Since last month, Lebanon’s army has conducted numerous raids to round up and deport at least 336 Syrian refugees in a crackdown targeting those who had entered the country irregularly, according to the Access Centre for Human Rights.
For years, Lebanon’s politicians have blamed the country's ills on the Syrian refugees who started arriving in 2011 as the civil war broke out. These views were welcomed by many who felt that the hundreds of thousands of refugees – making Lebanon the largest host of refugees per capita in the world – was a problem.
Ramzi Kaiss, the Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the alarming rise in anti-refugee rhetoric that has accompanied the deportations is “part of the strategy to create a coercive environment in order to get refugees to leave the country”.
Although international agencies and NGOs have for years tried to share evidence and data about the real impact of the refugee crisis and the Lebanese government's own policies, negative perceptions of Syrian refugees – some bordering on conspiratorial – have proliferated Lebanon's social fabric.
As the country descended into an economic crisis in 2019, caused by years of corruption, inaction and political stagnation, tensions increased rapidly as many saw themselves competing against the refugee population for jobs, resources and international assistance – a notion encouraged by political leaders.
“The rise in anti-refugee rhetoric, much of which is based on misinformation, is contributing to violence and discrimination against refugees,” a group of 19 national and international human rights organisations said on Thursday.
“Media outlets and political figures should be protecting the rights of everyone in Lebanon, including refugees, not inciting violence against them.”
The National has explored four common myths and misperceptions about Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Myth 1: Syrian refugees have little incentive to leave as they receive significant assistance in US dollars from the UN – more than the average Lebanese salary
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees distributes aid to only the most vulnerable 43 per cent of the Syrian refugee population.
That aid is not distributed in dollars, but in the devaluing Lebanese currency, UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abu Khaled told The National.
The UNHCR provides families deemed most vulnerable a total of 2,500,000 Lebanese pounds in financial aid per family – or roughly around $25 per family per month.
Abou Malek, a refugee residing in Rachmaya, south-east of Beirut, said he receives this assistance but it doesn't solve all his financial problems.
“They give us two and a half million, and that’s if they even give us. It’s not regular,” he told The National.
Some families also receive additional food vouchers from the World Food Programme valued at 1,100,000 Lebanese pounds, or around $11 per person per month, but the programme is capped at five people.
This means that the maximum possible amount of cash and food aid that a Syrian refugee family in Lebanon can receive in a month is 8,000,000 Lebanese pounds – or around $80 a month.
Even with the UNHCR and WFP aid combined, a Syrian refugee family of five receives less per month than the minimum wage of a single Lebanese worker, which is about 9 million Lebanese pounds ($90).
Myth 2: There are more than 2,500,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon and they will soon overtake Lebanon’s population
Lebanon is hosting a large Syrian refugee population – the largest number of refugees in the world per capita.
Lebanon's refugee population is viewed by some as a demographic threat, with pundits like the head of Lebanon’s trade unions calling them a “civilian occupation”.
The country has a population estimated at 6.7 million, according to the UN, although no official government census has been conducted since 1932.
While the true number of refugees isn't known because the Lebanese government asked the UNHCR to officially stop registering refugees in 2015, it is thought that Syrian refugees account for around 25 per cent of the population.
The UNHCR says there are currently around 805,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon – down from nearly 1.2 million in 2015. But this number does not include unregistered refugees, who came to Lebanon after 2015.
General Abbas Ibrahim, at the time the head of the General Security agency responsible for monitoring foreign residents in Lebanon, said in an October 2022 press conference that there are more than two million Syrians living in Lebanon, “among which are displaced people”.
This included the 805,000 registered refugees, as well as around 400,000 unregistered refugees, amounting to just over a million refugees, according to a presentation shared at the press briefing.
The remaining 800,000 have work permits or own property and reside formally in Lebanon.
Without UNHCR registration distinguishing refugees from Syrian ex-pats or migrants, the line between the two has become blurred. Mohammad Hasan, the executive director of the Access Centre for Human Rights, says the government doesn't recognise a difference between displaced people and other Syrian nationals living in the country.
This ambiguity may have helped fuel the belief that Syrian refugees will soon outnumber Lebanese and it's fanned by politicians such as Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar, who recently proclaimed that “We will become refugees in our own country”.
Experts, however, say this is highly unlikely.
With regards to claims of demographic change, “it's unlikely we’ll ever get to the point where the number of Syrians are more than Lebanese,” said Mohammad Chamseddine, a policy and research analyst at Beirut-based research firm Information International.
“This argument is not scientifically applicable,” he added. “Syrian refugees are decreasing, not increasing.”
In order for such a phenomenon to take place, “Syrians will have to keep increasing while the Lebanese will have to emigrate over the next 50 years. Numbers and demographics tell one story. Politics tell another.”
According to UNHCR, around 83,500 refugees have chosen to return to Syria since 2016. And every year, thousands continue to apply for UN-facilitated resettlement to other countries. Finally, hundreds of Syrians attempt to leave Lebanon via dangerous sea crossings every year.
Myth 3: Syrian refugees are responsible for Lebanon’s economic crisis
Lebanon is suffering from a devastating economic crisis that has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the significant refugee presence. However, many economists and the World Bank say the crisis was caused by years of corruption and mismanagement by the political leadership and an unsustainable financial system.
The Syrian war has undoubtedly burdened Lebanon’s failing economy, but “in a nutshell the Syrian refugees are not the cause of the financial crisis,” said Sami Atallah, director of the independent think tank The Policy Initiative.
“The financial crisis is due to structural problems caused by the ruling political elite over very bad policies in at least the last decade. They hid problems, failed to deal with them, and it eventually blew up in our face,” he added.
While Lebanon's infrastructure has been stretched by the presence of refugees, Dr Atallah says the quality of that infrastructure – for example in the water and electricity sectors – was notoriously bad before the arrival of the refugees.
In terms of assistance for hosting its considerable refugee population, UNHCR and other international organisations have provided significant financial supplements to Lebanon.
Since 2015, the country has received nearly $9.3 billion in international financial support from the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) composed by the Lebanese government and partners to provide support to public institutions and infrastructure.
UNHCR has also spent $200.5 million to support the Lebanese government, the UNHCR's Ms Abu Khaled said.
It has additionally provided Lebanon with $177.43 million for hundreds of community support projects to upgrade public infrastructure in areas hosting refugee communities.
The numbers above are not conclusive and do not reflect the financial aid that has been provided to Lebanon by other international organisations and donors.
Myth 4: Refugees are comfortable and happy to stay in Lebanon because life is easy
Many Syrian refugees say they face regular discrimination and persecution in Lebanon and wish to resettle elsewhere.
In 2019, Amnesty International reported that “unlawful evictions, curfews, constant raids on refugee camps and mass arrests are making life unbearable for many refugees in Lebanon”.
This is in addition to restrictive government policies, dire humanitarian conditions and rampant discrimination facing refugees.
Refugees who have spoken to The National in recent weeks have expressed unease at leaving their homes regularly, citing hate speech in addition to worries authorities could detain or deport them at any time.
“You see the situation here,” said Abou Fouad of the crackdown. Last month, his family was deported in a home raid while he was away at work. “It makes life here difficult.”
Mohammad, whose brother was deported from Lebanon and immediately detained upon arrival in Syria because he had defected from the army in 2014, said he was often verbally intimidated for just walking down the street, and on one occasion physically assaulted.
All refugees interviewed by The National articulated a desire to leave Lebanon but were fearful of returning to Syria.
Mohammad called life for Syrian refugees in Lebanon: “Unsustainable. We’re powerless …. We have no rights.”