The Lebanese Government estimates that out of the six million people living in the country, 1.5 million are Syrian refugees! This estimate includes both registered and unregistered refugees, (the Lebanese Government suspended registering new refugees in May 2015), although UNHCR currently reports that there are 865,531 Syrians registered in Lebanon. Most of these refugees live within vulnerable host communities under conditions of poverty.

The fragile sectarian balance of Lebanon drives an increasingly hostile perception of Syrian refugees among the Lebanese, largely influenced by their past experience with the civil war, as well as by the previous influx of Palestinian refugees. Lebanese officials have often stated that integrating the majority Sunni Syrians into the economy may disrupt the state’s power-sharing system between Christians, Sunnis and Shia. In line with this, the Lebanese often express concern about competition with Syrians and their established companies in the labor market, while some Lebanese politicians opportunistically use refugees as a scapegoats for the socio-economic deterioration of the country.

Such rhetoric has escalated in the recent months, with the government representatives now openly talking about what amounts to forced return of Syrians to Syria, which is clearly unsafe.

This deeply worrying policy announcement comes as the Lebanese government is negotiating financial aid from the World Bank to address its dire economic situation, and it implies putting vulnerable Syrian refugees on the table as a bargaining chip to extract more funds in the negotiations. It is important to note that the total aid received by the Lebanese government to accommodate the Syrian refugees within the period from 2012 to 2019 exceeded $6.5 billion. Yet, more than 89% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the extreme poverty line.

The research conducted by SACD showed that 88% of Syrian refugees live in a state of legal insecurity and 96% of them in a state of economic insecurity. This extremely high percentage calls for a careful examination of the mechanisms that the Lebanese government uses to deal with Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The recently announced policy of returning Syrians to Syria, without the most basic conditions being met for a safe, voluntary and dignified return, prompted SACD to conduct a survey of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to ascertain their current living conditions and attitudes towards return. We have designed this briefing based on 438 structured interviews conducted with Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon using a standardized questionnaire for collecting data.

The questionnaire gauges the opinions of Syrians regarding four main areas:

  • The current situation of refugees
  • The impact of discriminatory discourse and policies targeting Syrian refugees
  • Plans and visions for the future
  • Perceptions of conditions for the return to Syria

Our research teams conducted face-to-face interviews with the research sample in which women constituted 59%. The team have interviewed the research sample in their places of residence (cities and camps). They divided the housing of the sample participants into five camps in addition to Beqaa, Tripoli and Beirut areas.

The research has shown that a large majority of surveyed Syrians have problems obtaining a legal status in the country. A staggering 64 % of the participants indicated that they do not have any official document or official residence permit in Lebanon. Consequently, the unemployment rate is very high – 43% of the polled Syrian refugees are unemployed, 25% are daily workers without any rights or legal coverage, and 12% of them fluctuate between part-time or full-time work. Out of those who manage to find some work, 90% indicated that they do not work officially. This, accordingly, means that the Syrian refugees are deprived of any rights or legal coverage as they work in the black market due to the refusal of the Lebanese authorities to register them officially.

The negative impact of such a precarious legal and financial position is cascading down to the most vulnerable among the Syrian refugees – their children. There are high costs imposed on refugees to obtain the necessary documents to enroll their children in schools (despite the huge aid that the Lebanese education sector receives to accommodate Syrian refugee children) and as a result 89% of respondents were unable to obtain the documents required to enroll their children in schools – 62% of the research participants reported that their children do not have official documents to attend school due to financial costs, while 27% of them indicated that their children do not have official documents due to the complications imposed by the Lebanese government on Syrians to register their children. Many Syrian children in Lebanon have lost 10 years of their lives, unable to receive education, some forced to work.

And yet, despite these horrendous conditions they are facing in Lebanon, the vast majority of Syrian refugees does not want to return to Syria under the current conditions, especially under the rule of the Syrian regime. The study shows that 73% of the participants have security concerns about returning to Syria fearing they will be exposed to a direct or indirect security risk to their lives. Some 39% of the field survey respondents indicated that forcing them to return would put their lives at risk, whereas 23% of them reported that they would be under threat of conscription, and 11% would be directly and personally threatened.

Some 67% of respondents are not even interested in visiting Syria under current circumstances. Responding to a question on whether they would return in conditions changed, 35% of the participants explicitly answered that they do not want to return to Syria even if the conditions changed, 36% of them may return if certain conditions are met, while the remaining 29% of the respondents are predominantly not considering returning home.

About 30% of the respondents explicitly pointed out that they would resort to trying to flee to other countries if forced to return to Syria, whether by legal or illegal methods, while 37% do not have any plans in case they are forced to return to Syria, However it is highly likely, considering the reality of the situation, that a good percentage of them will choose the same option. As a consequence, this is a dangerous indicator of possible new waves of mass displacement to Europe, which is witnessing a significant increase recently. This is the most striking finding of the survey – many Syrians in Lebanon would rather opt for the “boats of death” than to face returning to Syria in the current circumstances.

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