At least a million Syrians reside inside Lebanon with another 4.1 million in Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. Economic and social costs are mounting inside host countries. Lebanon is no exception. Lebanon’s population is just over 6 million with Syrian refugees making up a quarter of the country’s population. As a result of the strained resources, the atmosphere inside Lebanon has effectively forced a number of Syrian refugees back to Syria. It has also divided the Lebanese government.
The World Bank and Lebanon’s central bank have estimated the total cost of the Syrian civil war to sit around $14.4 billion. That number makes up more than 30% of Lebanon’s GDP. The tourism, banking, and real estate sectors have all suffered as a result of the conflict. Moreover, Syrian refugees live in the 225 poorest areas of Lebanon, exacerbating poverty in those areas. However, Syrian refugees have paid out a million dollars in daily rents across Lebanon and spent more than $22 million on food every month. Yet, it still has not had enough of an impact on the overall costs of hosting the large population of refugees.
Public services have also languished since the start of the Syrian civil war. When it comes to healthcare, Syrian families make up roughly 40% of all healthcare visits. This has made it difficult for Lebanese citizens to access the healthcare system. The education system inside Lebanon has seen a doubling of class sizes over the past six years.
Last February, Lebanese President Aoun called on the international community to create “safe-zones” inside Syria with the goal of allowing Syrians to return home. This was the first time Lebanon lent their support to the idea. The plan was also backed by Hezbollah. The Trump administration said it would work towards creating “safe zones” for Syrian refugees. However, the Syrian government said any effort to build “safe zones” would require coordination with Damascus.
A month later, Prime Minister Hariri announced Lebanon was facing a “breaking point” due to the million plus Syrian refugees Lebanon hosted. Hariri said there is a threat of unrest that could spiral out of control between the Lebanese communities and Syrian refugees. As mentioned earlier, many of the refugees live in the poorest areas of Lebanon. Inside these areas, many of the Syrian refugees live inside informal makeshift refugee camps.
Hariri also stands in relative opposition to President Aoun. Hariri supports the idea of “voluntary repatriation,” which requires the UN to offer a green light to begin the process. Hariri also supports the opposition forces inside Syria. Compared to Aoun, Hariri recognizes the impact on Lebanon, while also understanding many of the Syrian refugees cannot return to Syria while Assad is still in power. This is echoed by the fears of Syrian refugees themselves. They feel as though they will be arrested upon return and conscripted into military service. These fears appear to have some foundation, as there are reports of individuals that returned and were arrested. They were also tortured by the Syrian government.
Hariri asked the international community to pledge support in aiding Lebanon. He asked for $10,000-$12,000 per refugee over a period of five to seven years. As of last March, only $1000-$1,200 was being spent on Syrian refugees. Needless to say, there is a huge gap in funding with the difference between pledges and disbursement amounts sitting around 50%.
To add to the tension inside Lebanon, there have been rumors circulating among the Lebanese and Syrian refugees. Among the Lebanese, there is a belief that Syrian refugees are being showered in aid, while many Lebanese suffer. Recent rumors among Syrian refugees include a supposed leave date of September 1st , with another rumor alleging the UNHCR was closing its office in Jordan. Neither of these rumors are true, but aid workers are finding it harder and harder to reassure Syrians they are safe.
Lebanon has done its best to discourage Syrians from permanently resettling. Since June, the UNHCR has noticed an uptick in the number of Syrians returning to Syria, with more than 22,000 refugees making the crossing. In August, the trend continued leaving aid agencies wondering as to whether or not countries like Lebanon were taking advantage of a change in UN guidelines regarding refugees.
The change in guidelines from the UN has to do with the definition of “voluntary” return. Some believe the situation in Lebanon is deteriorating and leaving Syrians no choice, but to return. Thus, these returns should be seen as voluntary.
As a result, the UNHCR has attempted to get ahead of the sudden exodus from Lebanon by requesting $150 million to try and improve conditions before Syrians arrive back in their home country.
On Monday, President Aoun told international envoys that he wanted to continue to work out a way to return Syrians to Syria. He also stated, Lebanon had no plans to forcibly expel Syrians. However, he argued the security situation in many of the areas refugees left has improved, making it possible for them to return to their homes in Syria.
Aoun again urged the international community to act before the situation in Lebanon spirals out of control. There is a real fear inside Lebanon that the continued presence of Syrian refugees will upset the balance between the various religious groups in Lebanon.