Lebanon’s never-ending refugee story

Doorless toilets at the informal tented settlement in Lebanon's Akkar region. [Karolina Zbytniewska]

Wedged between Israel (its mortal enemy), the Mediterranean Sea and war-torn Syria, Lebanon has been heaving under the burden of refugees away from the international spotlight.

The small country with a population of just above 4 million has taken in one million registered Syrian refugees since the war started in 2011, as well as half a million unregistered ones.

For comparison, about the same number of refugees, some 1.5 million, entered Europe at the peak of the migration crisis in 2015/16, the equivalent of 0.3% of its population.

Around 30% Lebanese people lived in poverty in 2012, just after the war in neighbouring Syria began. Now it is much higher.

That is no surprise. When huge numbers of refugees arrive in poor villages, it places an additional burden on ammenities which have to be shared such as electricity, water, and waste management systems, all of which were already poor quality. That burden has gradually been softened by the UN’s and international NGOs framework.

Even so, around 76% of Syrian refugee households live below the poverty level – i.e. less than $3.84 per day – while 58% live in extreme poverty, on less than $2.87 per day.

Driving east of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, near the Syrian border, any turn from the main road will take the visitor to settlements resembling informal, dilapidated refugee camps.


At 57, Ibrahim looks like an old man. The former truck driver from the Syrian city of Homs, only 87 km away, is now a refugee, detached from his former life, job and country.

His house was destroyed by the bombs, “but the remains are still there”, he says, hoping to go back one day. He arrived in northern Lebanon with his family of 9 in 2014.

He had to pay the Syrian army $3,000 to be let through, after surrendering all the family documents. Everyone he knows who survived the bombing is now in Lebanon. He says life is normal in this new place and he is happy his family has a flat, even if it’s rented. And that he still has a family, for that matter.

Ibrahim suffers from heart disease. UNHCR paid for bypass surgery but he still needs expensive healthcare. His family receives $100 in aid for the rent but it is only half its price. And just one person works – his grandson, aged 18.

Some 73% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in rented apartments or houses, 9% in “non-residential structures”, such as farms, garages, shops and worksites, and 17% in temporary tented settlements, according to the UN refugee agency.

When the war in Syria broke out, Lebanese from areas neighbouring Syria quickly invested in building garages, to rent them to refugees they expected to come.

The monthly fee for a ‘residential house’, such as the one Ibrahim lives in, is at least $100. The ‘Cash for rent’ framework (funded by international aid – including Polish aid “Polska pomoc” or PCPM) supports both refugees and local communities, providing the poorest refugees with $100 of monthly aid for rent.

It also reaches local Lebanese people. PCPM helps both sides sign binding contracts, which builds mutual respect and trust. This approach has another upside: Lebanese people see tangible monthly benefits from the presence of refugees in their community.

The bimonthly monitoring of refugee families using ‘Cash for rent’ aid in the Akkar’s Biree district is carried out by a Lebanese, 28-year-old Muhamad, an employee of PCPM. Like 80% of international aid community in Lebanon, he is local.


Meet Sabah, a 40-year-old single mother and her two sons Ahmed (17) and Hussein (15). The older boy suffers from an acute eye problem that he uses as a pretext not to go to school.

Refugee boys of their age rarely go to school. Despite a significant educational stride among younger children (aged 7-14) – from just 52% in school in 2016 to 70% in 2017, classes for adolescents tend to be empty. Instead, children can often be found at work in shops and restaurants. You never know if they are 12 years old or malnourished. Some just do nothing – as their families cannot afford education. Refugee children usually attend schools for free but face the costs of transportation, supplies and clothes.

Sabah’s two boys cannot work. But they also do not want to go to school as the Lebanese education system is tough for Syrian children. In Syria, all classes are held in Arabic, while Lebanese children are taught in either English or French.

But a future without education does not have to be their destination. Local sheikhs – religious community leaders – often cooperate with aid organisations making local buildings available for kindergartens, catch-up schools, and medical clinics – as is the case with Sheikh Mohammad Awad Merheb in Biree. He also cooperates with the PCPM in providing space for ‘Cash for rent’ contract signing between locals and refugees, as well as for vocational training.

Sheikh Mohammad

Until September 2014, when the border with Syria was closed, there were months when 50,000 people were coming to the Biree district. In some places, there are more Syrians than Lebanese. But there was little opposition to this huge inflow, Sheikh Mohammad told me.

Early in the war, he was using a lot of ‘mosque networking’ to collect mattresses, blankets, clothes from worshippers. ‘These people had nothing’. Today just half of the Lebanese refugee community has access to these basic household assets.

In Europe, one of the arguments against admitting Syrian refugees are cultural differences. But these people are also different in Lebanon. As we Poles are different from Ukrainians and Germans. ‘Even if we were neighbours there is a difference in thinking. It is another culture, another lifestyle, different living and economic situation, different level and type of education, different views about marriage’ – he explained.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon

25,000 people came in 2012. 2 years later there were already more than 1 million refugees in a country of 4 million. This sudden and massive inflow of people into such a small state further challenged the already vulnerable socio-economic fabric of Lebanon.

Most refugees have settled in some of the country’s poorest areas, increasing competition for employment and most basic services and provisions. Lebanon otherwise already suffered from insufficient water supplies, daily power outages, high unemployment rates and poverty, insufficient health-care and a shortage of educational institutions. Now 27% more people need to access them.

Lebanon does not want them to stay, and Syria does now want them back. Refugees are described as ‘traitors’ by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. A law known as “Law 10” was introduced in April to deprive thousands of refugees of their homes and land by giving them only 30 days to file ownership claims once a given area is designated for after-war redevelopment.

The Syrian regime denies the accusation that it is intent on condemning refugees to permanent exile and repopulating strategic areas with loyalists to consolidate its power base. “Syria is in need of … all its sons and is eager for the return of all its sons,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mualem wrote in a letter to the Lebanese government.


Syrian refugees are just one sad story in Lebanon. The other – and much older one – is the story of Palestinian refugees. Lebanon is home to some 503,000 Palestine refugees, including over 50,000 Palestine refugees from Syria.

According to the Lebanese government, there are up to 300,000 unregistered de facto refugees in Lebanon, who depend on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for their survival.

Shatila is a Palestinian district of Beirut. Palestinians are deliberately mixed with other refugees here, especially Syrians, to avoid sectarianism and radicalisation. It used to be a refugee camp, set up for Syrian refugees in 1949, a year after the creation of the state of Israel.

In 1982, up to 3,500 Palestinian civilians were killed by Lebanese Maronite militias under Israeli supervision here and in the neighbouring Sabra camp.

But after years of conflict, the hardest thing to deal with is the permanence of the crisis, says Sheikh Mohammed.  ‘It keeps going and we cannot see when it can end,’ he says.


The author thanks POLINT association and PCPM Lebanon for their support in making this article happen.

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