North Africa, West Asia

Coping with displacement - Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Lebanon hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees worldwide. The large number of refugees only serves to reveal the troubled political, economic and social problems of the country.

Cathrine Thorleifsson
24 December 2014
Two Syrian women wait to collect a prescription at a health clinic in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, 2013.

Wikimedia/Russell Watkins/Department for International Development. Some Rights Reserved.

The ongoing violence in Syria has resulted in an increasingly large-scale displacement of the civilian population. At the end of 2014 around seven million Syrians are displaced. The number of Syrians who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries has passed two million and Lebanon has received almost half of these.

Shadows in Lebanon 

Displaced Syrians in Lebanon are affected by both governmental and ordinary people’s ambivalence towards their presence. Syrians are being marked as Lebanon’s “internal others”, people who partially belong and should be treated with generous hospitality, but who also pose economic and security threats. Lebanon’s long experience with Palestine refugees since 1948 affects its practices and policies toward the displaced Syrians. The Lebanese authorities have refused the establishment of refugee camps, as they fear that history will repeat itself. The establishment of armed Palestinian groups in camps was one factor that sparked their civil war between 1975 and 1990. Furthermore, Lebanese authorities fear that the establishment of new camps would increase the likelihood that Syrians will stay and form spaces of resistance for Syrians in exile.

This fear is not unfounded. The conflict in Syria threatens to disturb Lebanon’s fragile political and religious balance as it was established after the country’s own civil war. Sunni Muslim groups and the Shiite movement Hezbollah are already involved on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war. This has led to bloody street battles and numerous car bombings, particularly in two of the country’s largest cities, Beirut and Tripoli. It is in the context of lengthy experience with the threat and actuality of violence that Lebanese people offer protection and hospitality to displaced Syrians. Coping strategies, especially for Syrians from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, make everyday life in Lebanon very challenging. They arrive empty-handed and traumatised by war, violence, division or loss of family. Lebanon's poorest areas are poorly equipped to absorb them. The refugees have limited access to food, housing, education and healthcare. From the point of view of the international humanitarian community, the absence of official camps in Lebanon makes it far harder to ensure refugee protection and coordinate aid relief.

Trying to return to everyday life

The refugees themselves, however, say that they prefer living outside camps where they have better opportunities to influence their situation. More than 400 informal tented encampments are registered around Lebanon to accommodate Syrian refugees. In Bebnine, a village of around 40,000 residents in the poor northern Akkar region, informal encampments – groupings of simple plastic tents constructed directly on the ground without water, electricity or sanitation – have popped up in several areas. The Syrians, both urban and rural poor from the Homs region, typically end up moving into makeshift shelters in shops, garages, storerooms, hallways and even slaughterhouses. History has shown that refugees even under extremely difficult conditions have the ability to mobilise forces to improve their situation for themselves.

Doing fieldwork in Lebanon in May 2013, I found that the refugees did not only present themselves as passive victims of displacement and dispossession. Rather, they drew on a diverse repertoire of coping strategies to deal with life outside formal encampment. They reduced consumption, established new social networks and exploited aid and labour opportunities to create a new livelihood system for themselves.

But back in Syria many of the refugees lived close to their relatives’ houses. After the flight to Lebanon, families were scattered, which contributed to the loss or weakening of social support. Some Syrians have formed new relationships with non-kin individuals such as host families or other refugees and go on to apply kinship categories like mother, father, sister and brother to them to emphasise their obligations based on the roles associated with close family. While local practices of hospitality toward the Syrian refugees are widespread, the Syrians have however also been used as scapegoats for economic as well as political insecurity.

Syrian refugees look for employment in the unskilled labour markets in agriculture, construction or in small businesses. Prior to the crisis, Syrian migrant workers typically accepted lower wages than the Lebanese due to the comparatively lower cost of living in Syria. Now the refugees compete with Lebanese for even lower wages, since they also receive aid, a livelihood strategy closed to poor Lebanese. When asked about the impact of displaced Syrians on living conditions and the areas of life in which they felt most threatened by the refugees, local Lebanese in Bebnine soon cite the labour market. Ahmad, a young Lebanese man of 24, expressed his concern: “We have very bad unemployment. How long can we survive this? How long can they (the Syrians) go on stealing our jobs?” Survey data confirms the view that an overwhelming majority of Lebanese believe that Syrians are taking jobs from them and pushing down wages. Syrian refugees are seen as an economic burden anyway and over half of the Lebanese respondents believe that no more Syrians should be allowed to enter the country. There are limits, they argue, to Lebanese hospitality. Meawnhile, Syrians are being used as scapegoats for Lebanon's perennial economic, social and security challenges.

Abuse & violence

Pressure from the refugee crisis and old tensions inform todays’ prejudices. Refugees report incidents of physical violence. Some Syrians have tried to mask their accents or other characteristics so as not to be subjected to harassment. Salma who fled from Idlib with her husband and five children says: “We fled here but I do not feel safe. Hopefully we will go back home soon.” Unfortunately, there are all too many indications that the refugee crisis may be prolonged. In the northern region, 40 percent believe that the refugees will never return to Syria, but will settle permanently in Lebanon. A prolonged refugee crisis will inevitably lead to a dramatic change of Lebanon's demographic landscape. It would also require a shift in local practice and attitudes towards Syrians, who might prove that they are not merely guests, but cultural brothers who have no other choice but to stay.

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