Bekaa’s Brewing Conflict: Syrian Refugees vs. Syrian Workers

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Syrian refugees living in small shelters located in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Friday, January 23, 2015

The relationship between host communities and Syrian refugees in Lebanon is going through a thorny phase. Most analyses discussing the economic effects of the displacement of Syrian refugees have missed an important point: the people most affected by the influx of large amounts of refugees from Syria into Lebanon are none other than the Syrian workers who lived there before the crisis.

The influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon can no longer be seen from a purely political or security-based point of view. There is an evident socio-economic struggle on the ground, in marginalized areas, which is gradually intensifying. International organizations have realized that securing safety and stability for Syrian refugees in Lebanon cannot be done without developing these marginalized areas, and providing support to poor Lebanese residents who share the refugees’ tragedy.

Keeping this in mind, international organizations have started to allocate part of their aid to the most needy Lebanese citizens. They have also launched development projects in a number of towns in an attempt to ease growing tensions among the disadvantaged from both countries. However, they were late in detecting the socio-economic tensions arising from the refugee crisis. In fact, 311 violent incidents were recorded in four months (between July and October of 2014); 134 incidents were classified as isolated acts of violence, 69 as acts of social discrimination; 17 incidents arose from disproportionate social and economic development, and 91 were classified as politically motivated incidents.

In the Bekaa region alone, 13 acts of social discrimination, 41 acts of violence, and 35 politically-motivated incidents were recorded. These figures only cover the reported incidents. A recent report entitled, “Between Local Patronage Relationships and Securitization: The Conflict Context in the Bekaa Region”, compiled by “Lebanon Support” in cooperation with the UNDP, implies that the figures are much higher.

The focus on the Bekaa region can be attributed to the fact that 86 percent of the refugees are distributed among its most marginalized areas — the same place where 66 percent of marginalized Lebanese citizens live. The Bekaa region hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, an estimated 409,000. To put this in perspective: in 2007, before the Syrian crisis,
the approximate number of residents in the Bekaa was 489,865, according to the Central Administration of Statistics.
The number of the poor and marginalized has doubled in the Bekaa region over the period of three years. Further, the residents have faced economic difficulties resulting from the closure of export routes through Syria and the fragile security situation. According to the report, the economic difficulties in Lebanon result from the Syrian crisis in general, rather than the influx of refugees. It shows that the economic repercussions on the labor market in the Bekaa have affected the semi-skilled labor force, since refugees are competing with young contractors, particularly in the construction sector.

However, the group most affected by the influx of refugees are the Syrian workers who resided in Lebanon before the crisis. They are suffering from the increased competition over low-paying jobs that are usually filled by non-Lebanese residents. This has led to a sharp drop in their already low wages. A Lebanese farmer in the Bekaa says that, due to the increasing number of Syrians in the region, he can now choose workers, and increase working hours without increasing pay.

The report notes that, due to the absence of a clear policy by the government to regulate the presence of Syrian refugees, the latter have become subject to the decisions of landowners, municipalities, relief associations, and volatile government policies. A number of refugees spoke about the humiliation they suffered in front of their families when a group of young men raided their homes and camps without legal permission. They said that they were beaten, but did not report the incidents for fear of reprisal. The constant fear of attack has prompted refugees to seek protection from the landowners or influential political parties in the region. This protection does not come free of charge. The refugees are often exploited, especially by the landowners, who hire them to work on other farms in return for very low wages.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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