As multiple crises are simultaneously bearing down on Lebanon, its fragile humanitarian situation is nearing a breaking point. Lebanon hosts the highest proportion of refugees per capita in the world, including over 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 174,000 Palestinian refugees, and has struggled to cope with the spillover effects of the nine-year conflict in Syria. On top of this, Lebanon now faces its worst ever economic and financial crisis, forecasted to push half of its population into poverty, all while combating the spread of coronavirus.
Although humanitarian assistance has helped mitigate the impact of protracted displacement, capacities to respond to multiple crises are under significant pressure. The rapidly deteriorating conditions of the Lebanese population and political turmoil in the country have become crises of their own. As Lebanon descends further into chaos and without the political consensus to respond to these crises, refugees and Lebanese, alike, will continue to suffer the effects of the humanitarian disaster for the foreseeable future.
On the brink of economic collapse
Lebanon is facing immense economic pressure, which has ignited historic nation-wide protests since October 2019. Lebanon’s unsustainable debt is currently hovering around $90 billion, about 170 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, and has pushed the government to default on its Eurobond debt for the first time. Following months of uncertainties, the government approved an economic reform plan in April, but it will entail several painful trade-offs, with the primary aim of attracting development funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other donors.
The beginning of the free fall of the Lebanese economy can date back to 2018. As of September 2019, a 60 percent decline in the value of the Lebanese pound has substantially diminished households’ purchasing power and has significantly raised the price of essential goods. More than one-third of the population has become unemployed as of May, with more than 220,000 jobs lost in the private sector since October 2019. Workers engaged in informal employment, such as low skill jobs, are estimated to be 55 percent of the Lebanese workforce. They stand as the most vulnerable in society due to the lack of social protection guarantees in their employment and absence of an inclusive social protection system in Lebanon.
COVID-19: Lack of refugee protection
Since March, the Lebanese government has imposed strict measures to stymie the spread of COVID-19. A rising number of cases and deaths—standing at a total of 1,368 cases and 30 deaths as of June 9—have raised fears that the national healthcare system, which is lacking in sufficient testing capacity and medical supplies, could become overwhelmed. Refugees continue to face uncertainty regarding hospital costs and their eligibility for care and have struggled to apply social distancing measures because their dwellings are generally overcrowded and suffer from substandard living and hygiene conditions.
Overall, refugees in Lebanon are unable to benefit from international instruments of refugee protection and more than two-thirds of Syrian households lack legal residency due to institutional barriers. Refugees constantly navigate risks of arrest, detention, abuse by security forces, exploitation from landlords and employers, difficulty accessing services, and a range of coercive practices, from mass evictions to unlawful deportations to Syria. Policymakers have fueled hostility towards refugees by scapegoating them for a range of political and economic woes, including the recent economic crisis.
Moreover, the health crisis is increasing discriminatory measures towards refugees under the pretext of combating COVID-19. In April, humanitarian agencies found that at least twenty-one Lebanese municipalities introduced additional restrictions on Syrian refugees that weren’t applied to Lebanese citizens, according to Jad Sakr, the country director for Save the Children in Lebanon. “These restrictions further restrained people’s ability to access cash or purchase basic goods,” noted Sakr. “There was also an increased risk of stigma against these communities, coupled with the spread of misinformation and rumors of infection among refugees.”
Rising vulnerabilities and needs
With the onset of the economic crisis, the International Rescue Committee estimated in March that 90 percent of Syrian refugees are in need of food aid. The World Food Programme has observed a substantial rise in the prices of basic food commodities, like sugar and rice. This has rendered a number of once affordable items inaccessible to the nearly 70 percent of Syrian households living in poverty.
“The limited employment opportunities refugees had before, with the even higher cost of living now, is a concerning development,” says Bachir Ayoub, policy lead for Oxfam in Lebanon. “Even if we are able to double humanitarian appeals, it might not be enough to meet the needs in Lebanon between host and refugee communities.”
Many are concerned that refugee families will increase their reliance on negative coping mechanisms as they descend further into poverty, such as child marriage or child labor, explained Sakr. “Within the home, these additional stresses of economic crisis and the pandemic can lead to more risks of gender-based violence, abuse, and neglect.”
In fact, organizations reported increased cases of violence against refugee and Lebanese women and girls by as much as 100 percent in March, particularly, in the form of domestic violence. Meanwhile, nearly half of Syrian and Lebanese caregivers, recently, reported increased levels of violence against children since the national lockdown caused by COVID-19.
The nation-wide closure of schools and non-formal education programs have also further impacted children throughout Lebanon, despite attempts to sustain distance learning. Continued disruptions to education could increase school dropouts, especially, among Syrian refugees, which could, subsequently, force children into the labor force, child marriage, or begging.
Need for humanitarian assistance
The gap between humanitarian needs and funding has consistently widened in Lebanon in spite of pledges made at international donor conferences year after year. Less than half of the $2.6 billion appeal for the national Lebanon Crisis Response Plan was funded in 2019.
Failure to contain the convergence of crises in Lebanon will have long-term implications on the resiliency of displaced communities as the livelihoods and protection environment of refugees disintegrate. The convergence of crises can also further deteriorate state institutions and public order at a time of great social unrest and political deadlock in Lebanon, perpetuating greater levels of instability that impact refugees and Lebanese alike.
International humanitarian assistance will be necessary to address the widening disaster in Lebanon, but Ayoub argues that the moment “requires out-of-the-box thinking beyond our traditional classifications of what humanitarian funding should be and how it should look.” He says that the changes in Lebanon since the October revolution have produced a vastly “different operating environment; it’s a different country and the needs have changed.”
In addition to supporting the national response capacity to COVID-19, assistance should continue to support refugees to advocate for the fulfillment of their rights to protection and dignity. Humanitarian funding should exercise flexibility to adapt to the continuously evolving nature of the humanitarian crisis and account for the deepening vulnerabilities of Lebanese households in addition to refugees. From the perspective of many actors in Lebanon, the multi-dimensional crisis “amounts to a social justice crisis” and, therefore, there is need for a “longer term and more structured funding that would entail a stronger developmental and rights-based approach,” says Dr. Marie-Noelle AbiYaghi, director of Lebanon Support.
Donors should continue to support a diverse range of humanitarian actors, while increasing direct support to local civil society organizations, who are “always the first responders and have thorough knowledge of the needs of their communities,” as AbiYaghi astutely points out.
The Lebanese government has launched formal negotiations with the IMF for billions of dollars in development assistance, which will likely take a significant amount of time and will fail to sufficiently account for refugee needs. Indeed, the government did not clearly address humanitarian concerns in its proposed economic plan and IMF assistance is not designed for humanitarian purposes. All actors must, therefore, deliver a swift response to this new phase of Lebanon’s humanitarian crisis, which will continue to challenge the resilience of refugees for years to come.
Salman Husain is a humanitarian professional focused on conflict and displacement crises in the Middle East, most recently having worked on the Syrian refugee response in Lebanon.
Diam Abou-Diab is working on macroeconomic, socio-economic, and development policies in the Arab region and previously worked on the Syrian refugee response in Lebanon.
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