Few Syrian refugees return home despite Lebanon’s economic crises
BEIRUT - Months of anti-government protests and a severe financial crisis compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected the living conditions of Lebanese but also increased the vulnerability of more than 1 million Syrian refugees, pushing some to return to their home country.
Lebanon has been hit hard by fast-rising inflation -- estimated at 10-15% in December -- low liquidity and restrictions on banking transactions and cash withdrawals.
It is not clear to what extent the economic crisis has driven the refugees’ return to Syria. More are returning or sending back their families but the numbers remain low.
An estimated 2,629 people returned in December in addition to 926 in October and 797 in August, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said. However, the group returns facilitated by General Security cannot provide an accurate figure as refugees can return on their own and many likely do not inform UNHCR or the ,authorities.
“There are, in fact, more individuals returning on their own than the above figure. The numbers reported by UNHCR only represent the ones we have been able to confirm directly,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled. “We have been present at the group returns since April 2018 and recorded some 21,052 refugees returning in this way until end of February 2020. UNHCR also noted around 38,475 individual returns since 2016.”
Socioeconomic factors are believed to be the main drivers for refugee return, said Abou Khaled.
“From conversations with refugees such factors -- including no longer being able to afford rent, medical services, food, clothes and other necessities -- were mentioned among reasons for having made the decision to return. Some refugees also cited the current situation in Lebanon and increasing food prices,” she said.
“In a situation like the one we are going through now, the most vulnerable communities are the ones affected the most, both Lebanese and refugees. For years, most Syrian refugees have been living in poverty and can barely keep afloat,” Abou Khaled added.
Refugees, like anyone else in Lebanon, are to limit their movement to urgent matters to help contain the coronavirus outbreak.
“Until now there are no confirmed Covid-19 cases among refugee communities in Lebanon. This is based on available evidence so far,” Abou Khaled said. “Refugees have limited their movement massively in the past few weeks because they are worried and they are responsive to the different guidelines they received.”
Living conditions for refugees are getting worse because of political and economic unrest. Even before Lebanon’s economic troubles ballooned into a crisis, a UN survey carried out in 2019 stated that around 73% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon were living below the poverty line (spending less than $3.80 a day), up from 69% the year before.
Just fewer than half of refugee families in Lebanon deemed as the most severely vulnerable receive some form of cash assistance from UNHCR or the World Food Programme. However, with inflation and the rise in food prices, the $27 per person per month paid in devalued Lebanese pounds is not sufficient.
“Prices have gone up suddenly. For a lot of things, the prices doubled, or what was 5,000 pounds ($3.33) has become 7,000 or 8,000 pounds. Moreover, the landlords, especially now, in this situation, are asking for the rent in [US] dollars,” one Syrian refugee was quoted as saying by the local newspaper the Daily Star.
The financial challenges Syrian refugees face are compounded by a slowdown in the construction industry, one of the main employers of refugees in Lebanon.
Samir Chalhoub, policy and advocacy specialist for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), said many are coping by reducing meals, sending their children to work, compromising their health and children’s education and increasing their debt to pay the rent.
He said that in recent focus group discussions with the DRC “refugees expressed having not engaged in labour activities for months due to a decline in the local economy and a consequent decrease of job opportunities.”
“Some also reported experiencing an increase in exploitation from employers and landlords in relation to a lack of options for refugees,” Chalhoub added.
Despite increasing push factors to return to Syria, many refugees are not ready or willing to return, citing risks of arrests and military conscription, absence of legal documentation, lack of public services and of sustainable livelihoods, Chalhoub said.
“We have observed a trend in husbands to send their wives and children back to Syria due to their inability to afford the living costs of the household in Lebanon,” he said.
While Syrian refugees say they are concerned about the situation in Lebanon, it is not clear whether that will have a direct effect on the possible increase in the number of returnees.
Considering the economic and political crisis in Lebanon and unsafe conditions for refugees to return to Syria, Chalhoub said: “The international community should continue supporting both refugees and vulnerable Lebanese while expanding global resettlement capacity for refugees.”