Home Opinion Why investing in refugees benefits host communities and the refugees’ country of origin

Why investing in refugees benefits host communities and the refugees’ country of origin

Enabling refugees’ development enables society at large

by Karolina Lindholm Billing

“We, the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, cannot take it anymore as the hunger is in our body, and the body of our children was ruined because of the lack of food and the quarantine. The evidence of our commitment to the general mobilization and the quarantine is that none of the refugees caught the virus. We committed and prevented the spread of the Coronavirus, but where is your commitment to us especially in this holy Ramadan month?”

Cited above is the message sent by more than one hundred Syrian refugees in Lebanon to UNHCR in mid-April 2020. It echoes the call of hundreds of thousands of other men and women living as refugees in villages and cities across Lebanon. Years of displacement with few possibilities to earn a stable income, coupled with monthly payments of rent, food, medicine and other basic expenses, has depleted any savings refugees carried with them as they fled to Lebanon. Instead, most have built up hefty debts to landlords, shop keepers, relatives and people in the community who have been kind enough to lend some money.

The conflict in Syria has imposed a heavy economic and social toll on Lebanon with decreasing transit trade through Syria between 2010 and 2018, and stalling service exports like tourism, as highlighted by the World Bank in The Fallout of War: The Regional Consequences of the Conflict in Syria. The marginal effect of the trade shock on GDP reached –2.9 percentage points in Lebanon between 2012 and 2018, while the refugee arrivals boosted GDP by 0.9 percentage points by increasing aggregate demand and labour supply.

Lebanon remains host to the largest refugee population per capita in the world, with an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, around 16,500 refugees of other nationalities, and more than 200,000 Palestinian refugees, according to the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (2017-2020). The solidarity shown by Lebanon and its people is remarkable and has been praised across the world as a contribution to the ‘global public good’ by the World Bank. The Lebanon crisis response has served as a model for the Global Compact on Refugees affirmed by the UN General Assembly in December 2016 and secured over $8 billion in funding since 2011 from the international community, according to Inter-Agency Coordination Lebanon.

Thanks to this, it was for some years possible to mitigate a sharp rise in poverty through a humanitarian safety net providing multipurpose cash and food assistance to the most extremely vulnerable families, and subsidizing health care.

But the socioeconomic impact of the economic crisis in Lebanon, COVID-19, and most recently the devastating port explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020, has tested the existing safety net to its limits and revealed its insufficiency in the new reality.

Data collected in April and May 2019 by UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP for the 2019 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees (VaSyR) found that
55 percent of the Syrian refugees were at that time living below the extreme poverty line (USD 2.9/ day) and 73 percent below the poverty line (USD 3.8/day).

Since then, the people in Lebanon have endured crisis upon crisis. The Lebanese pound (LBP) has lost nearly 80 percent of its value against the USD and the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has more than doubled between July 2019 and 2020, according to the Central Administration of Statistics. Moreover, Covid-19 lockdown measures have further accelerated the loss of jobs. Surveys conducted by UNHCR Lebanon between February and August 2020 with more than 22,000 refugee households show that around 65 percent have lost their livelihoods during this period and 70 percent of Syrian families have no working member.

The loss of incomes, coupled with the devaluation of the Lebanese pound and the simultaneous rise in prices has led to a dramatic rise in poverty over a short period of time, and an increase in debt. UNHCR’s surveys show that 92 percent of Syrian refugee families and 71 percent of refugee families of other nationalities have incurred new debt since March 2020, as they have been forced to borrow money to pay for basic needs like rent and food.

Today, well over 80 percent of the Syrian refugees are living below the extreme poverty line. At the same time, the funding available for humanitarian assistance reaches 31 percent of the total number of Syrian refugee families with monthly multipurpose cash and food support, and an additional 17 percent with food assistance only.

To cope with the extreme poverty, families are reducing their food consumption and spending on health care, at the same time as more and more are being evicted from their homes because of inability to pay the rent.

The situation is particularly acute for elderly refugees and those with a disability or a critical medical condition. In our surveys, this target
group reports lack of food (87 percent), shortage of medicines (65 percent)
and inability to afford health-related costs (60 percent) as their main
concerns. Poverty has also compelled many parents to take their children out of school to work in exploitative conditions. The risk is even higher this
academic school year when there is the additional challenge of managing online schooling.

These negative coping strategies will have longer- term negative effects on people’s physical and mental well-being and children’s development and possibility of future success.

A recent illustration of the desperation is the spike in refugees trying to reach Cyprus by boat to seek international protection or reunification
with family members living there, citing the sheer inability to survive in Lebanon as the main motivating reason. Since mid-July, hundreds of Syrian refugees, as well as a growing number of Lebanese have attempted to escape the hardship in this dangerous way. A few have made it, but the majority have found themselves in distress at sea and a number, including children, have lost their lives.

Reversing the rise in poverty and the erosion of resilience against a multitude of risks requires not only an expansion of existing programs that
alleviate the impact of poverty, but also new approaches. In formulating its approach and advocacy, UNHCR is guided by the Global Compact on Refugees that looks at comprehensive and whole-of-society responses to refugee situations. UNHCR also uses the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which recognizes that its goals and targets should encompass all people.

While it could appear counterintuitive, in times of shrinking resources and economic downturn, the inclusion of refugees in economic activities and
social protection not only contributes to recovery, but is also key to the realization of solutions for refugees outside Lebanon. This has been documented by various studies like Impact of Humanitarian Aid – UNDP and UNHCR (2015); The Mobility of Displaced Syrians (2019) – World Bank; and The Fallout of War (2020).


  1. Include refugees in economic growth and job creation strategies to enable them to become contributing and self-sustained members of a society that needs to recover, generate new infrastructure and reinforce its productive sector. It has been amply demonstrated that economically active refugees are consumers, and more confident in their capacity to repatriate and re-establish themselves and provide for their families back home, compared to families who have been depending on aid.
  2. Include refugees in social protection frameworks and programs to enable their equal accessin policy and practice – to basic services, including social services, health care and education. The internationally defined “social protection floor” is for all human beings, regardless of their nationality or status.
  3. Expand the cash safety net for vulnerable refugees and Lebanese who cannot support themselves while the economy recovers. They cannot wait any longer. The existing cash safety net for refugees is grossly insufficient, as indicated earlier, and needs sustained humanitarian funding. It simultaneously needs to be expanded through contributions from development funding sources, because this is about chronic poverty alleviation. Furthermore, the safety net for refugees needs to be consistent with an expanded safety net to alleviate the poverty of a growing number of Lebanese.

Around 50 percent of Lebanese are estimated to now be living in poverty and the competition for resources for survival between people and communities is becoming increasingly fierce and fueling tensions. The safety net for Lebanese is at best embryonic and needs a major overhaul, now. Supporting one community in need and not another can only fuel inter-communal tensions and feelings of injustice and neglect. In order to prevent a further deterioration of services and instability in Lebanon that will take long to reverse, efforts should focus on developing a medium- term strategy to both address structural problems and mitigate the adverse effects of the crises on individuals, whoever they are. Creating conditions in which these men, women and children can live safe, secure and dignified lives and develop their human capital will benefit both Lebanon and its recovery, and the development of the refugees’ home country.

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Karolina Lindholm Billing

Karolina Lindholm Billing is the Deputy Representative (protection) at UNHCR in Lebanon.

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