018, and left her village of Deir Ezzour in Syria before settling in Lebanon, described her living conditions in Sabra and Shatila, one of Beirut’s largest refugee camps.
“I can’t even send my children to school. My children also need doctors. One of my sons has most of his teeth broken and can’t get proper care,” she told Inside Arabia. “Everything is too expensive, and what my husband gets from his job is barely enough to feed the whole family. We have registered with UNHCR, but we are still waiting for a response from them.”
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the Lebanese political class has been divided on which position to hold regarding President Bashar al-Assad’s government, with about half of the parliament opposed to the regime and the other half supporting it. However, the decrease in the intensity of armed conflicts in the country, coupled with the normalization of relations between the Assad regime and several other Arab countries have led more and more diplomats, politicians, and other officials to push for the return of refugees to their country.
President Michel Aoun stated that Lebanon could no longer handle “the burdens of continued Syrian displacement.”
During a meeting with European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas last November, President Michel Aoun stated that Lebanon could no longer handle “the burdens of continued Syrian displacement,” and asked Schinas to “facilitate the return of the displaced Syrians to their lands, especially in the safe areas.”
A few months before the general elections, Fadi Hallisso, co-founder and CEO of Basmeh & Zeitooneh, an NGO which supports Syrian refugees and vulnerable populations living in Lebanon, also noted an instrumentalization of the Syrian community. “Politicians do not care about the facts, they just use populist rhetoric that can benefit them, and rally the masses,” Hallisso declared to Inside Arabia. “Because people are afraid that the Syrians will disturb the confessional balance, we usually hear that they want to replace the Lebanese and take over the country.”
Meanwhile, in 2019, the Lebanese authorities executed a decision allowing the forcible return of Syrians who entered Lebanon illegally. While many individuals are struggling to meet their basic human needs, countless also deal with limited freedom and are regularly exposed to exploitation, detention, and deportation.
Some townships, such as the Ras Baalbeck municipality, established curfews, a wage cap for Syrian refugees, and prevented them from receiving visitors. Other more extreme measures include the forced return of Syrian refugees to their country of origin via deportation.
Lebanon “returned” 6,345 Syrians between 2019 and 2021.
The General Security Directorate wrote a letter to Human Rights Watch, saying that it had “returned” 6,345 Syrians between 2019 and 2021.
Despite measures being implemented that directly or indirectly force Syrians to return to Syria, several NGOs believe that Syria is still not a safe destination and that internal conditions are further deteriorating. The report, co-written by Basmeh & Zeitooneh, and titled “I have not known the taste of safety for ten years,” reported several cases of arbitrary detentions, forced military conscription, or torture.
According to the report, the regime continues to be incredibly hostile towards its civilians and still uses excessive force. Therefore, Hallisso noted, the arrival and settlement of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is not inconsequential and only illustrates the severity of Syria’s violent and enduring state of war.
“People did not come to Lebanon just because they wanted to go abroad, they fled a conflict that is still ongoing,” Hallisso said. “The level of military action is not as tense as it used to be, but the reasons that sparked the conflict are still there.”
Unlike the 26 percent of Syrians who lack information about returning to Syria, Fatima is well aware of the situation in her home country. In addition to the fear of violence or sexual abuse that a large majority of women encounter when they return to Syria, the dire and deteriorating economic situation, combined with an uncertain future, drives Fatima and her family to stay in Lebanon.
“The situation in Syria is still as bad as when we left. There is nothing to go back to.”
“The situation in Syria is still as bad as when we left. There is nothing to go back to. My house was bombed and destroyed during the war and there is no more work,” Fatima explained. “I have no future to look for in [my country]. At least in Lebanon I still have some hope that my children can get a good education and build a future to get out of here.”
The Syrian population that fled the conflict is stuck between untenable options: stay in Lebanon where living conditions are dangerously deteriorating and politicians are aggressively pushing them to leave, or face instability and violence in Syria, where Assad is consolidating his power.
According to Hallisso, this situation has pushed many Syrians “not to think about the future. People learn to live from day to day because otherwise, daily life would be even more unbearable.”