BEIRUT: As Syrians continue to flee the violence in their home country, so do many Lebanese who have been residing there for decades. A new study has identified nearly 20,000 people of Lebanese origin who have fled Syria since the beginning of the conflict, most of whom are living in abject poverty, with the added burden of not qualifying to register as refugees. “There’s a large segment of the population that’s not receiving assistance with what they need. What’s worse, they’re living in the most impoverished areas of the country,” said Robert Watkins, United Nations resident representative in Lebanon.
Watkins spoke at a conference at the Phoenicia Hotel Wednesday to release “The situation and needs of Lebanese returnees from Syria,” a study by the Lebanese Higher Relief Committee and the International Organization for Migration.
Among the key findings of the study was that while these migrants’ Lebanese citizenship prevented them from having refugee status, their conditions, according to the study, are “broadly similar to those of Syrian refugees: Most came to Lebanon without their belongings, are unemployed and are either renting accommodation or being hosted by Lebanese families, while some are living in collective centers and tents.”
Also similar to their Syrian counterparts, these displaced Lebanese primarily come from the province of Homs and have settled in the north and the Bekaa Valley, where winter storms have already begun to batter tents at makeshift refugee camps.
“They are living in similar conditions as Syrian refugees, and they need to be protected – especially from the winter cold,” said Fawzi Al-Zioud, IOM representative in Lebanon.
The study, which was conducted in July, was designed to evaluate this vulnerable population and assess their needs. The survey, conducted through local municipalities and mukhtars throughout all six Lebanese governorates, found that over 3,000 Lebanese returnee households had fled the conflict in Syria.
Survey respondents identified their most pressing needs, which included food (34 percent), followed by health (20 percent), shelter (15 percent) and access to work (14 percent). Education was rarely cited as a high concern, as a much higher proportion of Lebanese returnee children, around 70 percent, were registered in school, compared with only 10 percent of their Syrian counterparts.
Syria’s Lebanese community dates back much further than the existence of the two modern states, both established in the mid-1940s. In fact, only 10 percent of Lebanese returnees said they returned to their original Lebanese house or neighborhood – a sign of their long-term status in Syria. However, when asked if they intended to return to Syria, 75 percent said they were unsure and that they were waiting before making a decision.
Over the years, there have been regular intermarriages between the two populations, particularly between those in the border areas and the two capital cities. The first major recorded wave of Lebanese migrants to Syria left Mount Lebanon during the 1860 conflict between the Maronites and the Druze. Another significant migration took place during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War. This ongoing conflict in Syria is the first time the area has seen significant migration from Syria to Lebanon.
The study, which is the first in-depth survey of Lebanese returnees, has confirmed that these migrants are indeed living in “refugeelike” conditions, and it urges that more work be done to meet their immediate needs such as food, winter kits and rent subsidies.
“Vulnerable refugees should be ensured access to quality primary health care services, especially given that they do not benefit from the same services as registered refugees. In the near term, livelihood support should be provided to vulnerable Lebanese returnees, with a focus on those who have unused skills and taking into consideration their intentions regarding return to Syria,” the report concluded.