Lebanon’s Relief Plan and the Exploitation of Syrian Refugees

Wed, 04/13/2016

The attitude of the Lebanese government vis-à-vis the Syrian displacement is largely characterized by deception, contradiction and lack of transparency. On the one hand, it continues to overplay the negative impact of the displacement movement especially in terms of the economic fallbacks of hosting more than 1 million displaced Syrians, whilst resisting serious calls for improving their humanitarian situation, and on the other hand, the government persevered in its attempt to exploit any opportunity to raise international financial aid, in the name of Syrian refugees and, even if need be, under the heading of temporarily mainstreaming the refugees in the local labor market, a position which is in clear contradiction with the government’s official stance on that matter.

Over the past four years, Lebanese politicians, generally, spared no occasion to emphasize the burden Lebanon bears because of the Syrian refugee crisis and the ensuing additional pressure on public infrastructure as well as on educational, health care and other public services, while at the same time calling for a speedy return of the refugees. Strengthened with these arguments, the Lebanese government developed an ambitious emergency relief plan which was submitted to the London donor conference that was held on February 4th and was entitled “Helping Syria and the Region”. The relief plan included several provisions to rehabilitate the infrastructure, expand social services and create new employment opportunities for both Lebanese and Syrian workers. The over-ambitious plan, which is also aimed at stimulating the economy, has a total budged of $ 11 billion, and is expected to be implemented over a four-year period.

A close look at the various components of the plan reveals surprising projects that clearly do not fall under the heading of relief for Syrian refugees. Of the various elements of the plan we noted the following:

• An average investment of $1 billion over five years in the local municipalities
• Supporting infrastructural needs namely a refuse recycling project in Beirut and Mount Lebanon amounting to $200 million
• Reconstructing the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahar el Bared for $156 million (!?)
• Expanding and improving prisons and incarceration centers for $63 million (!?)
• Five year investment in infrastructure and public services for $4.3 billion
• Providing $400 million to support the national budget
• Various new agricultural projects in Akkar and the Beqaa in addition to strengthening the industrial sector
• Investing in job creating sectors and creating some 350000 new jobs for Syrian and Lebanese during the course of the next five years. This will take occur through the creation of new small and medium enterprises that are expected to receive $ 60 million in aid support.

It is worth highlighting that according to the above plan, Syrian refugees will be allowed to work in specific sectors such as agriculture, construction and cleaning services.

Concerning the last point, the majority of Lebanese politician have repeatedly stressed the negative impact of Syrian displacement on local unemployment, despite the fact that unemployment problem in Lebanon is endemic and precedes the Syrian crisis. The current Minister of Labour, Sejaan Azzi, for example, never tires from reiterating his refusal to employ Syrians whilst qualifying those who stand behind such a demand as shameless. However, the same Minister seems to have expressed little opposition to the proposed plan which clearly allows for the employment of Syrians workers.

Nevertheless, this contradictory and deceiving policy towards Syrian refugees seems to have received the approval of some of the international donors’ community. In this respect, we point out to the case of Terbol industrial zone, where it was lately reported that the feasibility studies of this project are to be funded by UNIDO under the “aid to Syrians project”, despite the fact that the implementation of this project will take several years and that is least likely to employ Syrians in any foreseeable future.