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Debunking the dangerous myth that refugees are an economic burden in Lebanon

Research shows the arrival of Syrian refugees in Lebanon did not hurt its economy.

An informal camp for Syrian refugees that is home to around 60 families in Halba, northern Lebanon, pictured on 25 November 2021. Lara Hauser/REUTERS
An informal camp for Syrian refugees that is home to around 60 families in Halba, northern Lebanon, pictured on 25 November 2021.

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In July, Lebanon’s Minister of the Displaced announced a plan to force 15,000 Syrian refugees a month to return to their home country, against their wishes if need be.

While the plan hasn’t gone anywhere – and it’s not clear if it ever will – it’s emblematic of an increasingly hostile environment for refugees in Lebanon, one that has seen rising reports of violence and discrimination against them.

It has become common for Lebanese politicians and civilians alike to argue that the country’s 1-1.5 million Syrian refugees are an economic burden. But our recent research, supported by the World Refugee and Migration Council, shows that the arrival of Syrian refugees did not have an impact on Lebanon’s economy. 

That does not mean the economy is not in a grim state: More Syrians – as well as Lebanese and Palestinians – are taking dangerous boat trips in a last-ditch attempt to get to Europe. Just this weekend, it emerged that at least 97 people who had been trying to get to Europe died when their boat sank in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Syria.

As academics who have closely examined, and debunked, the myth that refugees are contributing to this collapse, we are calling on international donors, aid groups, and the government of Lebanon – all of whom have contributed to this understanding – to look more closely at the facts, for the benefit of everyone in a deeply troubled country. 

A downward trend

The July announcement of the repatriation plan was the culmination of years of negative pressure on (and discourse about) Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

We often hear that Lebanon – the country hosting the most refugees per capita in the world – is at a breaking point: It cannot take more refugees. 

Lebanon has unquestionably taken in a large number of refugees: 1.5 million by the government’s count, in a country of nearly 7 million total people. And it is at a breaking point: In 2021, the World Bank ranked it in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises globally since the mid-nineteenth century. But it is not because of Syrian refugees. 

“If the arrival of refugees had any impact on Lebanon’s economy at all, our research shows it may have been positive, through increased international aid.”

When Syrians began to arrive in Lebanon in 2011 at the beginning of their country’s war, they came to a country already on a downward economic trend. Indeed, the World Bank has called the financial crisis in Lebanon a “deliberate crisis”, one born out of political mismanagement and corruption.

Our research measured the impact of Syrian refugees between 2011 and 2020 on key indicators of how an economy is doing: labour force participation rate, unemployment, imports, exports, electricity generation, inflation, and international aid. Our results show no relationship between the number of refugees and the growth of the Lebanese economy, contrary to the pervasive belief and current debate on refugees in the country and internationally. 

If the arrival of refugees had any impact on Lebanon’s economy at all, our research shows it may have been positive, through increased international aid.  

Local impact and the curse of mismanagement

That does not mean all has been smooth sailing in Lebanon, which did see major changes with the arrival of so many new people.

While the refugees did not have a negative effect on the national-level economy, in some local areas residents have endured increased pressure on infrastructure like healthcare and schools, not to mention competition for limited jobs. In some places, as the new arrivals were often willing to work for less, wages did go down.

Many Lebanese felt refugees were receiving more assistance than they were, despite the fact the country was clearly in an economic crisis and more and more locals needed help. This also contributed to tension between some Lebanese and Syrian communities, even though some aid groups do actually help host communities. 

These local experiences are directly linked to the national mismanagement of the economy by successive Lebanese governments. Our research shows that the overall negative economic trend of the country since 1990 (the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war) has been accompanied by increasing social and economic inequality. 

Poverty spread throughout the country, but there were also profound regional differences. It was Lebanon’s poorest regions that ended up taking in the vast majority of Syrian refugees, likely because they were places with affordable housing, seasonal work in agriculture, or where Syrians already had ties to people or jobs in the community. This may have contributed to local distrust, but the fact remains that on a national level, the refugee influx was not to blame for the downturn.

Europe’s buy-out

The international community has a role to play here, too. Like the Lebanese government, despite evidence to the contrary, some donor countries in the Global North continue to argue that refugees are an economic burden with their own anti-refugee and migrant policies, placing severe limits on how many refugees they will take in. 

Europe in particular has attempted to buy itself out of responsibility for hosting these refugees, with pledges of aid meant to reduce the number of Syrians that make it to its shores. But that has not eased life enough that people are not willing to risk their lives to get to Europe, or anywhere other than Lebanon.

Furthermore, neither foreign funding nor the presence of international NGOs has managed to change the Lebanese government’s position on refugees. President Michel Aoun has made it clear that opposition by the international community or rights groups will not stop the country from sending Syrians back home. 

And, despite occasional promises in exchange for aid commitments, Lebanon has not made it easier for Syrians to gain legal residency or to work legally. Today, more than 80 percent of Syrian refugees over the age of 15 lack legal residency in Lebanon, exposing them to the constant threat of deportation.

A shift towards inclusive development

The international community has done almost nothing – aside from issuing the occasional statement – to change the poor treatment and dire economic state of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. It seems to have simply accepted what the American scholar Jeffrey Pugh has termed “the invisibility bargain”, in which refugees are present and somewhat tolerated in a country as long as they are economic producers, do not contribute to economic loss, and remain politically and socially invisible.

But the truth is that refugees are not invisible. Their presence in Lebanon over the past 11 years has economically embedded them into local communities, albeit on the margins, due to their lack of residency and exclusion from large parts of the labour market.

With more than 90 percent of Syrian refugees (and 77 percent of Lebanese) living below the poverty line, refugees in Lebanon will not magically become self-reliant (a stated goal of the UN’s 2018 Global Compact on Refugees). 

“The international community has done almost nothing – aside from issuing the occasional statement – to change the poor treatment and dire economic state of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.”

They will remain a presence for years to come. Even if the government of Lebanon was to succeed in returning 15,000 Syrian refugees every month – in doing so, risking human rights abuses and persecution for those sent back – it would take more than eight years for what the government estimates to be 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country to return. 

Despite this fact, aid to refugees in Lebanon and their host communities is “emergency” assistance; intended to meet short-term needs. It is a crucial lifeline, but it is not enough, and we still need a more nuanced understanding about their role in Lebanon’s economy to move forward.

Only with this understanding and renewed energy can donor countries, aid groups, and the government move on from the “refugee as burden” discourse, towards an economic policy that includes – and hopefully benefits – all groups trying to get by in a country in crisis. 

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