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The world has forgotten Syrian refugees in Lebanon

June 21, 2024 at 10:49 am

Syrian children walk between tents at a refugee camp in Saadnayel in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on 13 June, 2023 [ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images]

June 20th marked the 13th World Refugee Day observed globally since the onset of the Syrian conflict in 2011. In the initial years, as the mass exodus of Syrians reached its peak, their plight dominated the headlines. The current predicament of 12 million refugees from Syria, nearly half of them children, feels completely forgotten across the world. However, one place where this definitely isn’t the case is here in Lebanon.

The reality is that Lebanon is home to the largest number of refugees per capita and per square mile. We are host to 1.5 million people who have fled the conflict in Syria, along with an estimated 250,000 displaced Palestinians.

Yet, since the conflict in neighbouring Syria started, the situation in Lebanon has deteriorated markedly. The soaring inflation and unemployment that are characteristic of Lebanon’s economic collapse has not only made the cost of living for most Lebanese unaffordable, but is also stoking anti-refugee sentiments. Many who initially welcomed refugees now feel resentment – they feel that all the aid and support is going to refugees, whilst their own living conditions worsen. The desire for forced returns of refugees is growing at an alarming rate.

When the conflict in Syria was at the forefront of the global agenda, making headlines, and filling the in-trays of foreign ministers across the globe – things were a lot different. There was a political will to alleviate the conditions of Syrian refugees in the short term and reach a long-term solution. Donors, the UN, and NGOs worked together to support families fleeing conflict and support the most vulnerable members of Lebanese society as well. However, times have changed. Anyone living in hope for global support for both refugees and the host Lebanese communities whilst a better situation is reached is deluded.

Read: Turkiye says world should not be distracted from Syria crisis

It has fallen to NGOs, civil society, and local authorities to meet the growing needs of Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians alike. At World Vision, we are attempting to do this through projects like our retention programme in Akkar, which supports Lebanese and Syrian refugee children by providing crucial educational support, facilitating the learning process and complementing their school curriculum.

However, we are only holding back the tide as the needs grow. It is estimated that 90% of Syrian households live in extreme poverty (living on less than US$1.90 a day). Fifty-eight per cent of Syrians are living in temporary shelters, which are dangerous, overcrowded, and magnets for disease transmission. Palestinian refugees also face dire and worsening conditions. Nearly half (Forty-five per cent) live in one of 12 overcrowded camps. Eighty per cent live below the national poverty line. Refugees’ conditions are only worsening with the growing difficulty in finding work, soaring cost of medical bills, and spiralling food prices. Access to basic health care and education is often unaffordable and out of reach.

At the same time, the aftershocks of the conflict in Ukraine and a national economic crisis caused triple-digit inflation, rising food prices, and worsening food insecurity that were felt across Lebanon. This already tenuous situation is now being exacerbated by the removal of subsidies, which has led to inequity and unaffordability of food. The latest hunger research shows that fifteen per cent of the Lebanese population and twenty-seven per cent of the Syrian refugee population are facing acute food insecurity and require urgent humanitarian action to reduce food gaps, diversify food intake, protect and restore livelihoods, and prevent acute malnutrition.

To make matters worse, humanitarian aid budgets, squeezed by the global economic crisis and aftershocks of COVID-19 and the conflict in Ukraine, are being cut. In 2023, the World Food Programme had to reduce assistance for Syrian refugees by thirty per cent, and earlier this year also cut food parcels for the most vulnerable Lebanese to a fraction of their daily recommended caloric intake.

Amidst these issues, the conflict to Lebanon’s south has spilled over with cross-border fighting now a daily occurrence, only worsening the situation for the increasing number of families displaced. It’s also stoking fears amongst average citizens about insecurity and an escalation to a full-blown conflict. Even though this situation affects us all, it’s actually sowing more division.

One of our partners told us that around 2,000 families from southern Lebanon have been forced to relocate to Saida, bringing along relatives and neighbours also in need of shelter. Initially, the hospitality they received from the host community was generous, as is customary here in Lebanon. Seven months on, they didn’t expect to find themselves in the same situation, though. Now, with incomes faltering and savings dried up, these arrangements are creating stress and disputes within communities. Residents are turning on the displaced families, accusing them of adding to the waste problem in Saida and further stressing electricity and water usage, both scarce commodities long before the displacement. This volatility is creating significant and multifaceted challenges with both immediate and long-term effects on the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of all impacted, but particularly children.

Read: Amnesty International calls on EU leaders to protect Syria refugees in Lebanon

It is children, both Lebanese and refugee alike, who are being disproportionately impacted by the polycrisis that the country is enduring. Worsening food security for many means children face stunting and other long-term physical and mental health issues. Teacher strikes, unpaid salaries, and schools being repurposed as displacement shelters mean that children across the country face regular interruptions to their education. Even when school is in session, those who can attend struggle to concentrate due to hunger, but many others can’t afford to attend – leading to a rise in child labour, exploitation, and abuse.

In reality, there are many problems that everyone in the country faces, but Lebanon is unable to both play host to refugees and develop our economy and sectors so we can become less dependent on aid. A holistic and united approach is urgently needed to break us out of the cycle of hunger crises, transform food systems, and put Lebanon back on track to ensuring all children have a better tomorrow. This World Refugee Day, we ask our politicians to invest in a solution that considers us all by addressing the root causes of these issues.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.