BEIRUT—There is a growing backlash to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, fueled by pervasive misconceptions that reveal the extent of simmering anti-refugee sentiment not only there but in other countries in the region that together have hosted millions of Syrian refugees. Refugees that have already endured daily discrimination now face the threat of detention and deportation to Syria against their will. Lebanon's crippling economic crisis has exacerbated resentment over their presence and accelerated the government's plans to send refugees back, following its announcement last year to return about 15,000 refugees to Syria per month.
Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, with roughly 1.5 million Syrian refugees among a population of 6 million. But only about 805,000 of those refugees are officially registered with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, after it suspended refugee registrations in 2015 at the request of the Lebanese government. The government has not coordinated its repatriation plans with UNHCR in Lebanon, which said it was "not facilitating or promoting the large-scale voluntary repatriation of refugees to Syria." The head of Lebanon's General Security, the agency that manages the country's borders, has claimed those returns would be voluntary—"for Syrian refugees who would like to go back."
Yet there is little to no prospect for a safe return to Syria for most refugees, as human rights organizations have documented extensive violations perpetrated by Syrian military and security forces against Syrian returnees, including unlawful or arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, rape, sexual violence and enforced disappearance. These groups have denounced Lebanon's failure to comply with the principle of non-refoulement under international law, which prohibits returning refugees or asylum-seekers to a country where they would face torture or persecution.
Regional governments reestablishing diplomatic relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rehabilitating his regime have made clear they want refugees to return to Syria, and they have used the language of "safe and voluntary returns." But Syrian refugees, including those in Lebanon, fear what it really means. "It definitely doesn't mean the voluntary and safe return," Dareen Khalifa, a Syria expert at the International Crisis Group, told The New York Times recently. "It's all code for sending people back in any way or making it very difficult for them to stay."
In Lebanon, an alarming number of Syrian refugees have been detained and forcibly deported in several documented raids by the Lebanese army and security forces this year, including refugees registered with the UNHCR, who were supposed to be excluded from the "voluntary" repatriation plan. According to Reuters, more than 2,000 Syrian refugees have been arrested and more than 1,400 deported back to Syria in recent months.
Lebanon's political class has scapegoated Syrian refugees as it seeks to deflect blame for the country's economic meltdown and tap into the grievances of a portion of the population that wants Syrians out.
- Dario Sabaghi
For most Syrian refugees, new risks of deportation add to a precarious life in Lebanon, where the government has strictly curtailed work permits for Syrian refugees and effectively excluded them from Lebanon's education system. Syrian refugees face rising discrimination from a society that increasingly and unfairly blames them for Lebanon's myriad economic problems. Lebanon's political class, in particular, has scapegoated Syrian refugees as it seeks to deflect blame for the country's economic meltdown and tap into the grievances of a portion of the Lebanese population that wants Syrians out.
Syrian refugees make up as much as a quarter of Lebanon's overall population, which has fueled the anti-refugee rhetoric that portrays their presence as a demographic threat to Lebanon, given the country's uneasy sectarian balance. A federation of trade unions, for example, recently declared a "National Campaign to Liberate Lebanon from the Syrian Demographic Occupation." Yet the number of registered refugees has, in fact, already been declining steadily in recent years. Since 2016, almost 80,000 Syrian refugees have voluntarily returned to Syria, and each year, thousands seek U.N.-facilitated resettlement in other countries.
Anti-refugee discourse pushes the myth that Syrian refugees want to stay in Lebanon, where they are said to enjoy an easy life—which is obviously contradicted by the reality on multiple fronts. The many Syrian refugees seeking resettlement in other countries often report facing discrimination and exploitation in Lebanon. According to the UNHCR, the proportion of Syrian refugee families living in extreme poverty dramatically increased from 55 percent in 2019 to 89 percent in 2020 due to Lebanon's devastating economic and financial crisis, made even worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since late 2019, Lebanon's currency has collapsed, depreciating by more than 90 percent, pushing an estimated 80 precent of the Lebanese population into poverty and fueling new social unrest—and more resentment toward refugees. In some corners of the country, Syrian refugees are cast as the root cause of the economic crisis, even though the Lebanese economy, with its notorious corruption and mismanagement, was struggling well before Syria's civil war drove so many people out of the country.
By hosting so many Syrian refugees, Lebanon has received significant international aid—over $9 billion since 2015—that was injected into the economy and may have helped postpone its collapse. It is Syria's war, not the influx of Syrian refugees, that contributed to Lebanon's economic crisis. As the International Monetary Fund reported in 2016, using data from the World Bank in 2013, the Syrian civil war had lowered Lebanon's annual GDP growth rate by an average of 2.9 percent due to the "deterioration of consumer and business confidence, owing to the protracted and uncertain nature of the conflict in neighboring Syria, along with potential security spillovers."
Of course, Syrian refugees have strained the country's long-tattered and neglected infrastructure, particularly the electricity system. The UNDP has reported that the additional demand for electricity, based on the needs of 1.5 million displaced Syrians, has required an extra 486 megawatts of power capacity. "This is equivalent to 5 hours of electricity supply per day," according to the UNDP, incurring losses to the Lebanese government and Lebanese citizens estimated at around $333 million per year.
For Syrian refugees in Lebanon who can avoid detention or deportation, they still must endure worsening policies of exclusion.
- Dario Sabaghi
While burdens like this contribute to popular narratives in Lebanon demanding that more Syrian refugees return home, whether voluntarily or not, other more conspiratorial claims have stoked the anti-refugee backlash. One pervasive—and false—claim is that Syrian refugees are paid in U.S. dollars, which is especially explosive in a country where many people's savings have evaporated in the currency crisis. As of 2021, about 42 percent of eligible refugee families have been receiving cash assistance from UNHCR, amounting to no more than 2.5 million Lebanese pounds (currently equivalent to about $25 in the parallel cash market). Additionally, refugee families receive food assistance of 800,000 Lebanese pounds (about $8.50) per person per month for a maximum of five people from the World Food Program.
This is direct assistance, of course, not payments to refugees—but that distinction is lost in the vitriol against refugees in Lebanon. Some NGOs, including UNICEF, provide aid in U.S. dollars to support children throughout Lebanon, extending their assistance not only to Syrian children but also to Lebanese and Palestinians. The U.N. in May postponed a decision to give Syrian refugees in Lebanon cash aid partly in U.S. dollars due to the fluctuations of the market exchange after objections from senior Lebanese officials that the payments could exacerbate tensions with Lebanese locals.
Those grievances overlap with accusations that Syrians are taking away jobs from Lebanese workers. This issue is quite controversial, with some studies, including one from the International Labour Organization, suggesting that the availability of low-cost Syrian labor has reduced employment opportunities for Lebanese, leading to a decline in overall salaries. However, other studies argue the opposite, pointing out that Syrians primarily work only in the specific sectors for which the Lebanese government will give them work permits, such as agriculture and construction.
When Syrians are paid lower wages than Lebanese workers, it contributes to the perception that they are taking jobs away from the Lebanese population. But this raises an important question: at what cost? Syrian workers often face exploitation and mistreatment in whatever job they can find in Lebanon.
For Syrians in Lebanon who can avoid detention or deportation, they still must endure worsening policies of exclusion against refugees. In January, the Ministry of Education—despite receiving funds from foreign donors to teach Syrian students as well as Lebanese—suspended afternoon classes for Syrian refugees in public schools after teachers ended their morning classes for Lebanese students as they went on strike to demand better wages, given the steep devaluation of their salaries. In explaining the decision, a ministry official captured the sense of resentment over Syrian refugees that permeates Lebanese society: "It is not acceptable that our children do not learn while the children of others do."