BSc IR and Politics, UCL
Lebanon has long been a symbol of stability in the 21st century, with no signs of the strong winds of civil war and conspiracies. However, all is currently not well in the country, owing to the tense economic situation over the last year and a half and the recent blasts that have shaken the socio-economic foundation of the country.
Lebanon has also come under the spotlight for the difficulties that refugees, particularly those from Syria have been subjected to.
Lebanon, a nation of 5.4 million, is a host to 1.5 million Syrian refugees, maintaining the highest refugee per capita ratio in the world. Marred by political instability, the Middle East is home to the largest refugee population in the world. Despite this, most nations in the region are not signatories to the 1951 Geneva Convention, resulting in a lack of uniform refugee legislation. Syrian refugees have chosen Lebanon as a suitable host nation for almost a decade now. The beginning of the in-migration can be traced to the Syrian Civil War which began in 2011. The UNHCR reports that what started as a trickle with a few hundred migrants has now grown to over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon alone. Unfortunately, Lebanon didn’t have much to offer in terms of a better lifestyle, and things have only taken a turn for the worse owing to several domestic problems. The COVID- 19 pandemic, which has decimated the world economy and brought us to a standstill, has further exacerbated the situation of the refugees.
The Lebanese government, which already has a lot on its plate finds itself under tremendous pressure to maintain and strengthen the socio-political fabric of the country as the number of Syrian refugees continue pouring in without any hope of returning to Syria. The lives of the Lebanese citizens and more so Syrian refugees have been made unsustainable by the Lebanese Pound’s drop-in value from the official exchange rate of 1500 to 1 US dollar to the parallel market rate of 2000 to the Dollar. According to vast field research carried out by the UNHCR in the country, it has been deduced that 40% of Syrian families earn up to $27 per person per month and another 19% earn $175 per month per family.
These figures come across as sufficient to procure necessities. But that was the case before the banks placed unrealistic restrictions on the withdrawal of US Dollars, the currency in which eligible refugees used to receive their aid. The shift in monetary policy, requiring refugees to withdraw at the official rate has effectively lowered the value of the cash aid, and has further led to a dramatic decrease in the purchasing power of the refugee households. Another major area of concern is the economic barriers to the healthcare system. With the emergence of private actors in the Lebanese healthcare system following the civil war, healthcare has become expensive and inaccessible for a large portion of the Lebanese population, but more so for refugees. The rates for a simple consultation range from USD 4-9, a price that is too high for most refugees to afford.
A joint study conducted by the UNHCR, UNICEF and the World Food Program, found that the primary reason why refugees are not able to avail the existing medical services is the high prices of drugs, and the uncertainty or lack of knowledge of the medical system. As a result of these barriers, a substantial number of refugees are traveling back to Syria just to receive medical treatment. However, efforts to make healthcare more accessible, by the UNHCR and UNICEF are evident, with the two agencies bearing 85% of the cost of treatment for refugees, and this has resulted in a short-term improvement as 89% of the refugees requiring immediate medical assistance have received the suitable treatment.
The recent Lebanese refugee policy has seen a dramatic shift. Unfortunately, this has only resulted in a further deterioration in the daily lives of the refugees. The new policies by the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health have wrongly aimed at the premature repatriation, along with the establishment of Primary Healthcare Centers, which act as only a front to illegal human trade and unlawful repatriation. The new policy towards the Syrian refugees is, in particular, driven by the country’s struggling economy and crumbling political structure. Deep-seated xenophobia and sectarian nationalism have further aided the belief that Syrian refugees need to be dealt with in whatever manner deemed fit. With no clear indication as to whether the Syrian nation is suitable for the return of its internationally displaced citizens and hardly any agencies assisting the refugees in Lebanon, enough is not being done to diffuse a highly tense situation that has developed between the refugees and their hosts. Until we see a significant reduction in tensions defining this highly volatile situation, and answers being provided to the refugees and the host nation, Syrian refugees will have to come to terms with the fact that they have no better option than to remain in Lebanon. To ensure that we see normalization of the situation, with a minimalistic return to violence and unrest, organizations and governments with stakes in the current situation must focus on creating an environment that ensures peaceful cohabitation of Lebanese citizens along with the displaced Syrian refugees.
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