Faced with mounting debts, Syrian refugees have no way of leaving Lebanon

Refugees in Lebanon are caught up in a brutal and often inescapable cycle of poverty and debt, leaving them few options but to try to survive from one day to the next, wites Josh Wood.

Syrian refugees Omar Al Naji and his son Abdullah, 10, in the minimarket they work at in the town of Khalde, south of Beirut. Abdullah wants to be a doctor or engineer when he grows up, but he cannot read or write and has never been to school. Mr Naji hopes to escape with his family to Europe when winter ends. Josh Wood for The National
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KHALDE, Lebanon // Everything in 57-year-old Ahmed Khaled’s sparse apartment in this seaside town south of Beirut was a handout to his family.

The thin mattresses lined up against the wall in the living room came from a family returning to his native Homs, trading the harsh realities of refugee life in Lebanon for the uncertainties of war in Syria.

The old carpet, poked with cigarette burns, was given to him by the building’s caretaker after a tenant threw it away. A small fridge came from a Lebanese man in the neighbourhood.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon – a population a little under 1.1 million according to the UN’s figures but more realistically 1.5 million or more – represent some of the most hopeless to have come away from the war.

While other host countries that have taken in large numbers of Syrian refugees have established refugee camps, Lebanon has not – so refugees must fend for themselves, paying for accomodation and other basic needs.

Fading hopes

After two and a half years in Lebanon, margins are tight and Mr Khaled, growing older, frail and sick, is unable to work.

His eldest son, 21, works as an electrician and is the family’s sole provider, but the US$500 (Dh1,836) a month he makes only covers rent. Everything else the family of six has – from the clothes they wear to the food they eat – is a handout.

The family had reason for optimism when the Belgian embassy contacted them last year after receiving their resettlement application from the UN’s refugee agency.

But despite being interviewed by Belgian representatives four months ago, and being told the process would take only two months, he has not heard anything on his case and says he has been unable to get in touch with them.

With the refugee crisis weighing heavily on Europe and increased security concerns in Belgium following the Paris attacks in November, Mr Khaled is afraid his application has been rejected or pushed aside. Increasingly, he has little faith he and his family will be resettled.

In such a desperate situation, many have considered entering Europe the way more than one million did last year: by taking a boat across the Mediterranean. But that too is beyond the reach of Mr Khaled.

“I don’t have money to go to Beirut from here,” he said. “How will I go to Europe?”

Many in the muddy settlements of shacks, crowded apartments and unfinished buildings where Syrian refugees live dream of escaping to Europe, but the reality is that few here could afford it.

“It’s always been difficult, but it’s getting to the point where people are really reaching the bottom,” said Mireille Girard, UNHCR’s top official in Lebanon. “After four or five years in exile, all the savings people have come with have melted.”

In recent months, thousands of Syrians have left Lebanon each week, according to the UNHCR which said a vast majority entered the country on a 24-hour transit visa, and were not Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Many have been heading to Turkey, the starting point for the refugee trail into Europe.

Debt and poverty

Refugees in Lebanon are caught up in a brutal and often inescapable cycle of poverty and debt, leaving them few options but to try to survive from one day to the next.

According to the UNHCR, 70 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living below the Lebanese poverty line of $3.84 per person per day.

Nearly 90 per cent of them are in debt, with the average family owing $842 – a huge sum of money that for many only grows larger, and will take years to repay if they are ever able to.

Officially barred from working, refugees are forced to work for low pay in the informal sector. Children are kept out of school to supplement incomes, but it is often not enough and more money is borrowed.

“It’s very difficult to keep your head above the water,” said Ms Girard. “It’s really, now, everyone that is deeply affected.”

To complicate matters, between 50 and 60 per cent of Syrian refugees in the country lack legal status, with at least 87 per cent of families having at least one member who is here illegally. Demands for documents refugees sometimes cannot obtain – such as lease agreements with a landlord – and a fee of $200 per person over the age of 14 for each year in the country, has kept many from legalising their stay.

Refugees can only leave Lebanon by sea or air if they are legally here. While the process for getting residency is complicated, UNHCR says the country has simplified the leaving process. Still, refugees are required to pay $200 for every person over 14, each year they were in the country illegally in order to be processed out, adding yet another significant cost.

Setting sights on Europe

Despite the financial obstacles, some are still making plans to flee to Europe.

Omar Al Naji, 45, from Deraa in southern Syria, arrived in Lebanon with his wife, two sons and two daughters four years ago.

Along with his son Abdullah, 10, he works in a small grocery store in Khalde that is awash with varnish fumes from a neighbouring furniture workshop.

“I want to be a doctor or an engineer, I want an education,” said Abdullah.

But Abdullah cannot read or write and has never set foot in a classroom. When his family arrived four years ago, many of Lebanon’s schools were not ready for the influx of refugees and he was unable to enrol. As the family’s financial situation grew more dire, he was put to work, his $200 monthly salary helping make ends meet.

Mr Al Naji is waiting for the seas to calm after the winter – time he can use to save up money or borrow from friends – before he tries to go to Turkey with his family. He thinks he can get the six members of his family to Greece for about $4,000.

“It’s dangerous to cross, but nothing comes easily,” he said. “Here, my children don’t have a future.”

Growing despair

Nearby, in a drab, cavernous abandoned commercial space repurposed as an apartment, Hana Al Amari, 38, who has been in Lebanon since 2014, is also planning to escape.

When her husband Ali left Lebanon for Libya and then went to Europe by boat more than a year ago, she was optimistic that she and their seven children would soon join him. But as time passed, he became more distant and hard to get a hold of and she believed he no longer wanted to help them leave.

“If he wanted to take us, he would have taken us,” she said.

Over the summer, she started making her own plans to fly her family to Turkey and cross into Greece by boat. Because of the cost and the logistics of transporting so many members of her family, she was only going to take two of her youngest children and leave the rest with her elderly mother. But the image of the body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, made her baulk.

“I imagined my children ending up like him,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid of something happening to me. I was afraid for my children.”

Since summer, her family’s situation has only become worse.

Her two eldest sons, aged 13 and 15, work as manual labourers, but earn only $300 between them – not enough to live on forcing Ms Al Amari to borrow from friends. Money given to the family by UNHCR for winter preparation is spent on food as the family trades heat for sustenance. So far she has racked up $1,500 in debt.

Inside her home, Ms Al Amari’s family huddle in one room with a heater. Water drips from the ceiling and every one is coughing.

With desperation mounting, Ms Al Amari is now thinking again of how to borrow money and finally try to get to Europe. She thinks she can get all the way to Europe with a couple of her kids for a few thousand dollars, budgeting around $1,000 or $1,500 per person for the whole journey and counting on smugglers to allow her children onto a boat for free.

New visa rules

As it currently stands, it is highly unlikely that Mr Al Naji nor Ms Al Amari will be able to get their families to Europe in their current situations.

Both have overly optimistic budgets, with a per person total that would not even pay for spots on the most rickety smuggler boats leaving the Turkish coast for Greek island of Lesbos.

Their budgets do not take into account the hefty fines they will have to pay Lebanese authorities for the time their families have spent in the country illegally, the plane or boat tickets to Turkey, food, transport, lodging and the many other potential costs they will encounter on the trip. A more realistic budget would be between $2,000 to $3,000, but some have even spent more than $10,000 for each person on the journey.

Even if they make it to Turkey, they would most likely end up stranded there.

And if they get their paperwork in order and scrape together enough money to leave Lebanon, new Turkish visa rules that require Syrians arriving by air or sea to secure visas before their arrival might foil their plans. The measure was seen as a move to limit the number of Syrians who arrive in Turkey from third countries to embark on the migrant trail.

On January 8, the day the new rules came into effect, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported that 400 Syrians were stranded at Beirut’s airport after they were not allowed to board flights to Turkey.

Syria’s state carrier, Syrian Air, sent planes to collect the Syrians – who were almost certainly trying to flee the war for good – and return them to Damascus, back to the war they were trying to leave behind.