Syrians in Beirut Left Desitute as Tensions Rise

By Daryl Grisgraber
Two young Syrian refugees in a collective shelter in Lebanon. UNHCR Photo/Salah Malkawi

As the number of Syrian refugees continues to grow and host communities feel the crunch, Lebanon is considering changes to its immigration policies which would limit the number of Syrian arrivals. Lebanon has been very welcoming toward Syrians so far, but with Syrian refugees now comprising roughly 25 percent of its population, there are fears that the demographic balance of the country is in jeopardy. Many here also worry that high social tensions related to the refugee influx could cause internal conflict.

It is true that rent and food prices here in Lebanon are rising, shelter is scarce, and infrastructure like roads and sanitation systems in rural areas are taking a hit from the population explosion. Recent forays into resettlement programs for Syrian refugees here are an acknowledgement of the need to reduce tensions due to overcrowding, insufficient resources, and a continuing influx of highly vulnerable people. But the fact remains that few Syrian refugees will be resettled abroad – at least in the short term – so providing more and better assistance within Lebanon must be the top priority.

A few days ago in Beirut, my Refugees International colleague and I met a Syrian teenager who worked on the street shining shoes. He claimed to be 16, but wouldn’t have passed for that age except for the tiniest bit of facial hair beginning to show on his chin. He said he had arrived in Beirut only a few days before, and that he and his family were living in a park several blocks away. Neither he nor his younger siblings go to school, nor do they know where to go for help; they had never even heard of the United Nations. He also said that he sometimes has problems with people in Beirut harassing him and his family.

There are many more families in similar situations: lacking shelter, unaware of or unable to access basic services, and wondering what will happen when their legal status expires if they cannot afford the $200 renewal fee.

The appearance of large numbers of vulnerable Syrians in Beirut shows just how much the situation in Lebanon has deteriorated. When I visited Lebanon a year ago, there were not quite 30,000 registered Syrian refugees in the entire country, and they were heavily concentrated in the north with a growing population in the Beqa’a Valley. Shelter and medical care were enormous challenges for almost everyone. A small number of Syrians with financial means had arrived in Beirut, but for the most part they were not mentioned in humanitarian reports because their numbers were so small and they seemed able to meet their own needs. A handful of local charities assisted those who could not get by, but in general no one talked much about them. Now more than 100,000 Syrian refugees live in the city and nearby areas. Entire families are homeless and sleeping on the streets, begging during the day in order to sustain themselves.

The growing number of Syrian refugees in Beirut indicates that rural areas have reached a saturation point, that more and better work opportunities for refugees are needed, and that attempts to create and maintain services for all Syrians in need are falling short.

Of course, simply helping Syrians will not be enough to prevent problems. If Lebanon is to keep its borders open and remain a place of refuge for those fleeing Syria, it must also address the shifting needs of its own population. Most Syrian children in the country are out of school, but so are lots of Lebanese children. Syrians have trouble affording rent and finding work; so do lots of Lebanese families. NGO workers in Beirut have told us that young Syrian boys are now competing with young Lebanese boys for jobs like shining shoes.

The 7,000 or so Syrian refugees who will be resettled out of Lebanon are a tiny fraction of the number currently present. And while resettlement is an important gesture, and a lifesaving option for the most vulnerable refugees, the kinds of limited extractions being proposed would not do much to reduce the tension here between Syrians and their hosts. Donors, humanitarian actors, and Lebanese authorities at all levels must work to defuse these tensions before they turn into an open conflict, which would put even more Syrians and Lebanese in peril.