Syrian refugees fear Lebanon’s bankruptcy and attached hardships

A woman carries a man with special needs in the Sabra refugee camp in Lebanon - 5 April 2020 (AFP)

Syrian refugees fear Lebanon’s bankruptcy and attached hardships

A woman carries a man with special needs in the Sabra refugee camp in Lebanon - 5 April 2020 (AFP)

A woman carries a man with special needs in the Sabra refugee camp in Lebanon - 5 April 2020 (AFP)

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Saleh Malas | Mamoun al-Bustani

Every morning, the 34-year-old Ibtisam stands on the corner of the road near her home on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital Beirut, watching her eldest daughter as she goes to school, then she returns to her one-room flat to take care of her three other children, whom she could not enroll in school this year.

In her interview with Enab Baladi, Ibtisam complains about modest subsidies provided by international relief organizations as these agencies have no ability to improve her family’s situation except with the minimum of living an “inhumane” life.

While Lebanon has announced its nearness to bankruptcy in a semi-official manner due to accumulated crises that have destroyed its economic system since 2019, this reality strips most Syrian refugees of their right to a decent life.

The resonance of official statements about the expected bankruptcy of the state increases the plight of refugees, plunging them further into their tired present without having emergency solutions to overcome it.

In this lengthy article, Enab Baladi reviews the repercussions of the economic situation in Lebanon on Syrian refugees, which coincides with the restriction of administrative decisions on their livelihood, and the solutions that can be implemented to overcome this crisis.

“Poverty is a shirt of fire”

Ibtisam, Enab Baladi withheld her full name for social reasons, fled with her family from the northern Aleppo governorate to Lebanon in 2013, pursuing a better life away from the family’s destroyed home and the constant fear of security reprisals.

During the past years, the living condition of Ibtisam’s family was acceptable in the presence of her husband, who found daily work in one of the construction workshops.

However, “the situation turned upside down after my husband traveled in the middle of 2021 to Syria on a visit to meet his family, but he did not return,” she said.

After a long time not knowing her husband’s fate, Ibtisam learned that he had been arrested for taking him to reserve military service in the Syrian regime forces.

Syrian refugee children in a makeshift camp in the Zahrani district, south of Beirut - 10 July 2015 (AFP)

Syrian refugee children in a makeshift camp in the Zahrani district, south of Beirut – 10 July 2015 (AFP)

Conscripting the husband into military service kept him away from his family, which pushed Ibtisam to rely on the aid of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In addition to that, she receives help from the owners of the house she lives in, who charge her a little rent and exempt her from paying electricity bills.

Ibtisam receives 500,000 Lebanese pounds per month for each member of her family within the United Nations aid, while it costs her 100,000 Lebanese pounds to prepare one meal for her family per day.

This affects their food security, which results in malnutrition, as her children eat a meal that contains meat once every five or six months, and in some periods, her children’s food may be limited to bread in order to secure the expensive heating costs during the winter.

With the funding currently available for humanitarian assistance, UNHCR is able to target 55 percent with monthly cash assistance (1 million LBP per family per month). In total, together with WFP’s monthly cash and food assistance programmes, UNHCR and WFP are able to reach 99 percent (as of April of 2022) of the total target Syrian refugee population with monthly cash and food assistance leaving only 1 percent of vulnerable refugee households unassisted, Nadine Mazloum, spokesperson for UNHCR Lebanon, told Enab Baladi.

This long-overdue increase allowed UNHCR and WFP to support refugee families living in extreme poverty with an amount that is closer to the survival minimum expenditure basket (SMEB) – or the survival line – which still exceeds the value of the increased amount of assistance, Mazloum added.

The exchange rate of the US dollar against the Lebanese pound reached more than 27,000 LBP, according to the Lira Rate website, which specializes in tracking the trading of the Lebanese pound in the market.

Ibtisam fears the occurrence of a general bankruptcy of the state, in this case, everything will get worse at all levels, and become more than her ability to bear, as she loses the right to change her life amid a complete lack of resources, but her right to object, complain, and indignant about reality will still exist, even if it was of no use.

The popular proverb says, “poverty is a shirt of fire,” and the need to provide basic requirements such as housing, food, drink, health, and education is a priority of human existence in this world, and if individuals are unable to achieve this, they may explode as a result of the accumulation of pain within them.

In 2020, the Syrian refugee in Lebanon, Majed Khalil al-Mousa, set himself on fire in front of the offices of the UNHCR in protest against the failure to provide financial coverage for the operation to remove cancer from the leg of his daughter Esraa. Majed died a week later from the burns he sustained, and the family lost the only breadwinner.

Chronic illnesses are considered on a case-by-case basis by UNHCR Lebanon; the level of extreme poverty reached 90 percent among Syrian refugee families in Lebanon, Mazloum said.

One-sixth of the salary

Ten years ago, Hussein al-Mohammed, 51, fled with his seven-member family the city of Tabqa in eastern Syria, seeking refuge in Lebanon.

Al-Mohammed started working as a day laborer in construction workshops until he moved to work as a building guard in 2016.

“From 2016 until now, prices have skyrocketed, while income has remained almost the same,” al-Mohammed told Enab Baladi.

Al-Mohammed continued, “In 2019, one dollar was equivalent to approximately 1,500 Lebanese pounds, but now it is around 27,000.”

The salary that Hussein al-Mohammed received before 2019 was about 600,000 LBP (about 400 US dollars at the time), noting that the monthly salary has now risen to 1,200,000 LBP (about 50 US dollars), and thus “the current salary is only equal to one-sixth of what I was receiving before 2019”.

In most areas where the poverty rate is high, remittances are the backbone of life for the residents of those areas, the same is true in most Syrian cities.

But Hussein’s family has no financial resources other than his monthly salary, without any financial aid from the UNHCR, because his file has been under study since 2020.

Regarding food prices, al-Mohammed said that he had not been able to buy meat to feed his family members for months.

The price of one kilogram of sheep meat currently ranges between 200,000 and 300,000 LBP, after it was 15,000 LBP.

Following the explosion of the Beirut port in August 2020, which led to a further deterioration of the economic situation, especially after the cessation of trade in the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of Syrian refugees, who live in the areas affected by the explosion, began to depend on aid in the shape of finance and food from charities and UN organizations.

As for the rent of the house, al-Mohammed said that he pays 750,000 LBP as a rent allowance for one room in which he lives with his family, while he needs to pay his full salary (1,200,000 LBP) as a three-ampere electricity subscription allowance, saying that the Syrian in Lebanon is forced to work in more than one profession to secure his livelihood.

Al-Mohammed also spoke about the difficulties his daughters face in reaching school, as they travel 5 Km away from the school, and his daughters walk this distance daily because he is unable to secure the transportation fare.

My son has a brain dysfunction and needs sedatives. The price of one box is 70 US dollars. I buy him an alternative medicine at a cheaper price, yet we reduce the dose by giving him half a pill instead of a whole pill, which inevitably affects his health.

Syrian refugee Hussein al-Mohammed

During the past four years, al-Mohammed was forced to sell his house in the city of Tabqa in eastern Syria to support his family in Lebanon, pointing out that he owns small agricultural land in Syria, which he also recently offered for sale.

Forces of Lebanese Interior Security check the residency papers of a Syrian refugee family in one of Beirut’s suburbs - 10 May 2019 (AFP)

Forces of Lebanese Interior Security check the residency papers of a Syrian refugee family in one of Beirut’s suburbs – 10 May 2019 (AFP)

Difficult to survive

The UN launched 14 projects last January in Lebanon with the support of the Lebanese Humanitarian Fund to assist vulnerable groups of the Lebanese people, with a focus on Syrian and Palestinian refugees and migrants of other nationalities.

The UN stated, at the time, that seven international organizations were working alongside six national NGOs to implement project activities, explaining that 61 percent of the targeted people are Lebanese, 32 percent Syrian, 4 percent migrants, and 3 percent Palestinians.

The 6 million US dollars funds are the fourth allocation from the Lebanese Humanitarian Fund in 2021.

On 29 September 2021, the UNHCR, the WFP, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) voiced grave concern about the conditions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who “are unable to secure the minimum expenditure necessary to ensure survival.”

The report of the key humanitarian ORGs said that the social, economic, and health crisis that Lebanon is witnessing has particularly affected the poorest Lebanese families and refugees.

The preliminary results of the assessment of the vulnerabilities of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon for the year 2021 revealed a “deplorable condition,” according to the organizations’ description.

The report added that nine out of ten Syrian refugees still live in extreme poverty. In 2021, the majority of refugees continued to rely on “passive” coping strategies to survive, such as begging, borrowing money, stopping sending their children to school or reducing health expenses, or not paying rent.

This assessment indicated that in 2021, more family members had to accept low-paying or high-risk jobs or additional shifts to secure the same income that the family was able to provide in 2020.

Dangerous housing and food insecurity

The report also stated that refugees are still struggling to find adequate and safe shelter, where about 60 percent of Syrian refugee families live in vulnerable, substandard, or overcrowded housing.

A study conducted by the UN has shown an increase in average rent allowances for all types of housing and in all governorates, as well as an increase in the probability of eviction.

According to the report, inflation significantly affected food prices during the period between October 2019 and June 2021, as the cost of food increased by 404 percent, which led to alarming levels of food insecurity among Syrian refugee families.

The proportion of Syrian refugee families suffering from food insecurity reached 49 percent in June of the year 2021, and two-thirds of the families were forced to reduce the size of food rations or reduce the number of meals consumed daily.

Concerns of Lebanon’s bankruptcy

The Lebanese government has officially declared bankruptcy of the state twice in less than three years, in addition to the Central Bank of Lebanon, while the Deputy Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saadeh al-Shami, indicated that this occurred due to policies that lasted for decades.

Under this announcement, the losses will be distributed to the state, the Central Bank, banks, and depositors.

During an interview on the Lebanese al-Jadeed TV channel on 4 April, al-Shami said that “the state went bankrupt, as well as the Central Bank, and the loss occurred, and we will endeavor to minimize losses to people.”

Al-Shami’s statements came in the form of an acknowledgment that Lebanon is an economically weak and unstable country in order to face the threat of upcoming economic crises.

However, Riad Salameh, Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, denied the validity of these statements, as the bank is still continuing to perform its role entrusted to it by law despite the financial sector losses.

Salameh, who is facing legal allegations of “unlawful enrichment” and “money laundering,” explained that the Central Bank is still exercising its role under Article “70” of the Monetary and Credit Law, which states that the bank is charged with preserving the integrity of the Lebanese currency and economic stability. 

Lebanon has been responsible for 30 months of continuous monetary and financial collapse without interruption, with a debt of about 100 billion US dollars, expert Firas Shaabo told Enab Baladi.

These data warn of a prior overthrow of any rescue plan that the government may plan to implement in the current period and hand it over to the International Monetary Fund mission.

Weakest link

The financial, economic, and monetary crisis that Lebanon is going through has destabilized all sectors, from banking, commercial, and industrial, and it is the result of the state’s mismanagement of the public sector and the national economy.

In addition to the existence of “fictitious” budgets whose numbers are worthless, unsustainable public debt, and a series of unplanned ranks and salaries and random taxes.

All these illegal practices and flagrant constitutional violations would paralyze the vitality of economic life in the country, according to Shaabo.

“The economic rights of Syrian refugees are robbed, they are usually minimal, and the infringement on them is very easy and fast, with no government oversight or judicial accountability standing in the way,” says the professor of finance and banking sciences.

Shaabo added, “This means that the Syrian refugee in Lebanon is the weakest link in the crisis, and it may be a hanger to lessen the outcry of politicians and people in general in case of bankruptcy.”

What is the sovereign default?

Sovereign default is the failure by a government to repay its national debts. Countries are typically hesitant to default on their national debt since doing so will make borrowing funds in the future more difficult and more expensive. However, sovereign nations are not subject to normal bankruptcy laws and always have the power to escape responsibility for their debts, often without legal consequences.”

Fears of funds suspension  

Local banks in Lebanon own the majority of local debt, and therefore, the country is expected to witness a rush to withdraw funds from banks as a result of the erosion of people’s confidence in the financial system in conjunction with the lack of effective administrative decisions to establish capital controls to avoid the collapse of the banking sector and the suspension of liquidity. Part of those administrative procedures is limiting the amount of money that depositors can withdraw.

Expert Shaabo noted that this is likely to lead to the suspension of funding for relief organizations working to secure and support the basic needs of Syrian refugees. Lebanon will close its banks in the expected banking crisis, and bank transfers will be restricted.

With the foreign market losing confidence in the Lebanese currency, the sovereign default crisis may lead to currency-related crises.

This leads, according to Shaabo’s estimates, to organizations closing their offices in Lebanon and searching for countries that are more stable in terms of economic, political, and security terms to ensure the sustainability of their work.

This will not lead to an absolute halt to the support directed to refugees in Lebanon, but rather its volume will decrease, and it does not originally cover all the requirements for a decent life for refugees.

According to Shaabo, the majority of refugees work in labor sectors, and with any severe economic collapse in Lebanon, thousands will lose their jobs or work with half the salary or without financial guarantees, with the Lebanese authority ignoring the enactment of serious laws that protect the rights of Syrian labor.

Possibility of surviving the crisis

If the sovereign default is declared in Lebanon, the solutions to overcome this crisis at the public level may change the lives of the Lebanese for a long time since It could isolate Lebanese banks further from the global banking system and make international commercial dealings an impossible matter for the Lebanese.

As for the Syrian refugees, the government’s indifference to their situation cannot be ignored, according to Shaabo,

“Their survival of this crisis depends on parliamentary intervention and the issuance of special laws that protect the category of foreign workers and refugees in general, in addition to studying various options by the UN to ensure the continuity of financial and in-kind aid provided to refugees,” says the economic researcher.

According to a study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) issued in 2014, the majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are young people and children, with more than half of them under 24 years old.

The educational attainment of refugees, in general, is low, as one-third of them are either illiterate or have not gone to school at all, and 40 percent of them have primary education, while the percentage of university students is only 3 percent, and these educational levels are the same between males and females, the study revealed.

These numbers indicate the inability of the majority of Syrian refugees to access high-income businesses with which they can adapt to any future economic crisis.

If serious work is not done to ensure the continuity of financial aid and raise its value to match the crisis’ size, the scenarios awaiting the refugees are unsustainable, says the study.

In this case, Shaabo expects an increase in the number of activities children would engage in in the streets, most notably beggary and street vending. 

The majority of children on the streets do not know how to read and write, and they have never attended school, which means that defrauding them and exploiting them with illegal activities in order to profit from them during the crisis is very likely.

Poll

According to a poll on Enab Baladi’s website on whether or not Syrian refugees in Lebanon have solutions to overcome the economic crisis, 68 percent of the 211 respondents believe that the refugees do not have the economic resources to help them overcome the financial problem in the event of an official declaration of bankruptcy while 32 percent of the respondents believe that such a crisis can be overcome by the refugees.

Stifling legal restrictions

The agony of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is complex, involving an intricate set of factors, most notably the general economic collapse, hate speech by politicians and the media outlets, and discriminatory administrative decisions against refugees.

The Lebanese Labor Ministry issued a set of decisions in order to regulate the work of foreign labor where the Syrian refugees were prevented from working in a range of professions specified by the Ministry.

The Ministry of Labor attributed these restrictions to the noticeable increase in the number of Syrian refugee laborers in Lebanon and the “crowding out” that it caused for the Lebanese workforce.

In 2014, the Ministry of Labor’s decision, Article 2, excluded Syrians from working in the agricultural, hygiene, and construction sectors.

The justifications for such discriminatory decisions against Syrian refugees lie in the statements made by Lebanese politicians that restrict the refugee’s life, such as “we will not allow the Lebanese to be left jobless under these circumstances.”

Any attempt to enact laws that would provide a safe space for refugees to work sufficiently to secure a decent life would be subjected to a political attack colored by discriminatory racism, which would delay the improvement of the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

According to the Executive Director of the Lebanese-French Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR), Mohammed Hassan, in an interview with Enab Baladi, the current restrictions are imposing very harsh conditions on the requirements for obtaining legal residency in order for the refugee to obtain a safe job opportunity.

The existence of the complicated conditions for issuing legal residency status to Syrian refugees lies in the politicians’ fear that these residencies will be a prelude to their resettlement in Lebanon, where there is a delay in deciding on the applications submitted, according to Hassan.

“It results in the risk of arrest and limitation of freedom of movement and access to basic services, most notably medical and educational,” he adds.

The Temporary Residence Deed is a way to extend the authority of states to all foreign residents on their territory by knowing who they are and where they live, free from any political concerns.

Hate speech and deportation

In 2021, Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher in Human Rights Watch (HRW), said, “The harrowing accounts of torture, enforced disappearance, and abuse that refugees who went back to Syria endured should make it patently clear that Syria is not safe for returns,” adding that the “widespread property rights violations and other economic hardships also make a sustainable return impossible for many.”

The UNHCR also confirms that Syria is not safe and that it will not facilitate mass returns in the absence of basic protection conditions, although it will facilitate individual voluntary returns.

However, all these UN reports do not stop “the official discourse regarding the return of refugees and deportation by the Lebanese General Security, which leads to an increase in the danger to the refugees, especially those who entered after April 2019,” according to human rights defender Hassan.

In April 2019, the Supreme Defense Council in Lebanon issued a decision stating the demolition of the cement roofs that house refugees in the camps and the deportation of refugees illegally entering Lebanon who do not hold valid residency permits.

All of these facts increase the state of fear and tension among the refugees and a feeling of instability and absolute insecurity, Hassan said.

Syrian refugee children wave from a bus in a suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, as they prepare to return to Syria - 31 August 2021 (AFP)

Syrian refugee children wave from a bus in a suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, as they prepare to return to Syria – 31 August 2021 (AFP)

Refugees or IDPs?

The UNHCR calls Syrians who left their areas of origin and headed to Lebanon as refugees, enjoying all the rights stipulated in the International Convention on the Status of Refugees, while the Lebanese authorities call them “displaced persons” so that it does not bear the responsibility of securing their rights.

IDPs, unlike refugees, are people who have not crossed an international border in search of safety but have remained displaced within their own countries. The displaced remain within their countries and under the protection of their governments.

Who protects the refugee?

Civil society institutions are working to improve the refugee situation by following up on their issues and demands.

The UNHCR is directly responsible for protecting the refugees from any violation in cooperation with the Lebanese authorities, civil society organizations, and human rights institutions.

But “unfortunately, civil society organizations are also under pressure, as the security services are putting pressure on organizations working with Syrian refugees, especially after the Arsal tensions in August 2014,” according to the human rights defender Hassan.

Syrian refugees working then and now have been subjected to security prosecutions and arbitrary arrests, some of which were based on unproven charges.

Also, the Syrian relief and human rights organizations present in Lebanon face difficulty obtaining official licenses or in general registration and establishment processes and the transfer of funds, including opening bank accounts.

The Lebanese government’s neglect of the situation of Syrian refugees, and the absence of civil groups that have political and legal weight to defend their rights amid Lebanon’s public bankruptcy, have turned the refugee’s life into an affront to his dignity, filled with sorrow, heartbreak, and humiliation.

These factors make the refugees lose the ability to overcome the bitterness of some of the humiliating experiences they go through in their lives, and the matter becomes more difficult when the bitterness of the experience is the result of factors and circumstances that were supposed to lead to the opposite of what they actually led to.

 

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