Lebanon also suffering amid plight of Syria's dispossessed

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Lebanon’s unemployment rate has risen to 30 per cent

FILE - In this Thursday, May 29, 2014 file photo, a Syrian refugee girl sits in a classroom at a Lebanese public school where only Syrian students attend classes in the afternoon, at Kaitaa village in north Lebanon. A new report by Human Rights Watch said Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017 that millions of dollars of school aid for Syrian refugee children went unaccounted for last school year, leaving schools across the region understaffed and contributing to a massive under-enrollment of Syrian school children. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
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I've been writing about the Lebanese economy in The National for eight, often frustrating, years, characterised by lies, false dawns, breathtaking incompetence, corruption, the odd morsel of good news and, if we are being honest, major events beyond its control.

The latter came in the shape of what are now an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, a number equivalent to more than a third of Lebanon's population.

We didn’t want them but we couldn’t really turn them back either. In 2010, a year before they came in pitiful waves across Lebanon’s porous border, I had written on these pages that Syria, despite a spike in corruption brought on by more economic freedoms, was in reasonable economic  shape.

Tourism and financial services were driving an economy that predicted growth of 5 per cent for that year. Then then came the nightmare and the spark from the Syrian bonfire jumped over the fence into Lebanon’s garden.

GDP growth fell to 1 per cent in 2014 from a high of over 10 per cent in 2010 and unemployment rocketed. The World Bank said that the Lebanese economy “needed to create six times the amount of jobs it previously did to absorb new entrants to the labour market”.

The good news is that today Lebanon’s economy appears to have stabilised. The medium-term outlook, while not as bullish as when Lebanon briefly recaptured its pre-civil war glow between 2008 and 2011, is expected to see economic growth rise to and hover around 2.5 per cent. There is improved security, courtesy of a new president and a newly formed government.

Hence this summer saw fairly robust activity in the tourism sector, helped by an easing in tensions with the GCC, which had decimated the sector in previous seasons. Banking remains as solid as ever and the real estate market, while not doing half as well as it would like us to believe – it tends to quote value of sales rather than sale prices – has picked itself up off the canvas.

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But huge, and potentially catastrophic, problems remain: according to the latest sobering statistics from various NGOs there are an estimated 750,000 Syrians working in the construction and agriculture sectors while, since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Lebanon’s unemployment rate has risen to 30 per cent. The agencies have calculated that nearly 400 Syrian-owned “restaurants” have opened in the Bekaa Valley, the region of Lebanon that abuts the Syrian border.

The fear among Lebanese in the area is that the Bekaa will become an unofficial outpost of Syria and therefore ripe for annexation. A woman from the Bekaa town of Zahleh echoed this concern to me this summer. In her mid 50s, she had fought the Syrian army during the siege of Zahleh in 1980 and said she was willing to do it all again to save her land.

But it’s not just in the Bekaa where the presence of Syrian workers has taken its toll on the local workforce and sowed unease. Syrians, through no fault of their own because they were not put in camps (a decision the Lebanese government must now surely regret) have had to find work. In Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli, they drive taxis and they are electricians, plumbers, carpenters and painters, undercutting their Lebanese hosts at every turn.

None of this is breaking news but the country is now feeling the effect of a rising refugee population and increased consumption of utilities and resources. There was never enough water, electricity, broadband and road space to go around before the refugees arrived, but today the latest estimate is that Syrians consume 680 megawatts of electricity, a figure that represents a staggering 30 per cent of the total power available to a country that in some areas only has six hours of power a day.

There is also more trash – Lebanon 2015 crisis made global headlines – which apart from the obvious environmental and health implications has a direct impact on tourism and foreign investment – no one wants to come to or put their money in a country with shabby green credentials.

Finally, an estimated 40 per cent of prisoners in Lebanese jails are Syrian, while the number of child refugees between the ages of one and four is said to be alarmingly close to the equivalent number of Lebanese children. This tinderbox atmosphere hardly creates the stability needed for solid economic activity, especially in the poorer areas of the country.

Speaking at the UN last month, the president Michel Aoun expressed his concern that his “small country, densely populated with limited resources” cannot endure the burden of Syrian refugees for much longer and urged the international community to do its bit and assist the return of the refugees to Syria.

The shape of the region has changed and Lebanon, this time through no real fault of its own, has paid a high price. The price – economic, social and even militarily – could well be higher if the current situation is allowed to perpetuate.

I’m no fan of Mr Aoun, but for once he’s spot on and the world must listen.