#18 cities
Lisa Abou Khaled

Debt and Deprivation

The Syrians finding refuge in Lebanon’s capital Beirut impact the city’s social fabric and economy. UNHCR fights for a better life for everyone.

The face of Beirut has changed since the civil war in neighbouring Syria has sent millions fleeing for their lives. Beirut is a city with a long history of conflict as well, where 15 years of civil war were followed by the onslaught of the Israeli Air Force during the battle against a hostile militia in 2006. All this fighting had taken a serious toll on the city’s infrastructure and social fabric, even before the Syrians started arriving, often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
Digital Development Debates spoke to Lisa Abou Khaled, a member of the local UNHCR operation about the situation in the city today.

DDD: Even before refugees began arriving five years ago, Beirut was a crowded city whose infrastructure was stretched to the limit. What has happened since?

Lisa Abou Khaled: It has meant a huge rise in demand for shelter, among other services. Most refugees moved into the poorer neighbourhoods, like Nabaah and Bourj Hammoud. These are small neighbourhoods on the fringes of Beirut where the poorer populations are concentrated, including some Lebanese. Some Syrian families also moved into the existing Palestinian camps from the 1950s.

DDD: How has this changed these neighbourhoods?

Rents have increased and some landlords have taken advantage of the refugees. Increasingly refugees have had to move from better apartments to less proper shelters as rents have risen over the past five years. There is also a problem with increasing debt. A study we did showed that about 90% of Syrian families have been forced into debt to pay for rent, food, medical care, and transportation for their children to go to school. They owe around 950 US dollars on average. So even those who had savings have depleted them. The study also showed that 70% of refugees live below the poverty line.

DDD: What is the housing situation like in Beirut?

Most refugees don't live in informal settlements, or informal camps. Only 17 percent live in the countryside. The majority lives in buildings, apartments, garages, and warehouses. Substandard shelters are a problem as they are wet and cold in winter.

They all have less than what they need to survive.

DDD: Why do people move to cities instead of staying in villages or the countryside?

Some because they are looking for job opportunities, others because they have family already living in Beirut. Some move to the more rural areas hoping for jobs in the agricultural sector. It depends partly on the refugee’s skill set.

DDD: What are the primary needs refugees have when moving to a city as opposed to staying in the countryside?

After five years in exile their needs are very similar. They all have less than what they need to survive. Some have to cut back on food and only eat once a day because they can’t put food on the table three times a day. That is among their coping mechanisms. Families are also pulling their children out of school because they need their children to work to help support the family. Some of those who go to school also have to work before or after. And those children who don't live within walking distance to a school often cannot go, because although UNHCR, the ministry of education and partners would pay for their schooling, transportation isn’t affordable for many.

DDD: In these five years, have the refugees been integrated into the fabric of Beirut?

No, we can't really say that they have. First of all, most refugees who have settled in Lebanon are hoping to go back to Syria as soon as the situation calms down. Also, according to a law introduced at the beginning of 2015, people registered as refugees are not allowed to work. So legally refugees have no access to the labour market. Syrians have traditionally worked in the agriculture, construction and cleaning sectors in Lebanon. The beginning of 2015 was a turning point, and every day life has become even harder for refugees in Beirut. Now adults who do not feel comfortable working illegally send their children out to work instead of sending them to school. This is not integration.

The logistics are simple since we moved from in-kind to cash assistance.

DDD: So there is a divide in the city between the Syrian refugees and the Lebanese?

That is not entirely accurate either. Many refugees still work, but they are easy targets for exploitation. They are vulnerable since they are not allowed to work legally. The situation in schools is different. Many Syrian children go to school side-by-side with Lebanese children.

DDD: When it comes to logistics, is it easier to support refugees living in camps or in cities?

We used to have this problem when we did in-kind delivery of aid, like food, hygiene kits, and fuel. But a couple of years ago, as the numbers increased and the money we were getting from the international community did not keep pace, we assessed who was living in the most difficult conditions. These are the people we support. The logistics are simple since we moved from in-kind to cash assistance. Every family that qualifies gets a cash card that is topped up once a month. This means they can shop according to their needs. We no longer have to coordinate distribution, which cuts back on cost. And it is easer for refugees, as they don't have to come to one location to pick up food, hygiene and baby kits and the other items they need.

DDD: What has the effect on the local economy been?

The refugees spend their money in the areas in which they live. So local businesses and shops profit. To make sure that the money goes to small businesses, there are designated shops where refugees can buy food for example. This creates a knock-on effect that benefits the economy as a whole and not just the big chains.

Last year we asked for 2.4 billion US dollars in aid in part for refugees, but also for development and institutional support to Lebanon.

DDD: What kind of additional support from the international community would enable you to support all the refugees?

Each year in December we appeal for funding for the year to come. The government of Lebanon, UNHCR, UN agencies and NGOs asked for 2.48 billion US dollars for 2016 in aid in part for refugees, but also for development and institutional support to Lebanon. It is still too soon to see how much we will ultimately get. But last year, funding for all agencies under the so-called Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) was at 60% of what we had appealed for. In 2016 Agencies in Lebanon have reported that they have so far received a total of 468 million US dollars.

DDD: Why do you fund development, institutions and infrastructure as well?

We realised early on that the refugees put a big strain on local services in Beirut, for example. So a lot of projects, like a waste management plant we built, help both the refugees and the Lebanese population. There were problems even before the refugee crisis started in many areas where we provide support today. This was especially true for services like transport, water, electricity, health care and education. All these services have come under strain from the additional numbers.

DDD: What is your appeal to the international community?

We always advocate for additional financial support, but what would also help immensely would be higher quotas for resettlement for at least the most vulnerable.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Staff (Getty Images)

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