In the village of Saadnayel in the Bekaa Valley, 25-year-old Mohammed Hoss says refugees now outnumber locals. Around the village, there is no one whose state of mind has been unaffected by the refugee crisis, and the tension, having built up week after week, is now palpable.
Hoss himself might not be here were it not for the fact that the Lebanese economy has been stuttering for more than a year. A mechanical engineering graduate, he says he and his peers find it nearly impossible to find jobs in their field. Thus, in absence of qualified employment offers, he runs a small shisha cafe, where he actually benefits from the influx of Syrians willing to work for less than the locals.
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He employs both a Syrian and a Lebanese worker, but pays the Syrian a lower hourly wage. “What are you going to do, if you can employ a Syrian for $200 a month and a Lebanese for $400? It’s good for the companies, but not for the workers,” he says.
An elusive equilibrium
But while local businesses are benefiting from the reduced cost of labor, competition for jobs and other resources is fuelling resentment between the Syrian population and some of the young men in the village. Fights have broken out, Hoss says.
“The people that live here are losing their patience and can’t control their anger. When there’s no work, it’s tiring,” he says.
Saadnayel shopkeeper Milham Shebassy is also caught up in the pressure cooker of an increasingly divisive social environment. On the one hand, fewer Lebanese customers come into his shop since Syrians began to be a major presence. On the other, the Syrians who linger outside his store are now his customers. His shop accepts World Food Programme vouchers and Shebassy says he has around 200 regulars.
“At first I was angry with the refugees being here,” he says. Now, he’s made peace with their presence, and claims to be one of the few shopkeepers who have not raised their prices.
The refugee flood has intensified local market demand and international aid monies have boosted the habitually underpowered rural Lebanese economy. But the Syrian refugees themselves have also started new enterprises. These grey economy businesses brought sharp competition to the area, which is a real concern for the Lebanese authorities.
In April, a security cell was established between the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA), and the Ministry of Interior to investigate, among other things, businesses started by Syrians in refugee areas. So far they have only looked at seven different towns in the East Bekaa, where they found that 377 new businesses have been opened by Syrians since early 2012.
The investigation found that some of the new competitors pushed local operators out of the market. “Some of these businesses are pretty big,” says Makram Malaeb, the program coordinator for the Syrian Crisis Response Unit at MoSA. According to him one restaurant discovered by the cell was so large and offered food at such low prices that it forced “four or five” established restaurants near it out of business.
However, it is the smaller businesses that are causing problems in villages like Saadnayel. New sandwich shops, grocers, mechanics and other services are opening up and Syrians desperate for income are able to undercut local businesses. With profits already low, this creates a ‘race-to-the-bottom’ effect, Malaeb says.
The result is friction between the Lebanese hosts and Syrian refugees, which according to MoSA has led to a rise in attacks against refugees. The ministry sees the solution in applying the registration requirements and regulatory frameworks for businesses to the unlicensed newcomers, but it lacks both the resources and the authority to close them down.“We are asking for an implementation of the law: that they register with and abide by the laws of the ministries of tourism, health, labor and economy,” says Malaeb. “There’s a balance between offering a humanitarian environment and making Lebanon seem an attractive option for further displacement,” he adds.
With efficient inter-ministerial cooperation not being one of the hallmarks of the national administrative mills, the task of investigating and regulating the new refugee economy may be a major test of Lebanon’s ability to manage the refugee crisis, which by all evidence from the Eastern Bekaa is going to stay with the country for years.
In the meanwhile, the Syrian refugees in and around Saadnayel have more immediate worries. Just outside of Saadnayel 43-year-old Khaled is not feeling too welcome.
Along with four other families, he and his wife are being forced to leave the building they have been living in for a year and a half after fleeing Homs, because the landlord no longer wants Syrians renting from him.
“The Lebanese consider the Syrians to be beneath them,” Khaled laments. He tells Executive that the treatment of refugees by locals has become worse in recent months. Most of the other families in the building, a stripped down shell of a home partway through construction, have no idea where they will go. Virtually all Syrian refugees who spoke with Executive in and around the village say that they feel looked down upon, and they resent it. They point to what they say was a different and much kinder treatment that the Syrians afforded to the Lebanese who came to Syria during past times of strife in Lebanon.
However, the two countries’ relationship is historically fraught, and includes long-held resentment from many Lebanese for the years when Syria imposed its military presence. As the strained coexistence between refugees and locals stretches on, it is unpredictable how well the Lebanese will manage these old feelings and also cope with new frustrations that the tight quarters is creating on both sides.
“Lebanon is 10,450 km2. How many people can you possibly fit in it?” says Mohammad Hoss. With refugees dispersed among the population, and heavily concentrated in poorer areas, their presence has begun to feel like a weight. Nonetheless, and despite increasing friction, there also continues to be large-scale sympathy for the refugees among the majority of the Lebanese, and an acceptance that they are not to blame for the current situation. When it comes to the question who, then, is to blame, there is always the Lebanese perception that their government should be solving problems but is not. “The disadvantages [of the refugee influx] are because of the government. In any other place, there would be somewhere to provide for the refugees,” says Hoss.