The explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at a port in Beirut on August 4 decimated a large section of the city and has left hundreds of thousands homeless and nearly 200 dead. Of that number, at least 34 of the dead are reported to be Syrian refugees. UNHCR is conducting assessments in the most heavily impacted neighborhood, which so far indicate that up to 10,000 vulnerable households are likely to have been severely affected by the blast. With the various challenges currently facing Lebanon: COVID-19, a financial crisis, and the explosion at the port; life for refugees in Lebanon will only get more difficult. While the international community has responded to the tragedy by promising large amounts of humanitarian aid, it is unclear how or whether such aid will reach Syrian refugees. For this aid to be effective it must reach Beirut’s most vulnerable communities, including Syrians.
International leaders have hurried to discuss an aid strategy for Lebanon. During a virtual summit on August 9, 15 leaders out of the 30 in attendance released a joint statement that the $298 million pledged in aid must be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population, with utmost efficiency and transparency.” French President Emmanuel Macron previously said that aid will be given to the Lebanese people directly, and not facilitated through the government. It is not yet clear how refugees in Beirut will be included in this aid. UN member states and donors must understand the unique vulnerability that Syrians in Lebanon face.
Previous vulnerabilities of Syrians in Lebanon
Even before the recent explosion, many Syrians in Lebanon struggled to meet their basic needs. In February of this year, it was reported that 75% of Syrians in Lebanon live below the poverty line, in comparison to 27% of Lebanese citizens. Further, the 2019 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (VASyR 2019) reported the labor force participation rate of Syrian refugees to be 38%, with the highest percentage being in Beirut at 42%. The current economic collapse in Lebanon has only worsened conditions for the already vulnerable refugee community.
The plight of refugees in Lebanon is made more challenging because the Lebanese government does not allow the establishment of formal camps for refugees. Due to this restriction, 73% of refugees in Lebanon rent poor-quality housing in residential buildings, while remaining refugees either live in makeshift tents and settlements or in non-residential structures. Refugees must find and pay for their own housing, including in informal tented settlements (ITS). While the average weekly income of a Syrian refugee in Lebanon is $75 for men and $41 for women, rent costs in residential and non-residential shelters are between $149 and $213, while rent in non-permanent structures is $61. The VASyR 2019 found that over half of Syrian refugee households were living in shelter conditions that were either overcrowded or in dangerous conditions.
An added pressure on refugees in Lebanon came in 2015 when the Lebanese government stopped UNHCR from registering new refugees, making it nearly impossible for refugees to renew their legal stay in the country. This hinders their ability to access aid and other support provided to refugees with legal documentation.
Restrictions & unique challenges facing Syrians after the explosion
SJAC spoke with Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR), a local Lebanese NGO, regarding the situation facing Syrians in Beirut following the explosion. Layan Al-Dani, Programs Manager at ACHR, said that the reported number of Syrian refugees killed in the explosion may not be fully accurate, and that the number and names need accurate documentation; many migrant workers – including Syrians – who worked at the port and were likely killed or missing in the explosion are still not documented. She also shared with SJAC that one of the most-affected neighborhoods in Beirut was where many Syrian activists and humanitarian workers live, further exacerbating the difficult conditions of an already vulnerable population.
Basma Alloush, Policy and Advocacy Advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council added that, “the sharp increase in homelessness [following the explosion] may lead to higher rate of evictions of Syrian refugees. Already in the last months, we have seen a sharp increase in eviction threats and actual evictions because tenants were no longer able to pay the rent.”
Additionally, restrictive policies in Lebanon have prevented Syrians from finding cemeteries that will allow them to bury their loved ones. This has persisted even following the port explosion, as Syrians share on social media that they are unable to bury loved ones killed in the explosion.
Humanitarian funds must reach vulnerable communities
International donors must make efforts to ensure that humanitarian funds reach both Lebanese and Syrian survivors. The issue of including Syrian survivors and refugees in aid to Lebanon might be politically delicate due to the anti-refugee sentiments that have been present in the now-resigned Lebanese government for years. Such sentiments should not affect the international community’s decision to write refugee-specific aid avenues into their support, and these sentiments should not affect how aid is distributed. If the most vulnerable communities in Lebanon are not supported, the recovery of the country following this crisis will not be complete.
SJAC recommends the following to the UN and other international donors:
- Refugees in Lebanon must be included in the distribution of aid. This should be done regardless of legal status or documentation. Decisions regarding aid distribution should be made public and transparent, and all information about aid should be effectively communicated to refugee communities.
- The Lebanese government should allow UNHCR to register refugees in Lebanon and to renew the legal status of already existing refugees in the country to ensure their access to aid and limit possible discrimination.
- The international community should support UNHCR’s inter-agency humanitarian appeal of $12 million for its emergency response to the hardest-hit and most vulnerable households in Beirut.
- Pressure should be put on local communities in Lebanon to lift restrictive measures that discriminate against the burial of Syrians or individuals of other backgrounds in some cemeteries.
- The international community must continue to ensure that Lebanon upholds its commitment of nonrefoulement. Refugees in Lebanon have the right to continue to seek refuge in Lebanon until they are comfortable returning, and the current, overlapping crises in Lebanon should not undermine that right.