A Time of Crisis - Economic Dilemma in Lebanon and its Impact on Refugees

Shatila Camp Empowerment Project

“My visit today is a strong testimony of the EU’s continued support to Lebanon and its people. This was also the clear message of European leaders at our last summit, and are committed to provide strong financial support to the country in view of the significant challenges it faces…

With these words, European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen empathised with the EU’s continuous support to Lebanon during her visit to Beirut on 2 May 2024, accompanied by Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides. Von der Leyen announced that the EU will provide a financial package of 1 billion euros ($1.07 billion) to Lebanon for 2024-2027, to support essential services, such as health, social protection, and education. Additionally, the package will aid the Lebanese Armed Forces and other security forces by providing equipment and training for border management and combating smuggling.

Lebanon's Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati expressed gratitude for the EU’s support, stating that "Lebanon’s security is security for European countries and vice versa” and this support is crucial "to control sea and land borders and prevent illegal migration to and from Lebanon."

This aid package came after several years of economic meltdown in Lebanon, during which the country has struggled to provide essential services such as healthcare and energy. Lebanon has also experienced a high inflation rate of 230.4 percent in 2023.[1] This has resulted in ongoing challenges such as power outages, shortages of medicine, and a lack of basic goods and services. Although efforts have been made to restore essential services and goods, prices remain very high, while wages remain low. The population is finding it difficult to keep up with the rapid inflation, leading to increased poverty, with 44 per cent of the total population now living in poverty in Lebanon.

The situation has worsened with the collapse of the banking system. The Central Bank has imposed a series of decisions resulting in depositors losing control of withdrawals and transfers in dollars and having limited access to their savings in Lebanese lira, which has lost more than 90 percent of its value. Political developments in Lebanon are restraining potential solutions and creating additional challenges for reforms due to the presidential vacuum since 2022 and ongoing clashes in the South.

This crisis has affected all people, including refugees, that the government could not anymore manage it. According to UNHCR, Lebanon remains the country hosting the largest number of refugees per capita, with an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and around 11,238 refugees of other nationalities.[2] As of March 2023, the total number of UNRWA-registered Palestine Refugees in Lebanon is 489,292. In addition, UNRWA records show a total of 31,400 Palestine Refugees from Syria residing in Lebanon.[3]

From Sanctuary to Hardship

After the war in Syria in 2011, many Syrians sought refuge in Lebanon to escape persecution or forced military conscription. However, the crisis in Lebanon affected all sectors of society, including refugees. Today, 9 out of 10 Syrian refugees are under the poverty line and require humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs.[4] In the first quarter of 2024, 97 percent of refugees reported difficulties in providing food for their families, 88 percent struggled to pay rent, and 44 percent experienced reduced access to healthcare due to financial constraints.[5]

The UNHCR[6] reports that in 2024, 37 percent of Syrian children in Lebanon aged 6 to 14 are not attending school, and 71 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds are also out of school. These numbers indicate that children are leaving school early due to reasons such as early marriage, inability to afford transportation and other expenses, or engaging in child labour, with 7 percent of children aged 5 to 17 being employed.

The Impact of Politics on Refugees

While Lebanon is facing a severe socioeconomic crisis and requires reforms in various areas, the current focus has shifted towards Syrian refugees. There has been an increase in tension against Syrian refugees, leading to discrimination, violence, and forced deportations back to Syria.

In 2015, the Lebanese government requested the UN Refugee Agency to stop registering Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Approximately 83% of Syrians[7] in Lebanon lack legal residency or work permits, resulting in a high risk of arrests, evictions, and forced deportations. Obtaining legal documents is extremely challenging due to high fees, difficulties in getting the necessary documents, and other residency application restrictions, making it nearly impossible for Syrians to gain legal status.

Since 2022, Lebanon has been facilitating the voluntary return of Syrians in coordination with Syrian authorities. Despite warnings from both the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) that Syria remains unsafe and that returnees are targeted upon their return, these voluntary returns are still being organised.

Recently, on 9th May of this year, General Security in Lebanon announced a series of restrictive measures to ‘containing and regulating the issues of Syrians present in Lebanon’[8]. Municipalities have also imposed discriminatory curfews on Syrian refugees and closed many small businesses run by Syrians.

On 15th May 2024, the Lebanese Parliament agreed to establish a ministerial committee, headed by the Prime Minister, to develop a plan for refugee return. Some of these initiatives involve carrying out the necessary legal procedures to transfer displaced prisoners to Syrian authorities.

With FNF Lebanon commitment to liberal values across all projects with local partners to promote human rights and raise awareness, what liberal solutions can FNF offer to address this issue in Lebanon?

Empowerment Comes First!

Every year, FNF works on projects to empower refugees by building their capacities and skills. These projects are not solely for refugees but also include Lebanese students, promoting integration and creating a safe space for understanding and cooperation. This inclusive approach reflects our shared responsibility in building a better future for all.

Due to the challenging economic situation in Lebanon and the lack of legal documents for refugees, many students are dropping out of school and facing difficulties in completing their education. FNF is collaborating with partners in Lebanon to provide opportunities for those in need, especially the youth. It is essential to teach students new skills, create new business opportunities and provide classes so that they don’t miss out on anything. These initiatives include vocational training and classes related to electronics, nursing, solar panels, and mechanics, as well as courses aligned with the Lebanese educational system to facilitate their continuation within the system when possible.

For instance, in 2023, FNF worked on the "OurVoice" project with the photographer Erol Gurian in the Beirut refugee camp Shatila. This involved sending students into the field to conduct interviews, take photos, and carry out research. The students learned basic theoretical knowledge about journalism, photojournalism, and storytelling.

With the ongoing economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and school overcrowding, many students dropped out of school, especially refugees, who were left without proper education. Many kids were pushed into child labour, and the rate of illiteracy is increasing. FNF collaborated with Mishwar, which runs classrooms in 3 separate refugee camps in Akkar, a neglected Governorate in Lebanon. These classes provide a program designed to help increase access to education for children who have been excluded for 2 years from state education.

Furthermore, the FNF Lebanon and Syria office collaborates with other international offices and organisations to engage youth through skills-building, workshops, field trips, and interactions with key stakeholders. We aim to reach as many people as possible in various areas across Lebanon, all while raising awareness about migration challenges and border management.

In 2023, the FNF Lebanon and Syria office and the FNF Madrid Policy Group joined forces to organise a visiting program on Migration. This comprehensive program covered the reality of migration management in Lebanon, allowing participants to hear about the challenges and learn from the experiences of stakeholders and actors in the migration field, including local partners in Lebanon, liberal Lebanese politicians, and UN agencies.

Moreover, in partnership with FNF, the International Federation of Liberal Youth (IFLRY) organised the Twin Migration Seminars, with the first part taking place in Beirut and the second seminar in Madrid, in collaboration with FNF Madrid. The seminars covered the roots and causes of immigration and the challenges of migration, mainly in Lebanon and Jordan. The seminars were delivered by partners in Lebanon and local organisations who are experts in this field and can provide their perspectives from different points of view. The participants had the chance to go on a field trip to the Beqaa Valley to visit an informal tented settlement, and they also met with two mayors from different municipalities to discuss the ongoing challenges.

In 2023, the EU parliament held a plenary debate on the Lebanese situation on June 13th, in which Jan Cristoph Oetjen, a member of the liberal group Renew Europe (FDP-Germany), who was re-elected during the EP election this year, stated:

there have always been many Syrians in Lebanon and they have worked there (…) The point is not to bring these Syrians back to Syria, because the men there in particular fear that they will never see their families again, that they will never show up again. We must not allow that, but we must make sure that the people who fled the war continue to be protected. But, of course, we have to help Lebanon support these refugees in their country”.

Given the economic crisis facing Lebanon, new reforms need to be implemented to address the complex economic, social and security challenges. These reforms are essential to ensuring a decent, safe, and respectful life for all residents of Lebanon, including refugees. Subjecting refugees to violence and discrimination not only puts their lives at risk but also undermines efforts to address underlying causes effectively and achieve sustainable economic solutions.

In this context, the FNF office is committed to working on local projects that champion individual freedom and rights, aligning with our liberal values and aspirations. We prioritise economic and social integration initiatives as integral steps toward meaningful improvement.