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Lebanon on the Brink

The influx of refugees is creating a new class of poor

by Raed Rafei

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With one hand, Rose holds tight to the curly-haired girl with inquisitive eyes. With the other, she carries empty plastic containers in a plastic bag. As she does every Thursday, the 30-year-old mother waits with her 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca, for lunch for her family.

Around them, dozens of people gather in the hall of a dispensary that doubles as a soup kitchen several days a week. Rose and Rebecca, along with most of those waiting for food, are not refugees displaced by the multiple conflicts shaking the region around Lebanon. They are impoverished Lebanese nationals who have always lived in Naba’a, a Christian suburb of Beirut.

In the past three years, more and more Lebanese have joined the ranks of the poor because of the influx of an estimated 1.5 million refugees from neighboring Syria — a staggering figure, representing one refugee for every three people already residing in Lebanon. International organizations and local government officials describe the impact of the refugee crisis on the country as “disastrous” because of fierce competition for jobs, inflation of food prices and rental costs, a slowing economy and growing needs that have overwhelmed social services, infrastructure and government resources.

Increasingly, the Lebanese population perceives the Syrian presence in the country as an unbearable burden. In turn, Syrian refugees, many of whom have lost their homes and family members in the ongoing civil war that has destroyed their homeland, speak of an increase in negative attitudes toward them and complain about abusive work conditions and high rents.

Although the resultant tensions between refugees and host communities remain contained for the moment, experts say there are growing risks of the situation becoming unmanageable.

“At the social level, the explosion is going to happen,” says Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. “It’s inevitable. Poverty is escalating and the needs are growing.”

According to the latest statistics released by Lebanon’s Ministry of Social Affairs, 8 percent of the population lives below the low poverty line ($2.80 a day) and 28 percent live below the high poverty line ($4 a day). An August 2014 study showed another 170,000 Lebanese citizens sank below the low poverty line.

In recent years, the government started a program to help the most vulnerable Lebanese with food coupons, health assistance and support for children’s education.

“There are entire new generations that are being raised in poverty,” says Dr. Jean Mrad, director of the National Poverty Targeting Program. Dr. Mrad concedes the $28 million yearly budget of the program is far from sufficient; an additional $55 million is needed to support 350,000 Lebanese over the next three years.

The roots of poverty in Lebanon long predate the start of the Syrian conflict. Years of political instability and longstanding economic problems have decimated the middle class in the country. The conflict in neighboring Syria has only exacerbated existing problems.

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