The protracted conflict in Syria, triggered by an antigovernment uprising that began in March 2011, has led huge numbers of Syrians to flee their home country. Many have become refugees in neighboring Lebanon.
Interviews with Syrian refugees, members of Lebanese host communities, NGOs, and intelligence sources provide a brief background on these refugees and the type of aid they are getting. They also offer insight into the impact this influx of refugees has had on host communities in different areas of Lebanon.
The refugee situation has a range of dire economic, social, and security implications for Lebanon. To prevent matters from escalating, the government in Beirut must improve its management of the refugees and prioritize concrete steps to mitigate the crisis.
Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
The arrival of over 1 million Syrian refugees has had significant consequences on the small country of Lebanon, which has a population of just over 4 million.
According to Mads Almaas, country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, “more than 80 percent of the Syrian refugee population hails from the Sunni community and includes few Alawites and Christians. Those who are currently registered with the UNHCR (estimated at about 430,000) belong to the poorest tranches of the population. . . . They are mostly located in the North, the South, the Beqaa and Hermel area.”
The refugees’ presence in the poorest parts of Lebanon has put extra strain on local economies and led to tensions with host communities. According to the latest poverty study, conducted in 2008, over 63 percent of people live under the poverty line in the northern area of Akkar. In Tripoli, the capital of the north, the figure is 58 percent, and in Hermel and the West Beqaa, poverty levels are at 33 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
In addition to these Syrian refugees, Almaas estimates the number of Lebanese who have returned from living and working in Syria due to the conflict at between 20,000 and 30,000. These Lebanese are vulnerable in different ways than the Syrian refugees in the country as they do not qualify for aid. Some 40,000 Palestinians have also fled Syria into the already-overflowing Lebanese camps established by the UN Relief and Works Agency program for Palestinian refugees after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Meanwhile, affluent Syrians have bought or rented houses in Lebanon and are not included in the official UNHCR registry. There are also the families of Syrian migrant workers who were already in Lebanon, estimated at between 300,000 and 400,000 people.
Altogether, “these different categories of Syrian nationals amount to over a million people. In addition, there are about 75,000 Syrians crossing the borders every month,” says Almaas. This influx of refugees
has put significant pressure on the various aid agencies.
The UNHCR has announced that it needs an estimated $494 million to address the aid needs of Syrian refugees throughout the region, of which only 33 percent has been secured. It planned to allocate a portion of this total—$267 million—to Lebanon, but that portion is only 38 percent funded, according to Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Lebanon. In addition, the Lebanese government has approved a $370 million comprehensive plan
for the refugees—$180 million for Lebanese state institutions and $190 million for international agencies.
Even as they struggle with funding, NGOs and aid agencies have tried to address the main needs of Syrian refugees and deliver a wide range of relief activities. Agencies have focused on providing shelters for Syrians by weatherproofing 700 dwellings and rehabilitating over 100 collective shelters as well as paying the rent of hundreds of Syrian families.
Healthcare is another main concern for aid agencies. “Currently, the UNHCR is covering 85 percent of healthcare interventions, but funding shortfalls have forced us to make the very difficult decision of reducing this coverage,” underscores Sleiman. Over 11,000 refugees benefit from primary healthcare support on a monthly basis.
Effects on Specific Municipalities
Syrian refugees are scattered all over Lebanon. However, three main areas—namely Wadi Khaled, South Lebanon, and the Beqaa Valley—best demonstrate the impacts of the crisis and the pressures between host communities and refugee populations. This is essentially due to geographic and religious particularities and the dynamics between host communities comprised mainly of Lebanese Sunnis, Shia, and Alawites on the one hand and the primarily Sunni refugee population on the other.
Stretching along the Syrian border, Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled plain was used by smugglers before the Syria war. Now it has become a safe haven for Syrian refugees, who are mostly living among host families. Links between Wadi Khaled residents and Syrians have always been strong, as many are connected by family ties. This friendship has nonetheless come under pressure in the last year with the arrival of around 17,000 refugees. Most households now host large numbers of Syrians; sources say there is an average of nine refugees living with each local host family.
Mahmoud Khazaal, the town’s former mayor, points out that the influx of refugees “has placed a burden on the local population, which was already stretched thin by the unstable border situation that resulted in the decrease of smuggling activity, considered essential for the livelihoods for most families in the region.” After the beginning of the uprising, the Syrian regime closed the borders, and the Syrian army lined them with mines. Smugglers who used to make $50 to $100 a day were left without an income. Most of the smuggling was of fuel, gas, clothing, and mechanical parts.
Inflation is another problem. “Prices of goods have doubled and tripled in some cases,” says local Lebanese activist Ahmad Ali.
Tensions between Lebanese and Syrians are also rising due to the increased competition for jobs. Syrians are perceived as cheap labor, and “more people are turning to Syrians, who are paid $6 a day instead of the local average $20 rate,” says Khazaal. Refugees are also setting up their own businesses. For example, the number of butchers in the town and its surroundings has gone from four to 40.
But the Syrians in Wadi Khaled view these developments differently. Many refugees interviewed reported feeling exploited and humiliated. Besides being forced to work for less, they also face mistreatment in official settings, schools, and hospitals because of their refugee status. In addition, they voiced concern about not being able to move from one area to another because they do not possess residency papers, which can cost $200 per person.
Since the beginning of the uprising, Wadi Khaled has witnessed increased skirmishes between Lebanese residents and the Syrian army. In the past year, there have been sporadic incidents involving heavy shelling and gunfire from the Syrian side of the border into Lebanon that has claimed over a dozen lives.
On the other side of the country, near the southern city of Tyre, Syrian families have planted their tents—usually made of plastic and fabric bags—in the areas of Madina Ziraiya, Jal al-Bahr, Masaken, Bus, and Maachouk. According to the UNHCR’s Syrian Regional Refugee Response, there are about 60,000 registered refugees in South Lebanon. Talal Bahsoun, a member of the Tyre municipal government, estimated that “some 6,000 [refugees] reside in the Tyre area.”
Host communities in the south said residents of the region feel uncomfortable with the growing number of refugees. Brahim, a former waiter in a coffee shop, attributed the loss of his job to the unlawful competition of Syrian workers who were willing to work double shifts for half the pay.
“People are feeling marginalized because of their precarious working conditions,” said Hussein, a local barber.
Hussein also said that “Syrian refugees have added to the level of insecurity in the area, with numbers of thefts and attacks rising in the last few months.” Both Brahim and Hussein agreed that there has been a definite escalation in tensions between Lebanese and Syrians in Tyre. “We can’t really express it because some of the Syrians in the city are pro-regime and are protected by local factions,” added Hussein.
The Beqaa Valley
In the Beqaa Valley, there are about 142,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to the UNHCR.
According to activist Abdallah Chahin, who works with refugees in one of the camps in the Beqaa city of Taalabaya, a growing number of UNHCR-affiliated stores and markets are removing price tags from food items and selling them at higher prices. Oum Alaa, a Syrian refugee, said that local market owners were discounting all UN food vouchers by over 15 percent and fuel vouchers by 10 percent, while refugees were exchanging UN vouchers for cash at a discount in order to secure rent money.
Another problem in Taalabaya is the growing tensions between the mostly Sunni Syrian refugees and Shia residents. One Lebanese NGO employee admitted that Syrian refugees were attacked on their way to the Rafiq Hariri mosque, where aid is distributed on a regular basis. “Syrian refugees are beaten by young hoodlums belonging to the Shia community. But these incidents are the work of individuals and not of local parties,” he said.
The Beqaa village of Arsal, a town of 45,000, is now home to about 15,000 Syrian refugees. Due to its location on the porous and unguarded border with Syria, Arsal has become a place of transit for refugees coming into Lebanon. It is mostly Sunni but is surrounded by Shia villages with residents loyal to the political parties Amal and Hezbollah, the latter of which has played an active role in the Syrian war by fighting alongside the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Local Economic Impact
As evidenced by the developments in these three areas, the large-scale influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has had a significant economic impact on the different regions in which they have settled.
Some of this impact is associated with increased public spending that the government cannot fully fund and added pressure on the local infrastructure. While unable to estimate the costs, Lebanese municipalities have reported significant increased direct and indirect expenditures. Still, “we are having problems with waste issues, with the growing number of Syrian families now estimated at about 600 in the Labweh region alone,” says Ramez Amhaz, head of the municipality of Labweh in the district of Baalbek. Strain is also being placed on the water supply and the education and healthcare systems, as reported by heads of municipalities and residents in the Wadi Khaled area.
In addition, the influx of Syrian refugees is leading to growing competition in certain sectors. This is particularly evident in construction and agriculture as well as among nonskilled and semiskilled workers, explains Raghed Assi, a program manager at the UN Development Program.
Lebanon is also witnessing inflation in areas where Syrian refugees are concentrated. Hussein Zeaiter, head of the al-Qasr municipality in Hermel, says rent prices have doubled or even tripled.
Rising Social and Sectarian Tensions
In other areas with a high concentration of refugees, inequalities between refugees and locals have given rise to social tensions. Refugees are frequently viewed as benefitting from privileged access to resources unavailable to their local hosts, who in turn try to exploit them. According to Arsal-based Syrian rights activist Abou Mohamad Oueid, aid distribution is often followed by clashes among Syrian refugees or between refugees and Lebanese locals. Inter-Syrian strife related to aid distribution has also been reported by Khazaal, the former mayor of Wadi Khaled, and by Rachel Routely, grants manager at the DRC.
Syrians are also accused of being behind increasing insecurity of the sort seen in Tyre. A Lebanese security officer in the state intelligence apparatus claims crimes involving Syrians have doubled in the past year. This has led to the imposition of curfews on Syrian citizens in several Lebanese areas, such as Aley
Sectarian tensions have increased as well, especially in certain areas with large refugee populations. In addition to the incidents in Taalabaya, Syrians in Hermel have reported attacks on buses transporting refugees. However, interviewees in both areas stressed that the attacks were made by individuals, not people aligned with political groups. As the security officer pointed out, “most sectarian incidents actually result from the growing political divide surrounding the issue of the Syrian revolution.”
Deteriorating Bilateral Relations and Deepening Divisions
The presence of Syrian refugees and the growing bilateral tensions between Lebanon and Syria are increasingly posing a security and political threat to Lebanon. Border incidents are becoming more frequent and widespread. In a security meeting held by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman at Baabda Palace in mid-April, caretaker Foreign Affairs Minister Adnan Mansour was tasked with drafting a memo to the Arab League reporting the recent cross-border attacks
by the Syrian army.
On April 13 and 14, the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fired shells into the Shia town of al-Qasr. According to Abu Oday, a commander in the FSA’s Farouk Brigade who was quoted by Lebanese media company Naharnet, the attack was in retaliation for Hezbollah’s shelling
of the Syrian areas of Qusayr, Nahriya, Burhaniya, and Saqarji. Hezbollah has argued that it is defending villages on the Syrian side of the border where 15,000 to 30,000 Lebanese Shia have resided for decades. Similar shelling incidents have taken place in Arsal, which was hit by rockets launched by the Syrian regime. The regime claimed it was targeting FSA fighters. The escalating involvement of Hezbollah in the nearby Qusayr region is certain to further exacerbate tensions.
Also in April, a series of kidnappings and counterkidnappings shook the town of Arsal and the western Beqaa, ending with the release of captives held by both sides. The kidnappings started after the abduction of Hussein Jaafar from the town of al-Bustan in Hermel on March 24. Much like Wadi Khaled, Arsal relies heavily on smuggling. According to local sources, different goods, such as gas and metal, are smuggled from Syria to Lebanon, while stolen cars are smuggled from Lebanon to Syria. This illegal trade, which allegedly involves members of the Jaafar clan, led to a disagreement between them and Arsal residents, ending in the kidnappings. “The Syrian war has given this incident a sectarian dimension due to the alignment of the different factions with or against the Syrian regime,” explained a local source in Arsal. Oueid added that “these kidnappings, which were labeled by the media as sectarian, are rooted in the gang wars that are taking place between Sunni Arsal residents and Shiites from Hermel such as the Jaafars.”
In Wadi Khaled, tensions between Lebanese Alawites and Sunnis have also been exacerbated by tit-for-tat kidnappings. Last June, Wadi Khaled residents kidnapped a number of Syrian and Lebanese Alawites after a local man, Ahmad Suleiman, was abducted
by Syrian regime forces.
Tensions surrounding unresolved disputes between Lebanon and Syria continue to rise, as illustrated by the case of the nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims that have been held hostage in Syria since May 2012. In April, the families of these pilgrims took retaliatory measures against Syrians in Lebanon, preventing them from heading to their workplaces in Choueifat and closing down Syrian-owned shops in Hay el-Sellom.
Drawing Lebanon Into the War
The presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is also increasing the possibility of strife and drawing the country more directly into the Syrian conflict.
Some Lebanese municipalities are engaging with the Syrian opposition. While sources in Wadi Khaled admit to having formed an informal network of fighters that coordinates operations between different villages when the region is bombed by the Syrian regime’s army, they say they have denied active FSA members access to the area. This has been confirmed by a local FSA source speaking on condition of anonymity.
In Arsal, by contrast, residents are seemingly in cooperation with the FSA on the other side of the border. In addition, rebels who enter Syria from Lebanon to fight against the regime generally pass through the border at Arsal.
In other areas, Lebanese parties have taken some pro-Assad Syrian refugees under their wings. “In areas such as [Beirut’s] Hamra or Dahiyeh, Syrian refugees who join the cause of [pro-Syrian regime alliance] March 8 benefit from certain protections provided by some parties such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party or Amal,” says Karim Hussein, a Syrian student in Lebanon.
In addition, the public involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian border area of Qusayr is further propelling Lebanon into the Syrian conflict and fueling Sunni-Shia rivalry. Sunni Salafis from Tripoli and Sidon have answered Hezbollah’s actions by launching a call for jihad.
Recommendations for Beirut
Lebanon’s refugee problems will only worsen with the extension of the conflict in Syria. The Lebanese government currently lacks a clear strategy for dealing with the refugees, which does not bode well for a country already suffering from political fractionalization and sectarian strife. But there are several steps that policymakers in Beirut can take to improve the situation and work toward a resolution.
Raise more aid in order to ensure Lebanon’s stability. The Lebanese government should highlight the country’s urgent need for international aid to help refugees. Lebanon should be a priority for the UNHCR’s Syrian Regional Refugee Response. It is the country bordering Syria that is most vulnerable to the large influx of refugees due to its relative instability, limited geographic area, and small population. Beirut should launch an urgent appeal to secure the remaining 62 percent of the funds allocated to Lebanon in the UNCHR’s plan.
Fight corruption. Corruption is seriously impeding the current relief effort and worsening tensions between Syrians and Lebanese. Relief agencies need to have better oversight of distributors and food stores affiliated with the UNHCR.
Grant free temporary legal status to and define a legal framework for refugees. Most Syrian refugees live illegally in Lebanon because they cannot afford the residency fees. Their lack of residency permits prevents many refugees from settling in other countries that are cheaper and more hospitable, something that would be in Lebanon’s best interests.
The Lebanese government may also want to explore imposing rent caps on landlords hosting Syrian refugees as well as clarifying the legal framework of temporary rental contracts.
Create development projects addressing marginalized communities to help rebuild trust in the state. Emergency responses should be accompanied by long-term development-assistance and infrastructure projects that employ locals. These projects would benefit both Syrian refugees and host communities, and they would also help rebuild trust between host communities and the Lebanese state.
Establish camps. Establishing refugee camp for Syrians in border areas would solve the problem of registration, facilitate the relief effort, lessen the burdens on the local population, and appease security fears.
The Lebanese government would be foolish to think the Syrian refugee situation will improve on its own. It must take direct action, in coordination with the international community, to mitigate the crisis so it does not lead to increased internal security, social, and economic problems.