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The Lebanese Refugee Crisis: a Socio-Economic Perspective

Part two in a series regarding Lebanon. Written by Professor Martin Beck, Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies, whose research project is supported by the Carlsberg Foundation

As a country with fewer than five million citizens, Lebanon hosts more than one million Syrian refugees. Still, the refugee influx into Lebanon is securitized to a lower degree than in Europe. Today’s blog aims at contributing to a comprehension of how Lebanon deals with the refugee crisis by shedding some light on the issue from the perspective of socio-economic development.

Due to its problematic historic experience with settling its Palestinian refugees in camps, Lebanon refrained from applying a policy of enforced encampment to the current influx of Syrian refugees.

As a result, Syrian refugees, most of who were impoverished, could settle freely and in so doing followed a pattern of socio-economic homogeneity, as most of them went to underprivileged areas in the governorates of Beqaa, the North, and Mount Lebanon. Thus, in contrast to Europe, whose refugee crisis mostly condensed as a cultural issue, Lebanon primarily faced a socio-economic crisis: The influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon exacerbated social cleavages and the injustices of a society whose socio-economic record is already shaped by a high degree of socio-economic imbalances. 

Why did that not lead to major social unrest?

From a systemic point of view, the Lebanese labor market absorbed the refugee influx in a rather flexible way. As labor relations in major parts of the economy—the informal sector—are unregulated, the refugee influx resulted in a decline in wages, particularly in the low-wage sectors. In other words, the labor force as a commodity became cheaper on the side of “supply.” Accordingly, the demand side—private entrepreneurship—benefited.

The upper and medium echelons of Lebanese society further gained from the refugee crisis insofar as they benefited from a mostly externally funded refugee economy that needed the Lebanese for implementation.

For instance, as half of the Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon are children, projects aiming at the improvement of school enrollment for refugees were launched. International donors financed the set-up of double-shifts in public schools. In addition, the healthcare sector of Lebanon was expanded with the financial support of the international donor community. Another example is the retail trade, which benefited from the voucher program of the World Food Programme (WFP).

The main losers were impoverished Lebanese and Syrians, many of whom were (temporary) migrant workers to Lebanon before the Syrian civil war. As their interests are largely unorganized, they lacked the power to improve their living conditions by their own efforts beyond accepting very poorly paid jobs. Thus, most of them had to turn to UN agencies to receive social benefits related to their status as a refugee.

When international donors learned that welfare programs might harm the indigenous poor when targeting refugees only—particularly under the condition of a refugee community not segregated from the indigenous society by camps—some became increasingly designed in a way that needy Lebanese also benefited to a certain degree.

At the same time, some effective poverty alleviation measures such as the food voucher program of the WFP had been temporarily cut short in 2015 due to a lack of funding. In conclusion, the management of the socio-economic Lebanese refugee crisis has prevented, to date, the destabilization of the overall Lebanese system.