Reportage. In a country strangled by the economic crisis, it is becoming more difficult for 1.5 million Syrian refugees to live every day. They now fear being driven out en masse.

Unwanted in Lebanon, unable to leave, Syrian refugees fight for a future

Lebanon has always been a kind of station for Syrians. A place of passage to other countries for those who cannot or do not want to return to Syria when the conflict is over, or a waiting room for those who still have the desire to return home one day.

UNHCR estimates there are 1.5 million refugees here, of whom almost 80% are without a residence permit (known as an iqama), which, in the absence of the recognition of refugee status (Beirut did not sign the Geneva Convention of 1951), is a necessary condition both to be able to live in the country without fear of deportation and to be able to apply for a visa to leave.

The Syrians are stuck in a country that the Lebanese are leaving en masse — hundreds of passport requests are registered every day and tens of thousands have already left — and for them the exits are closing.

A crisis is strangling Lebanon. The lira is now waste paper (the dollar on the black market, which the Lebanese refer to, changes to 24,000 lire, while the official rate is 1,500 lire). Prices are skyrocketing, and the labor market has collapsed, which is causing embassies to issue fewer tourist visas, often a first step to settling elsewhere.

Furthermore, Lebanon has no land exits, bordering Israel with which it has never signed a peace agreement and Syria at war. In the last two years, many have attempted the route to Cyprus, and recently the possibility of attempting the European route through Belarus, to get to Poland, has also been attempted among Syrians in Lebanon.

With few appealing options, there is a queue in front of all the offices of the General Directorate of Public Security to obtain the iqama, which itself is not easy to get.

The Lebanese authorities, Human Rights Watch says, are hindering the renewal of residence permits, introducing rules to make the life of Syrians more difficult. In short, they are putting pressure on them to return to Syria. And for those who entered Lebanon after April 2019 there is summary deportation.

But there are many who simply can’t go back, because they took to the streets against the Assad regime in 2011 or because they are on the conscription lists. The stories of those who have returned are not reassuring: interrogations, arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings, the impossibility of leaving the country. According to both UNHCR and the European Union, Syria is not a safe country for the return of refugees.

In Lebanon, however, on top of the economic crisis there is political instability. “We do not know what will happen, the country could explode and we are trapped here,” explains Ahmad (not his real name), who is from Damascus and has lived in Lebanon for five years. He knows that the chances of leaving are reduced every day, while he spends most of his time closed in a home, with little money and few job opportunities, often counting on the financial help of relatives and friends living abroad.

“Revolution, economic crisis, Covid and an explosion at the port; I was close, it was terrible. These things one after the other have given me the coup de grace. Then came the isolation,” says Mansour (not his real name), a researcher who is thinking of going to Qatar, “where at least I would not be a refugee.”

Others spend their time on the street begging, chasing foreigners with bouquets of roses with dollars in their pockets. Dozens of children are on the streets of Beirut, growing darker and darker because of the lack of electricity.

Most refugees, an estimated 80%, live in built-up areas, often in poor and overcrowded houses, trying to get by as day laborers. Ninety percent of Syrians live in conditions of extreme poverty. International aid is insufficient, and the crisis has been added to the problem of lack of funds with the devaluation of the lira.

In a Reuters investigation last June, it was denounced that since the start of the crisis in 2019, “between a third and half of all direct UN cash aid in Lebanon had been swallowed up by banks” that exchange local currency for the UN agencies at rates on average 40% below market rates. The Lebanese financial system is thirsty for dollars, and international aid is one of the few remaining sources of hard currency, hence the resistance to the so-called dollarization of aid, which some agencies have managed to put in place, but the situation remains fragmented.

The beneficiaries get little: a few hundreds of thousands of lire which is equivalent to a few dollars with which to buy increasingly expensive goods. The price of food has risen by more than 600% in the past two years.

Children pay the highest price. For many of them school is a distant memory: in 2021, school drop-out in primary school was 25% among Syrians, while child labor increased. Overall, one-third of Syrians of school age have never received formal education. Among them is Mariam (also not her real name), who is 19 and from Deir el Zor. She now lives in a camp in Khiam, in southern Lebanon, 5 km from the Israeli border. She never went to school and works as a farmhand for 20,000 lire a day.

In front of the tent where she lives with her family, the baskets with the eggplants put to dry are attacked by swarms of flies. She doesn’t even think about the future, she just knows that she couldn’t go to work because she is sick.

In a nearby field, however, Mohammad, 60, would return to Syria immediately if they gave him the money for the trip, for the house he lost and to start his life again in Raqqa, from which he left seven years ago.

About 140 km farther north, in Arsal, a Sunni enclave of the Bekaa valley on the slopes of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, near the Syrian border, Lubna lives with her husband and five children in a tent shared with another family.

She sums up her efforts of the last eight years in Lebanon, where she arrived walking through snow: “I am 28 years old, but I feel 100.”

Since 2014 Arsal has been the scene of the most serious encroachment of the Syrian conflict into Lebanese territory, which involved the Lebanese armed forces and various armed groups, including the Islamic State. It ended in the summer of 2017 with a Hezbollah offensive that took back the town where more than 100,000 Syrians had found refuge, more than double the local population.

Today there are about 70,000. “I lived through two wars, there were moments of terror and we could not leave,” continues Lubna, describing the difficulties that have escalated under the economic crisis and the desire to have her children study.

Despite this, she has no intention of returning to Syria: “There is still war there and the economic situation is worse than here.” Over 10 years of conflict have devastated Syrian infrastructure and the Syrian economy: the Syrian pound also collapsed, with an increase in the inflation rate of 6,820% on consumer goods. “I have read that they would like to send us away. I don’t think they will force us, but anything can happen,” concludes Lubna.

For many years, Syrians have been the backbone of the Lebanese economy in agriculture, construction and services, usually exploited and without rights. However, this was a sort of guarantee with respect to their presence in the country. The crisis has shattered this precarious equilibrium. It has dramatically reduced their already poor earnings and exacerbated competition with the Lebanese, who are also reduced to poverty and who often accuse the international community of only helping refugees.

Attacks on the camps, curfews and arbitrary arrests have marked the Syrians’ 10-year stay in the country, and even before the economic crisis the narrative of their mass return to Syria had spread. Now the fear of many Syrians is that Lebanon’s economic problems will become the pretext for putting this idea into action.

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