Syrian refugees in Lebanon: limited livelihoods and untold challenges

10 July, 2019

Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, have found security from the ravaging conflict in Syria. However, in spite of the commendable efforts from the host country and the UN, as well as other international and local humanitarian organizations, the support provided has failed to meet the humanitarian standards set by those organizations.

Dr Saja Taja Al Zoubi diagnosed the living situation of Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley in the recently published working paper, Enhancing the Livelihood and Food Security of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon .The study used information and survey data collected from refugee households, refugee workers’ managers, camp leaders and local and international humanitarian organizations in the Bekaa Valley and applied a sustainable livelihoods framework to understand the livelihoods of refugee families and the challenges they face. The study analyzed refugee households’ access to physical, natural, human, social and financial assets; their income and livelihood sources; and livelihood outcomes on food security, shelter, education and health.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not recognized in Lebanese law as refugees, but are considered as guests, meaning they do not have legal residence status in Lebanon which would require a rather difficult process. This puts in a legal limbo where they are prone to safety risks; their position is not secure, and they are in constant fear of being forced to leave the camps or leave Lebanon at any time. They are also unable to work formally. Employment of Syrians is now mostly restricted to construction, agriculture and cleaning services, but getting a work permit is difficult. Women have no access to non-farm work for local cultural reasons.

Refugees’ livelihoods are heavily dependent on humanitarian aid, as well as earnings from seasonal employment in the farm sector. Agricultural work is not regulated and has problems with respect to long hours, low wages and irregular payment schedules. The power imbalance between farm workers (mostly women and children) and labor bosses or landowners leads to potential denial of farm workers’ rights.

Child labor, particularly in the agricultural sector, is very widespread; nearly one third of the agricultural labor in Bekaa Valley comprises school-age children between 8 and 14 years, with the majority of these being girls. Among school age children between 6 and 14 years, only one-third attended school; the rest were out of school with the main reasons being to work in order to support their family, lack of facilities, and difference in curricula.

Overall, refugee households in the Bekaa Valley live below the poverty line. About 93 percent of households live below the poverty line of US$4 a day per person. The food security situation is subject to seasonality. In summer, food security is not as much of a problem as in winter, mainly due to the greater availability of agricultural and non-agricultural income sources. Refugees also suffer from a lack of sanitation and access to health services.

Drawing on the study’s findings, the most effective approach is to find ways of enabling Syrian refugees to access agricultural assets: land and livestock. Proposed interventions can improve the livelihoods of Syrian refugees in Beqaa Valley:

Access to rental land

Access to land offers the most important opportunity to ensure refugees’ food security. This can be achieved by renting land. However, refugees cannot do this without third party support. Renting land depends on trust and Syrians who have long-term connections with the Lebanese community are renting land. This practice can be extended to more refugee families through the support of civil society organizations that can rent land on behalf of Syrian refugees and allocate that for their food production and income generation. To ensure that the impact of the scheme is spread widely across refugees, a group of Syrian refugee families would be assigned to cultivate 1–5 dunums (or 0.1 hectare) each, depending on the amount of land rented or initial funds available. These families would cultivate the land with short season vegetable crops of their choice, providing multiple harvests per year. The tenants would repay the rent over time as they harvest the crops. In the second year, a new group of refugee families would be given the chance to cultivate the land. The role of the civil society organization is crucial here to maintain commitments and payment of rent to the landowner and to make sure that the program runs smoothly. The effects of the program on the livelihoods of the refugee family could be easily monitored and measured.

Training in GAP

Training in good agricultural practices (GAP) is crucial to enable refugees to maintain food production, reduce costs and achieve a good income from the rented land. Hence, the land rental scheme should be supplemented with intensive training on vegetable production and agronomic management by other Syrians, who are already farming in Beqaa through share-cropping. This training should be organized by research or development organizations with posts in Beqaa, such as the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI), Arcenciel, and others.

Small ruminant enterprises

Syrian refugees have good experience in small ruminant rearing as many refugees had small ruminants before they came to Lebanon. Their knowledge of how to raise animals allows them to keep a few animals in the camp. However, this practice is currently informal and faces many problems. The proposed intervention would provide a few goats or ewes (the exact number to be determined based on minimum income to be generated) to each family. The refugee families that receive the animals would be given training in animal husbandry, health and feed management. The families would have a shared shed, and joint herding and grazing to minimize the impact of the animals on the area.

Dairy processing

Syrian women have good skills in processing milk and making a variety of products which can be sold locally. A small dairy processing unit with standard tools should be established in Terbol, or in other small towns that have high concentrations of refugees. The aim of this facility would firstly be to provide a training facility to women, and secondly to allow women who are able and willing to bring their own milk and process it under hygienic and safe standards and sell it through their social networks within the refugee camps. If the Lebanese find these workshop products interesting, they can also become a market for the goods. The dairy training workshop should be managed by an international or national organization with capacity and know-how.

In spite of the efforts of the international community, and particularly the host countries, the situation for Syrian refugees remains unsatisfactory, with no sight in end to the conflict. In Lebanon, there are particularly serious concerns on legal protection, integration and participation in economic activities, equal pay, work conditions and workers’ rights, gender wage gaps, child labor, and access to education and livelihood opportunities. This is a multi-dimensional complex problem with social and political undertones engulfing the whole region. Practical actions that increase the income-earning capacities of Syrian refugees in Bekaa is of the highest priority to improve the situation.

Dr Al Zoubi presented her findings at a recent workshop that examined the livelihoods and inclusion of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan in this booklet. You can learn more about her work in raising awareness about the challenges confronting female agricultural workers here

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About the author(s)
Saja Taha Al Zoubi
Visiting Researcher and Postdoctoral Fellow, Christ Church

© Saja Taha Al Zubi (photos taken during filed visit 2016-2017)