Status Update on the Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Thursday, March 11, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Two recent stories reminded us that the status of the Syrian refugees in the Levant has gone largely underreported in media perspectives on challenges for the Biden Administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Dispersed primarily in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, with another 6 million internally displaced in Syria, tens of thousands have emigrated out of the region, and the future of those left behind has become a chess piece in international politics.

This was made quite clear in the story about the meeting between Syrian Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad and Lebanese Minister of Tourism and Social Affairs Ramzi Moucharafieh to discuss the refugees. In addition to pledging to work for the quick return of the refugees to Syria, both ministers called on international organizations not to create obstacles for the return of Syrians home. This was a not-so-veiled reference to existing standards that conditions of safety and dignity must be in place before any repatriation process. These pre-conditions for return have been stymied by Russia which uses its votes in the UN Security Council to dismiss efforts to provide humanitarian relief and assist the refugee resettlement process.

The hypocrisy of the Assad regime in this regard is evident in its efforts to replace refugees by transplanting communities, transferring housing vacated by the refugees to its supporters, and passing laws that create obstacles to the return of vacated property, dismissing obligations to serve in the military, and similar hurdles. Meanwhile, Mikdad insisted that Syria welcomes the return of all displaced Syrians to their homeland. The government, he said, will take all measures necessary to guarantee their safe return and provide them with good living conditions. None of this has been validated by the more than 10,000 refugees from Lebanon who have returned over the past two years.

The validation of the desperate lives of the Syrian refugees has been recorded a recently released study by Save the Children called “Anywhere but Syria.” The study was conducted in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Netherlands, and the statistics from Lebanon are quite startling. According to the United Nations, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon living below the poverty line increased from 55 percent in 2019 to 89 percent in 2020. In a commentary on the report, Relief Web International noted that “The protracted hosting of large refugee populations has placed additional strains on a middle-income country like Lebanon with ongoing political turmoil, unstable economic situation, and a fragmented, highly privatized, and under-resourced health care system.”

“The compilers of the report spoke to 1,900 displaced Syrian children in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, the Netherlands, and opposition-held areas of Syria. 86% of them said that they would not return to Syria and cannot imagine a future there, while a third said that they would rather live in another country. Only 29% of the children in Lebanon, 3% in Turkey, and 9% in Jordan and the Netherlands said that they would return to Syria.” Among the key reasons cited is the desire for education, freedom of expression, and having a say in their lives. “Lebanon, especially, was said to be one of the most difficult of the host countries, as it is gripped by an economic crisis and political instability.”

Other results are that some 79% of children said that after two years, they expect to find themselves somewhere other than Syria. Just 42% of internally displaced Syrian children said that they thought they would be able to realize their wish, significantly less than those in any other country.

If their dreams are realized, Assad will have achieved his goal of remaking Syria into a safe haven for himself, his community, and his allies, not to mention the Russians and Iranians.

Dr. Nana Ndeda, who is the policy advocacy and communications director for Save the Children’s Lebanon office told Arab News: “Lebanon presents a distinct context for Syrian refugees. We are now in a state of affairs where we are extremely worried about the plight of refugees in the midst of an entire population that is going down a steep decline in access to basic services or increased fragility.”

She mentioned that due to the severe economic crisis, there are increased incidents of violence and shortages of food, medicine, and other basics. “This makes the condition for refugees even worse. In the last couple of weeks, the situation has deteriorated rapidly, with increasing levels of poverty.” Ndeda added: “Refugees in Lebanon are now twice as poor as they were a year ago. The coronavirus disease pandemic has not made it any easier. There has been more than a year’s disruption in education services, which is leading to an increase of protection challenges, such as child marriage, other abuse, and increasing child labor.”

After 10 years of conflict in Syria, it is sobering to consider the prospects for the lost generation of youth and their families who have been living in camps outside and inside Syria. Deprived of their homes, communities, and essential services, the refugees can only dream of their futures, one without violence, in their own homes, investing in building new lives.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.