When the Syrian conflict started in 2011, Lebanon was the first escape route for those forced to leave their country. Over the course of a year, the Bekaa Valley had already welcomed between 18,000 and 400,000 people mainly coming from Homs, Quseir, Zabadani and Hama. However, it was only at the beginning of 2013 that, not without significant difficulties and internal opposition, the Lebanese government allowed Syrians to register as refugees. In 2014, in villages along the borders, the number of Syrians was larger than that of the Lebanese living there. But it is not only the Bekaa Valley that is affected by this phenomenon (363,417 refugees), but also Beirut (298,885), Tripoli, as well as the north of Lebanon (252,450), and the south (118,761). Such an increase in population in a country already influenced by a historical presence of Palestinians has further changed the Lebanese economy. In some cases it has encouraged the discrimination and abuse of Syrians, objectively not equal to Lebanese citizens as far as the labour market and access to education are concerned.
According to the 2016 report from the European Commission for the Refugee Crisis in Jordan and Lebanon, unemployment has risen from 11% in 2011 to 20% today, and has mainly affected the young aged between 15 and 24, primarily due to a rise in undeclared labour, especially in non-specialised sectors, which has become the main employment opportunity for refugees. The reason for this lies in the problems encountered in accessing regular work. While until 2015 a Syrian citizen could work in Lebanon on the basis of bilateral agreements signed by Beirut and Damascus in 1993, this right has since been suspended. For over a year and a half, when a Syrian manages to obtain labour sponsorship, his status changes from that of a refugee to a migrant worker, in spite of being registered with the UNHCR. Any eventual employment of Syrians remains restricted to agriculture, construction and cleaning businesses; sectors in which there is a lack of personnel and, above all, according to the EU Commission, the specialised competences and aspirations of Lebanese citizens are not interfered with. Costs also play a radical role; such work permits are taxed 120,000 Lebanese lire (about US $80), while for other more specialised jobs the sum rises to 480,000 lire. Furthermore, if an employer decides to hire a Syrian, he must first prove he has not been able to find a Lebanese with the same expertise.
The “natural” consequence of this is that most refugees are obliged to turn to informal channels in which rights are scarce, while exposure to abuse and exploitation is high. Furthermore, since 2015, changes have been applied to the criteria for requesting and renewing residency permits which, for the moment, cost US $200. Some Syrians have been asked to sign a document promising to return to Syria as soon as their permit expires. International organisations such as Amnesty and Relief International have begged Lebanon to open its national labour market, but the government has consistently refused, referring to the economic crisis also caused by having to manage an additional one million people in the country. In the meantime the situation has deteriorated and, over the past two years, the number of Syrian refugees living on less than US $3.84 a day has risen from 30% to 70%.
Alongside the labour problem one must add issues concerning education. According to the most recent Human Rights Watch report, over half of the Syrian children now living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon do not attend school. In Lebanon alone, they amount to 44% if one counts children aged between 3 and 17. It is true that Lebanon has made significant progress in providing education for refugees. Children are allowed to enroll in schools without an obligation to prove they are legal residents, tax has been abolished and 238 schools are now open for a second afternoon shift. A five-year plan has been approved to provide education for 440,000 Syrian children by 2020-21. But access barriers have not yet been entirely removed. Children are often obliged to work or families cannot afford transport or educational material.
In Lebanon there is, however, a civil society that, in spite of all the problems, is addressing the discrimination experienced by Syrians and reports such events. Last June, following attacks in Qaa, the Bekaa Valley’s border town, a wave of panic and suspicion spread among the Lebanese in the area concerning refugees in nearby camps. The idea that terrorists had lived among the refugees was also accepted by the authorities, who have since imposed extraordinary measures on Syrians, including a curfew and periodical inspections when meetings are held. Anti-racist associations have organised petitions and protests in defence of refugees and against indiscriminate restrictions of personal freedom. They have also accused the government of using Syrians as a scapegoat in order to not address real problems such as electricity, drinking water, corruption and security. “The refugee was killed a first time when he ran away from the war, don’t kill him again with your racism,” states one of their slogans.