AMMAN — The months-long economic crisis in Lebanon peaked on Saturday, as the government announced it would be defaulting, for the first time in its history, on a $1.2 billion debt payment which was due to be paid on Monday. The payment constitutes just a small portion of the country’s $90 billion national debt, which is 170% of the nation’s GDP. Consequently, some “unpopular decisions” have become inevitable, according to the Minister of Information Manal Abdul Samad.
Last month, for example, Lebanon witnessed a “bread crisis” after the Union of Bakeries threatened to go on strike because they have to “sell a loaf of bread in Lebanese pounds but import the raw materials in dollars,” according to the union’s president Kazem Ibrahim. As a result, Lebanese citizens rushed to buy large quantities of bread, causing a national shortage and several other subsequent problems, such as the closing of a highway in southern Lebanon and clashes between citizens and bakers in Beirut.
The impact of the economic crisis on the Syrian refugees has also become a cause for concern. They are “the weakest link, and the weakest is always the one who pays the highest price,” a Syrian researcher in the social sciences based in Lebanon told Syria Direct.
According to Lebanese lawyer Tareq Shandab, Syrian refugees “did not participate in the Lebanese Revolution that broke out against economic corruption this past October. In fact, they were a positive factor that contributed to bringing international aid that supported the treasury of the Lebanese State. [However], the dual political and economic crises have had a great impact on the Syrian presence” in the country that hosts over 910,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR.
Although the public’s attention has shifted from Syrian refugees to recent political and economic developments, “the deepening economic crisis, rising frustrations and deteriorating quality of life may help spark new outbursts of anti-refugee sentiment,” Alex Simon, the director of the Syrian Program at the Beirut-based Synaps Network, told Syria Direct, noting that “such tensions ebb and flow, and can be stoked by calculations at the political level or random incidents locally--say, an interpersonal dispute between a Syrian family and a Lebanese one.”
Revolution against hatred
In the aftermath of the popular protests that broke out on October 17, 2019, Syrian and Lebanese human rights activists have warned of the repercussions of the political and economic crisis in Lebanon on Syrian refugees. In a statement, Lebanon-based Access Center for Human Rights called for “the Lebanese authorities and political forces to neutralize the Syrian refugees file in the political arena, and not draw it into the popular protest movement. And to not use the Syrian refugee file as a reason for the lack of success of the Lebanese government in the rescue of the Lebanese people.”
The statement, according to Muhammed Hassan, a member of the Access Center, came against a backdrop of “hate speech [that has been widespread] against refugees for years, as well as the more recent fear that they might be used in the current protests.” He also noted that the political tension in Lebanon “has negatively affected the refugees, as they are not desirable for some political blocs.”
Former Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Basil, who has played a central role in spreading hate speech against Syrian refugees, recently posited that one of the solutions to the economic crisis in Lebanon would be to “implement a plan that was blocked earlier, [which would] send Syrian refugees back to Syria, monitor the work of international organizations, and obligate that half of the aid designated for displaced [Syrian refugees] go to the Lebanese State.”
In contrast to these statements, however, "the Lebanese revolution has created a kind of chemistry between the Lebanese and Syrian activists," according to the Syrian social science researcher. The idea, which was also emphasized by Shandab, is highlighted in popular chants employed by demonstrators, such as "from Idlib to Beirut, this revolution will not die."
Syrian refugees, Shandab added, "were not targeted by the Lebanese demonstrators who rose up against the policy of waste and corruption in Lebanese ministries and departments, which contributed to the deteriorating economic situation.”
The crisis hits the refugee economy
Although the Lebanese Central Bank continues to use the official exchange rate of 1507.5 Lebanese Pounds (LBP) per US dollar, the black market rate soared to 2500 LBP to the dollar, meaning a loss of more than 35% of the LBP value. This has led many companies to cease operations, or at least to reduce workforce to cut down on operating costs. Unofficial numbers show that 160,000 people have become unemployed since the beginning of the economic crisis late last year. This figure is expected to double this year, reaching as high as 250,000-300,000 people.
Since the economic crisis is already reflected in Lebanese employment figures, it is even more likely that “it is affecting Syrians and other foreign workers’ economic conditions,” the Syrian researcher said, adding that “Lebanese citizens’ job loss, or the decline in the value of their salary, prompts them to do without some [labor] services, such as maintenance and other work, which is mostly done by Syrians, heightening [Syrian’s] vulnerability.”
Indeed, “the situation in Lebanon has become difficult, and work is impossible,” according to the Syrian refugee Samir Ezuldin. Shops in Tripoli, in northwest Lebanon, where he is currently living, “have been closed and declared bankruptcy, and there is no money in the markets,” he told Syria Direct.
In addition, fluctuating exchange rates have made it far harder to transfer money out of the country. A Syrian who currently works for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Beirut told Syria Direct that he has been required to receive his salary in Lebanese pounds at the official exchange rate, while he has to buy U.S. dollars at the much less favorable black market rates before he can send money out of the country.
As the Syrian researcher said, “a worker who is earning $ 500 a month used to get 750,000 LBP [before the crisis], while today he receives the same amount in Lebanese pounds [at the official exchange rate, equivalent to $307].” At the same time, the Lebanese government has prohibited sending money transfers from Lebanon in Lebanese pounds, so “a Syrian worker who wants to send 100 U.S. dollars to his family in Syria must buy the dollars from the black market at a high rate.”
Rudeina Shehab, 23 years-old, has been participating in the sit-ins organized by Syrian refugees in front of the UNHCR building in Tripoli since last December to demand "a solution to our situation," she told Syria Direct.
Shehab moved to Lebanon from Tartous province on the Syrian coast. Her husband is unable to work and she is at risk of being evicted from her home because she hasn’t paid rent in six months. She noted that her life is collapsing “as charities ceased to help us. We were able to get some food and clothing, but now everything has stopped."
At the same time that sit-ins were ongoing, on February 6, 25 human rights organizations issued a joint statement calling for "urgent action by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon to develop a practical plan to legally protect refugees, and improve their living conditions.” They warned that the decision of Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council in April 2019 to deport Syrian refugees who entered illegally after February 24 puts thousands of refugees at risk of persecution and forced deportation to Syria.
Although UNHCR "met with a group of human rights organizations and organizations supporting Syrian refugees in Lebanon in response to the request of [these organizations], which represents a goodwill by UNHCR,” Muhammad Hassan said, the UNHCR "has shown no response to the demands of the refugees since the beginning of their sit-ins last October.”
"Our demands are to obtain the most basic rights: nutrition, education and health insurance,” Khader Naio, a 31-year old Syrian refugee residing in Tripoli told Syria Direct. He pointed out that he is unable to work without a permit that “costs $1,200 annually. [And] I cannot obtain it because I am registered as a refugee.”
Syria Direct contacted UNHCR in Lebanon for a comment but received no response.
Returning to Syria
Hassan Hamid, 30-years-old, has lived in Lebanon for six years. He said he has endured challenges because of his status; the Lebanese government made statements about refugees and enacted policies which reinforced “hate speech against us," he told Syria Direct. However, with the economic crisis unfolding, Hamid is contemplating his return to Syria, "in spite of the security risks it carries."
Hamid hails from East Ghouta, which was captured by government forces in March 2018. Two of his family members were arrested "while settling their status with the regime.”
“We know nothing about them; even so, I am thinking of returning."
Since the outbreak of popular protests in Lebanon, the Lebanese Public Security Directorate announced the return of four batches of refugees to Syria. Over 4,600 refugees have returned to Syria since October 17. A total of 1,093 refugees were voluntarily repatriated on February 13, in coordination with the UNHCR. Some returned "through smuggling methods to avoid paying their fines, which the Lebanese government imposes on refugees who entered Lebanon illegally," a Syrian worker in the Norwegian Refugee Council told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity. The fine for "not having a residency permit is 300,000 LBP [$200 according to the official exchange rate, and 123 dollars at the black market price] for every year."
The Lebanese Public Security Directorate has granted Syrian refugees who violated residency laws and want to go back to Syria one month from February 12 to settle their situation, provided they leave after.
Although "the Lebanese revolution curbed the anti-refugee hate speech through the consensus of a wide segment of demonstrators condemning the ruling elite," Simon said, “Lebanon is no longer an option for Syrians."
"My heart is tired here. Everything small or large reflects on us and we are to blame for everything that happens," Nayo said.
The report was originally published and Arabic and translated into English by Calvin Wilder and Nick Schafer.
This report reflects minor changes made on 11/3/2020 at 9:47 am.