Syrian refugees in Lebanon suffer amid economic uncertainty
Lebanon’s economic and political crisis over the past four months has hit Syrian refugees particularly hard.
Beirut and Beqaa Valley, Lebanon – For Mahmoud, a Syrian refugee working in Beirut, the sharp economic and financial downturn gripping Lebanon has brought old anxieties from his homeland bubbling to the surface.
“About the economy, if it is going to [collapse] or something like this, we will have a problem,” said Mahmoud, who asked Al Jazeera to refrain from using his real name due to security concerns.
“I’m not ready to have the same thing I had in Syria,” he said.
More than four months into Lebanon’s increasingly volatile protests and more than half a year into a worsening economic collapse, Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been hit especially hard by the crisis.
The Lebanese pound’s devaluation on the parallel market, the lack of US dollars in the country, and associated price hikes across Lebanon are problems many Syrians said they recognise from the beginning of their country’s own crisis-turned-conflict.
Now, Syrians in Lebanon who have already been living on the brink for years have seen their United Nations cash assistance eroded by inflation and bank restrictions – amid deteriorating living conditions, freezing temperatures, and fears that refugees may encounter the same sort of conflict in the country they left Syria to avoid.
More than 75 percent of Syrians in Lebanon live below the poverty line, compared with 27 percent among Lebanese.
Many refugees in Lebanon’s camps have seen whatever job opportunities they once had consumed by the ongoing crisis.
The cash assistance some of them received from the UN can no longer sustain their families due to rising prices and a parallel market exchange rate that values the Lebanese pound far less favourably than the official exchange rate.
And as violent clashes between anti-government protesters, political party supporters, and security forces – similar to those that preceded Lebanon’s civil war in 1975 – have increased since December, some refugees have started to fear for the worst – the beginning of an armed conflict in Lebanon like the one they saw back home.
“We have been affected by the crisis more than Lebanese,” Asaad Chalhom, a Syrian living in the Najashi refugee camp in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, told Al Jazeera.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon today, while more than 30,000 have reportedly returned to Syria in the last two years, according to agency spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled.
Already in dire circumstances as refugees, Chalhom and others told Al Jazeera that the situation worsened as Lebanon’s economic crisis deepened.
They said a combination of factors – chief among them the Lebanese pound’s drop in value from the official exchange rate of 1,500 to one US dollar to the parallel market rate of 2,000 to the dollar – have made life unsustainable.
“There was assistance from the UN, and there was work,” Chalhom said.
He told Al Jazeera that he used to farm potatoes in a field near the camp in addition to odd jobs like cutting hair, a craft which he brought with him from his home in Aleppo.
“With both of them, it was enough.”
Only some types of work, like agricultural and construction, are legally open to Syrian refugees but even what meagre opportunities were available have dried up as the communities living in camps brave the annual winter rains and blizzards.
Of the five previously employed camp residents Al Jazeera spoke with, none have had regular work since the crisis intensified.
Compounding their pain are informal capital controls imposed by Lebanon’s banks that have changed the way refugees receive UN cash aid.
According to UNHCR spokeswoman Abou Khaled, 40 percent of Syrian families in Lebanon receive $27 per person per month, while another 19 percent receive $175 per month per family.
Eligible refugees used to be able to receive that aid in US dollars. But thanks to bank restrictions on US dollar withdrawals, all refugees must now withdraw it in Lebanese pounds at the official exchange rate – not the parallel market rate – effectively lowering the value of their cash aid, making it even more difficult to acquire daily necessities and pay rent on the camp’s land.
According to Abou Khaled, while the majority of refugees had already been choosing to withdraw their aid in Lebanese pounds before the crisis, the new financial rules and discrepancies in exchange rates have affected everyone.
“$27 was enough for a person, more or less, per month, but now it is impossible for it to be enough,” Chalhom said.
An aid worker in Lebanon, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to speak for their organisation, told Al Jazeera that landlords have increasingly been asking for rent on land in dollars that are becoming more inaccessible for Syrians and Lebanese alike. The worker said this has led to threats of eviction.
Abou Khaled added that the current economic situation has hit the most vulnerable people in Lebanon the hardest, as industries that have employed Syrians in the Beqaa Valley, like construction and agriculture, have been impacted by the crisis.
The most recent data from the Central Bank of Lebanon confirmed that construction permits and cement deliveries for September and October 2019 were well below average for the same season in past years.
There is also evidence that Syrian refugees are facing growing racism and harassment.
Ahmad al-Ahmad, a refugee living in the town of Marj in the Beqaa Valley, told Al Jazeera that his father, who has been out of work for three months, recently had the windows of his car smashed in when he went to withdraw money from a local bank. Al-Ahmad said his father had likely been targeted because of the perception that Syrians are taking money away from banks’ Lebanese customers.
“He has his own bank account, and the money was coming from outside countries, not from Lebanon,” al-Ahmad said. “But, he is Syrian.”
The aid worker Al Jazeera spoke to noted that while incidents of harassment have not increased across the board as a result of the crisis, they and other aid workers are well aware that such events may increase as the situation continues to worsen.
But for many refugees, the incidents combined with the financial hardships stir haunting memories.
Mahmoud and Chalhom said Lebanon’s deepening crisis echoes what they experienced in Syria in the early days of the uprising.
“The beginning of the crisis has some similarities to it,” Chalhom said.
“Like how it began in Syria, there began the crisis of rising prices, crisis with the dollar, crisis, crisis, crisis, [and] the people went down to the street.”
“We didn’t have electricity in the beginning for a long time, like 6 hours, sometimes 12 hours, sometimes in 24 hours we had it for 2 hours,” Mahmoud said, adding that his salary shrank by 90 percent during his time working in Damascus.
“Everything [was] getting so expensive, [like] gas and sugar, everything you can imagine.”
Fear of a civil war
Mahmoud, who left Syria in 2016, said if things in Lebanon continue to get worse, he may have to leave here. Sudan, which is one of the only countries that allows Syrians to arrive without a visa, is a potential option.
“A lot of my friends, they start to think about going back to Syria,” he said. “But going back to Syria now is a very bad idea for me, I cannot think about it.”
According to Abou Khaled, the latest group of Syrians to return to their country in December cited rising food prices in Lebanon as one reason for going back.
But they may face the same problems there.
Nasser Yassin, an associate professor at the American University of Beirut who has focused on public policy around health, youth, and refugees, says the economic situation in Syria is not much better.
“The Syrian economy will be affected by an economic crisis that is hitting Lebanon, so that would make it even more difficult for Syrians to return without any prospects for sources of livelihood,” Yassin told Al Jazeera.
Amid worsening partisan tensions in Beirut and elsewhere, Mahmoud said he remains sceptical about the possibility of a full-blown conflict beginning in Lebanon. But some residents of Najashi camp were much more vocal about their concerns.
“There is fear that if there begins a civil war here, the parties here from Lebanon that have fought in Syria will return to fight in Lebanon,” Omar Ali, a refugee originally from Raqqa in eastern Syria, told Al Jazeera, referring to Hezbollah and other Lebanese actors currently aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As resources dwindled, refugee communities have resorted to lending each other whatever funds they have from limited work opportunities or assistance money, counting on income from the spring harvest to pay each other back.
Facing unprecedented economic and political pressures, Syrians in Lebanon feel more trapped than ever before.
“Either the sea or the enemy,” Ali said, describing the two choices available to Syrians in the event of a worst-case scenario.