The refugee crisis caused by the Syrian civil war has assumed biblical proportions. According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) the number reached 2.33 million in at the beginning of this year. Roughly 868,000 of them are in Lebanon, with another 576,000 in Jordan.
The number for Lebanon is astounding: the entire country has (had) a population of only 4.4 million. This is where it’s tradition to say something like, “This would be the equivalent of having 61 million people settle in the United States over a three-year period.” Problem is, that number is too big to imagine; the comparison does not help.
So let’s do something more relevant. Lebanon has roughly half the land area of New Jersey and also has about half the population. The crisis is the equivalent of an influx of roughly 1.8 million people to the State of New Jersey. (Alternatively, accomodating 1.5 million people on Long Island by population or 303,000 by land area.)
The Lebanese government has refused to create camps for Syrians on its soil. They do not want to repeat their experience with the Palestinians. The government, fearful of upsetting Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance, corraled the refugees from what is now Israel into camps. The Palestine camps became semi-autonomous enclaves. It would be wrong to say that the Palestinian presence triggered the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, but it is true that the first violence occured between PLO members and uniformed Maronite militiamen. In 1978, Israel invaded Lebanon and pushed PLO forces north; around 15,000 wound up based in the camps around Beirut. That did not end well for Lebanon, and the enclaves have continued to be focal points for violent unrest.
(In 2011, I visited the Burj al-Barajneh camp in the south of Beirut. It was unlike anything I expected.)
As a result, Lebanon and Jordan are taking contrasting strategies during the new influx. Jordan has established camps: in August, the New Yorker ran a very good profile of the Za’atari camp. Lebanon, in contrast, is letting refugees scatter to apartments, existing camps (the one I visited in 2011 is undergoing an influx) and informal agglomerations of tents and shanties (which is what is shown in the Lebanese inset on the above map).
Absent the camps, how are the Syrian refugees faring? Oxfam commissioned the Beirut Research and Innovation Center to conduct a survey and find out. Their results were fascinating. Abriged:
- Average household size is five people, in line with pre-war Syria;
- The refugees in Lebanon are not skewed towards the very poor or very rich, but have a slight over-representation of the urban middle class;
- Households have moved on average 1.5 times within Lebanon, taking mostly whatever rental accomodations they can find;
- Average household income is $3,000 per year; median is $2,400. It varied a lot by region, however. Richer families settled in Beirut, where the average was $6,564. Thirty percent of the refugees reported no income. (Income, note, does not include assistance, debt, or the use of savings);
- Assistance from U.N. agencies came to $912 per year on average, mostly in the form of food packets;
- Expenditures came to $6,240 per year, which is rather more than the $3,000 in income. The average household brought only $370 in cash, although half arrived with nothing. So savings have not covered the gap. 17% of households reported that have sold (on average) $1,237 in jewellery; still not enough to cover such a large gap on an ongoing basis;
- Of the $520 per month in expenditures, food came to $275 and rent came to $225;
- The refugees are heading deep into debt after taking into account income plus aid of $3,912 versus expenditures of $6,400;
- The amount of debt that they would admit to ($454) is clearly not enough to cover the gap;
- In short, families covered expense as follows: 39% from income, 12% from U.N. aid, 6% from private charity, 9% from savings (now generally exhausted), 7% from debt, and 27% from sources that they did not want to describe to interviewers.
In addition, 52% of the families are not sending their children to school; an additional 26% are sending only some oftheir school-age children. In a surprise, however, girls are far more likely to be going to school in Lebanon than boys. The biggest factor for going to school should not be a surprise: United Nations assistance. In a change from earlier policy, however, this time around the Lebanese are not excluding refugee children from the public schools.
Amazingly for anyone used to Latin America or Africa (but not, I am told, unusual for the Arab world) nobody seemed much worried about crime.
Why would the refugees be unwilling to explain how they financed a quarter of their consumption? And what will happen when (or if) the mystery lifeline runs out?
Next up: the impact of the influx on Lebanon.