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Economic impact of Syrian displacement endured primarily by the poor in Lebanon

A small makeshift tent used by Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s impoverished Akkar region. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Monday, December 8, 2014

The sudden influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has created a crisis whose repercussions are seen every day. However, Syrian refugees are not responsible for the problems Lebanon is facing today. The ruling class is trying hard to pin the blame on refugees in order to cover up decades-long policies that have left the economy in ruins and impoverished the Lebanese people.

Syrian refugees came to Lebanon because they had no other choice. They fled in large numbers the bombing and destruction that ravaged Syria, seeking refuge in neighboring countries, with Lebanon receiving the largest number. Before any discussion of the problem of displacement and its repercussions, the Lebanese should realize that the majority of the refugees are poor people who lost their homes and are struggling to survive every day. If they could return to their homes, they would do so immediately.

This was made evident at the conference titled Displacement from Syria and Iraq: Causes and Implications, organized by the Friends of Kamal Jumblatt Association. The question of Iraqi displacement was overlooked and instead the economic implications of the Syrian crisis became the focus of the conference, proving that it is the primary concern for many people.

The priority in discussing the problem of displacement – apart from the humanitarian aspect – is recognizing and focusing on the real actors in this crisis and those truly affected by it. Class is the most important factor here and not in a theoretical sense. The existing Lebanese system uses all its tools on hand to promote racism by the poor against the poor. This is true among the Lebanese themselves. However, three and half years ago, the Syrian crisis came to represent another outlet for this inherent racism. Poor Lebanese are pitted against impoverished refugees, a process that serves to whitewash the image of the system, thanks in part to the Lebanese population’s short memory span.

All the crises and problems, from energy to infrastructure, education, poverty and housing is blamed on the refugees who “ruined the country,” as though the situation was just fine before they came. Those responsible for promoting this picture have succeeded in playing a duplicitous role. The political system creates and promotes racism, specifically against Syrian workers (this phenomenon precedes the arrival of Syrian refugees) while the economic system exploits the influx of refugees to accumulate more profits.

A quick overview of statistics available demonstrates what some might believe is just theoretical. Eighty six percent of refugees live in the most marginalized areas in Lebanon where 66 percent of the Lebanese population is marginalized. On average, Syrians are paid 40 percent of the minimum wage and receive no benefits. Sixty one percent of host communities admitted that violent incidents were perpetrated against refugees in the past six months because they are seen as economic competitors and a drain on health services, the infrastructure and so on. Beirut and Mount Lebanon had the least number of incidents because of heavy security deployment and the fact that these areas host the largest number of affluent refugees.

To sum it all up, 2.25 million people living in poverty in Lebanon today are competing for scarce resources. To be clear, this situation is quite favorable to those in charge of the system as long as they can control it.

Minister of social affairs, Rashid Derbas, said at the conference: “The Lebanese society can no longer withstand this situation, not even for a few more months. We lost a lot. We lost our land borders and the infrastructure which is being eroded.” Health Minister Wael Abu Faour said: “The international community deceived us.” Indeed, the international community did not provide adequate support to help Lebanon. The latest shocking decision to halt food assistance was a painful indication of things to come. [The UN World Food Programme has since partially and temporarily reinstated food aid to some refugees]. “The international community deceived us and we did not do a good job negotiating with it. We did not demand a certain level of aid in return for opening our border. Besides, how are governments supposed to provide aid to a country plagued by corruption, with no budget, no clear reports on spending and no transparency?”

The view of former Finance Minister Damianos Kattar is worth taking into consideration. He reassures us that the banks are not at risk. The financial situation is good and cash flow is stable. The first six months of 2014 were even better than the last six months of 2013 despite the deteriorating crisis and the escalating problems. Once again, he makes it clear to us, the rich are doing just fine, it is the poor who are struggling.

Member of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, Jean Fahd, talked about the economic ramifications of hosting Syrian refugees and the cost incurred by all sectors of the economy. He said the low-skilled labor force increased by 50 percent, pushing unemployment among the Lebanese up to 20 percent. “There are 230,000 unemployed Lebanese,” he added agonizingly. Simple rhetorical questions are asked to Fahd, such as who is hiring? Who chose to leave 230,000 Lebanese people unemployed in order to increase their profits by paying a Syrian refugee 40 percent of the minimum wage?

Some economists are suggesting that we should take advantage of the new reality facing the country. Former Finance Minister George Corm argues that instead of maintaining the status quo, refugees should be turned into a productive force, just as Lebanon benefited previously from the presence of low-paid Palestinian labor and Syrian labor in the construction sector. Corm spoke of “an agricultural renaissance that we desperately need. Now is the time to revive the agricultural sector given the availability of cheap labor.” It is not just the agricultural sector, however, “a plan must be devised to strengthen the infrastructure.” These suggestions represent a good starting point to benefit from the influx of refugees and limit its negative repercussions.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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