The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon – a Notebook and Primer

NOTE: When I was in Beirut last month I met with country officials from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF for a briefing on the situation of Syrian refugees currently living in the country. It’s one that has reached crisis proportions in less than four years: Lebanon now hosts more than one million Syrian refugees (some estimates are twice that), representing 25% of the population. That’s the world’s highest number of refugees per inhabitant.

I was planning to write a more complete story on the situation there but time constraints and other work commitments didn’t allow me the opportunity to visit any of the refugee settlements to speak with and collect stories from the refugees individually and directly, so the story was killed.

But rather than have the information I compiled sit on a hard drive gathering dust, I’m presenting my notes here for the benefit of others who may find the data informative and useful. To reiterate: this is not a complete article, only notes, some somewhat scattered, based primarily on interviews with relief agency officials in Beirut shared here because they are timely and relevant to debates transpiring around the world. My thanks again to Lisa Abou Khaled, the Assistant Communications Officer at UNHCR Lebanon, and Luciano Calestini, the Deputy Representative for UNICEF Lebanon, for sharing their time and insights.

Cross-posted with my website,

Notes from Conversations with Lisa Abou Khaled, Assistant Communications Officer at UNHRC Lebanon and Luciano Calestini, the Deputy Representative for UNICEF Lebanon, on the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon

To most Europeans and North Americans, the Syrian civil war was little more than another headline from another of the world’s conflict zones. Until this summer that is, when the humanitarian crisis that has already displaced more than ten million people both externally and internally over the past four years began to more forcefully spill onto and into the borders of the European Union. Upwards of a million refugees are expected to enter the EU this year, according to the UNHCR – a four-fold increase over 2014— with the majority fleeing the violence in Syria, a war which has already cost a quarter of a million lives, leveled large parts of many major cities and towns, and rendered much of the country ungovernable and on the verge of collapse.

Yet those figures dwarf the numbers seen in Syria’s neighboring countries which have been both literally and figuratively on the front lines of the humanitarian crisis since the war erupted in the middle of 2011. There are about 1.9 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and about 630,000 in Jordan. But in relative terms, it’s been Lebanon that has been forced to absorb with the brunt of refugee flow over the course of the four-year war.

Since the conflict began, the number of Syrian refugees registered by the UNHCR in Lebanon has mushroomed: from 9,106 in March 2012, to 251,407 in March 2013, to 945,922 in March 2014 and to just under 1.2 million in March of this year. That in a country with a population of just over 4 million in an area smaller than the US state of Connecticut, half the size of tiny Slovenia and one one-thousandth the size of the US.


Source: UNHCR

Comparatively, that figure would be like the US and EU hosting some 75 million and 125 million refugees, respectively. Or, as Luciano Calestini, the Deputy Representative for UNICEF Lebanon, noted: “That’s equivalent to the U.K. hosting 15 million refugees. It’s amazing that Lebanon has managed this long given all the extra pressures.”

Indeed, the challenges that Lebanon, which is infinitely poorer than the US and EU, faces are immense, with fears growing that the country has already reached the limits of what it can continue to sustain.

Living Conditions

There are currently (October 2015) 1.07 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which has a population of about four million Lebanese. As the violence in Syria escalated, the number skyrocketed from 9,106 in March 2012 to more than one million by the end of 2014. Estimates that include non-registered refugees reach as high at two million, nearly double the official UNHCR registered figures.

The government hasn’t allowed formal refugee camps to be set up, so the refugees are scattered in about 3,000 informal settlements located among 1,700 localities throughout the country. About 18 percent live in these informal settlements. The majority, about 55 percent, live in what are called “substandard” settings.

“That could mean anything from garages, warehouses, unfinished buildings with no proper roof over their heads or sealed off windows,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, the Assistant Communications Officer at UNHCR Lebanon. About 70 percent live below the national poverty line of US$ 3.84 (EUR 3.62) per day.

“As you can imagine the refugees live in very difficult circumstances,” Abou Khaled said. “Many of the refugees who initially came to Lebanon with some resources or some savings have seen these savings depleted after years in exile. Also it’s very difficult for refugees to work in the country so most of them don’t have their own source of a livelihood. They are relying more and more on aid. In some cases aid is decreasing.”

Indeed, refugees are by law not allowed access the Lebanese labor market and must sign a notarized pledge upon entering the country that they will not work.

“Not being able to work, not being able to provide for their families, less aid – we’re seeing vulnerabilities increasing,” Abou Khaled said.

Increased Vulnerability

According to findings in the “2015 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees (VASyR) in Lebanon,” a survey conducted for the third consecutive year by UNHCR, UNICEF and The World Food Programme (WFP), nearly 90 percent of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are finding themselves stuck in a cycle of increasing debt. [Download the report’s executive summary.]

“Savings are exhausted, ability to find work is diminished, and humanitarian assistance has dwindled due to shortages of funds,” said UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards at a press briefing late last month announcing the study.

“Nearly 40 per cent of refugees are in debt to their landlords, typically being more than two months behind on their rent,” Edwards continued. “One father we spoke to was five months behind with his rent for a small patch of private land on which he has put up a makeshift tent. He was desperately hoping not to be evicted this winter.”

“These figures show that the vulnerabilities of refugees are increasing,” Abou Khaled said. “And that Syrian refugees are sinking deeper and deeper into poverty in Lebanon, but also in other countries in the region. It’s becoming much more difficult for them to provide for their families after such a long time in exile, to be able to pay rent, to be able to buy really the just the basic items that they need.”

Is the number of refugees in Syria increasing or decreasing?

In light of the increasing difficulties, Abou Khaled said that UNHCR is now asking refugees if they intend to leave. “Many did say that they would want to leave because they want to seek better opportunities for their families.”

UNHCR doesn’t keep those kind of figures, but Abou Khaled said that the organization is inactivating refugee files, about 150,000 since the beginning of this year.

“We inactivate refugees from our database when we are no longer able to be in touch with them. We do these regular verification exercises to be in touch with the refugees, to be informed about any changes in their location and their needs, about the family composition.

“So when we invite these refugees to perhaps renew their certificates with UNHCR, or to attend any distribution activities, we update their information. We try to call them or even try to do home visits. We ask the community, the neighbors, the family members. If they are nowhere to be found we assume they are no longer in the country so we inactivate them in our files. But of course, only after months of trying to find them.”

“At the same time,” Abou Khaled continued, “our colleagues in countries on the Mediterranean who are receiving refugees and are talking to these refugees, have noticed that some are coming directly from Syria, but that some are also coming from countries in the region like Lebanon. The refugees that are coming from countries like Lebanon are citing the very difficult living conditions as a reason to leave. There is not enough food assistance, they can’t afford to pay rent anymore, they have to send their children to work. This is an example of how difficult the situation is for refugees here.”

The route to Europe via Lebanon

Abou Khaled continued.

“There are two camps of people,” Abou Khaled said.

“There are the Syrians who are leaving from Syria through legal, or official ways and going directly to Turkey; or transiting through Lebanon first, and going legally to Turkey. And then from Turkey, trying to move onward to other European countries. They were the middle class if you will, or the upper middle class. They stayed in Syria until now, and then of course were able to pay for tickets.

“Of the others who are leaving from Lebanon – few are leaving officially, but we don’t have figures. We know that others are leaving with the help of smugglers.

“Since August (of 2015) we’ve seen more people coming from Syria and transiting to go from the ports of Lebanon to go to Turkey by boat.”

Lebanon’s coastal city of Tripoli has become a busy transit hub, with hundreds boarding ferries bound for Turkey daily. Syrians don’t need visas to enter Turkey, but they do need transit visas to enter Lebanon; those are generally valid for 48 hours and require proof of onward travel.

Abou Khaled said that the numbers transiting peaked at about 5,000 per week in September. The number has decreased slightly.

Effects on refugee children

There was unanimous agreement among all the people I spoke with in Beirut that the number of street children, children begging and children working in the streets has grown exponentially since the Syrian civil war exploded.

“Children are working in environments that are exposing them to dangers,” Abou Khaled said. “They are working in agricultural fields — very small children are having to carry weight they shouldn’t be carrying at such a very young age. They’re having to work very long hours in factories, on the streets selling goods, in the fields.”

Long-term, an even larger problem is the tens of thousands of refugee children who are not receiving an education.

“One of the biggest challenges we have faced is that there are now about 400,000 school aged Syrian children in Lebanon,” said Luciano Calestini, the Deputy Representative for UNICEF Lebanon. “The total student body of Lebanon’s public schools is only about 200,000. So you have twice the number of Syrians that have to go to school that are Lebanese in the public system. It’s a mathematical impossibility.”

Bold moves by the Lebanese government have made room for nearly half of those to attend classes within the national public school system by adding a so-called “second shift” to accommodate some of the student who were shut out of the traditional morning school day. More than 250 of the country’s 1,281 public schools now operate a second shift created for Syrian refugees.

“This is the second year the second shift has been running as a way to absorb all the others who can’t get in the first shift,” Calestini said. “Up until now we’re at about 160,000 children in the public system on top of the Lebanese student body. So we’re almost at a ratio of one to one.

“It’s unprecedented in history that a country would take this revolutionary a step to embrace its refugees. My country (Australia) would never do it, and we see the debates in Europe and we kind of smile because it’s such a contrast of response.”

But, Calestini added:

“The reality right now is that there are still 200,000 children who are not being educated. What they do is non-formal education, a form of “catch up” preparation classes to allow them to join the public system next year. Because the fact is that even if there were magically seats for every child, these kids have been out of school for so long that they are unsocialized — some are now 11 and 12 years old that are completely illiterate. They wouldn’t make it even if they were placed in these classrooms. So there has to be a pathway for them to get to the public system.”

“This has all been made possible by an incredibly politically courageous Minister of Education (Elias Bou Saab) who said that there are kids in this country who need to go to school — and they’re welcome. It’s a brave move.”

What does the second shift cost?

“A second shift child for one year costs 600 US dollars. Overall that adds up to between 200 and 300 million per year when you include the non-formal. That sounds like a huge amount of money but as a Palestinian friend once told me, ‘If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.’

“And he was right. If these kids remain out (of school), they will not be the human capital that will be needed to rebuild their country. On the day that they go back they will have no hard skills or soft skills.”

“We’re very happy with the government’s commitment to held educating the refugees,” About Khaled said. “Of course, there is still another 200,000 left out. That illustrates the scope of the refugee crisis in Lebanon.

We’re cooperating with the government, we work very closely with the government. Even in our funding appeals we appeal together with the government to provide for the needs of the refugees but also for the Lebanese who are affected. But still we are not able to reach everyone.”

Biggest challenge facing UNHCR now compared to the biggest challenge faced in 2012?

Again, Abou Khaled:

“It would be linked to the increasing vulnerabilities of the refugees. The fact that they are having to rely more on aid and that that aid cannot cover all their needs.

“We’re dealing with a much larger population. It’s a challenge to provide for a population that’s scattered all over the country. It’s a challenge also to keep up with their growing needs. Now with the coming winter we are worried about the most vulnerable parts of the population who live in really sub-standard shelters. We provide them with the most necessary items in order to ensure that they are in shelters that are safe and secure against the elements. But still the vulnerabilities of the most vulnerable increase in harsh weather conditions.

“There is education. Educating the rest of the refugees who don’t have space in schools. Providing for the most vulnerable who are increasing year after year. Especially with the fact that they cannot work and provide for themselves.

Is there a feeling that many want to return home as soon as they can?

“It’s difficult to gauge. Two years, three years have passed. Some have really lost hope and feel that they can never go back. They’ve lost everything in Syria. But of course most that we talk to say that they lived much better before coming to Lebanon. Because in Syria, it was their home. They were used to free health care, just to give you one example. In Lebanon it’s not free and highly expensive. So some say they do want to go back as soon they can. Some will tell you if the conflict stopped today, they wouldn’t even wait until tomorrow. They’d go right away.

“And some say they don’t think they can go back. They also feel that they can’t stay in Lebanon so they want to go to a third country, to Europe.”

UN Agency and NGO budgeting shortfalls

“That’s another challenge,” Abou Khaled said. “We’re only 45 percent funded for 2015. This also shows how we’ve had to prioritize assistance to really only the most vulnerable. We don’t have enough resources for more.”

In 2015 the joint funding appeal to help tackle the refugee crisis in Lebanon –combining the UNHCR, other UN agencies, the Lebanese government, all international and local NGOs working to meet the needs of the refugees— was $2.1 billion. They fell well short.

“We’ve had to revise six months later and decrease the appeal to $1.8 billion because we realized that we wouldn’t reach the $2.1 billion so we had to revise our budget and our programs. But still after the revision we’re still only 45 percent funded.”

Additional Resources:

– New York Times – “A Refugee Crisis in Lebanon Hides in Plain Sight
– BBC – “Lebanon: The other refugee crisis” (September 2015)
– Sky News – “Refugee Crisis: Lebanon At Breaking Point” (September 2015)
– Middle East Eye – [Opinion] “Syrian refugees in Lebanon: Whose breaking point?” (October 2015)
– UNHCR – Lebanon Country Page
– UNHCR – “Refugees in Lebanon caught in vicious debt cycle” (November 2015)
– UNHCR – “Debt a growing burden for Syrian refugees in Lebanon” (November 2015)
– UNICEF – Lebanon Country Page
– World Food Programme – Lebanon Program Page



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