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For Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, Precarious Lives

(This article is one of two on the pressures on Syrians in Lebanon. The other is “A Haven No More: The Closing of Aassoun Tower.”)

BEIRUT—Syrian refugees feel less secure in Lebanon than they did a year earlier and have experienced increasing assaults, verbal abuse and detentions at government checkpoints, according to a report based on recent survey research.

But the researchers also found that the income of Syrian refugees in Lebanon had increased slightly from 2015 to 2016 and that Lebanese people were more willing to hire Syrian labor, despite a generally negative picture of Syrian refugees in the media.

The report, published in October, is based on two surveys conducted by the Political Science Institute at Université Saint-Joseph of Beirut, in June 2015 and August 2016. A team of 20 Lebanese and Syrian students, under the supervision of senior researchers, interviewed 1,200 Syrians and 600 Lebanese citizens in 120 towns and villages across Lebanon, selected to be geographically representative.

Carole Alsharabati, director of the Political Science Institute, thinks that since the surveys were conducted Lebanese public opinion may have shifted toward being even more critical of Syrian refugees. She believes that critical view of the Syrians could get worse as the country approaches national elections scheduled for May 2018. “If they are going to be used as an element in the electoral debate, then there is a risk that this could lead to negative attitudes toward the refugees,” she said.

Université Saint-Joseph students interviewing Syrian refugees in Lebanon in 2015 (Photo: USJ).

The goal of the surveys was to measure how Lebanese law affects Syrian refugees and their Lebanese hosts. Lebanon offers limited legal protection to refugees and asylum seekers, a policy that advocates say is intended to protect the fragile equilibrium of the country’s historical social and religious constituencies.

Lebanon does not recognize refugee status as defined by international law, but is bound by treaties not to return people to countries where their lives would be in danger—a principle called “non-refoulement.” Instead, Lebanon allows the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, to register Syrians who have fled to Lebanon to escape the civil war in their homeland, and to provide them with essential services.

Just over one million Syrian refugees lived in Lebanon in June 2017, according to the UNHCR, in an estimated Lebanese population of about six million. Lack of legal status means the lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are insecure and unpredictable. For most, only informal employment, mainly in agriculture or construction, is available. Movement through the government checkpoints that dot the country is severely restricted for the majority of Syrians who do not have legal residency status. Local municipalities have imposed measures such as night-time curfews for non-Lebanese foreigners, in response to a perceived (but mostly unfounded) fear of crime.

In the past year, aid workers say, evictions of thousands of Syrians from the estimated 6,000 informal settlements of Syrian refugees in Lebanon have increased in frequency, with residents sometimes told to leave with 48 hours’ notice or less. (A recent example of this trend is described in an accompanying article, “A Haven No More: The Closing of Aassoun Tower.”)

The surveys found that from 2015 to 2016, the proportion of Syrian refugees with legal residency in Lebanon fell from 30 percent to 21 percent. Meanwhile, the perception that legal residency status led to better personal safety rose from 88 percent to 97 percent of Syrian respondents.

The surveys produced a detailed picture of Syrian and Lebanese experience and opinion. For example, all but 4 percent of refugees surveyed wanted to return to Syria if security conditions permitted, and most of those (81 percent) said they wanted to return to their place of origin in the country. For those who did not want to return to Syria and wanted to emigrate to another country, Canada was their first choice.

Alsharabati expressed concern about UNHCR help for Syrians. “We are seeing a decrease in UNHCR [food] support for Syrian refugees, and an exhaustion of resources,” she said, especially while the Syrian civil war continues without a clear prospect of coming to an end.


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