A Syrian refugee camp in Akkar, Lebanon, was housing 165 people in April. Even amid Lebanon's hardships, many Syrians prefer to stay rather than return home. File Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Aug. 27 (UPI) -- Syrian refugees, who fled to Lebanon for safety when an uprising in 2011 quickly turned into a civil war, are reluctant to return home even with their host country on the verge of collapse.
With the sharp economic decline in Lebanon and Syria, the refugees are left with few options, but returning to a Syria in ruin is not one of them, at least as long as Lebanon still holds.
Although the fighting in Syria has settled down and violence has subsided considerably, many still fear for their safety in the absence of a political settlement and a proper reconciliation process. With no reconstruction prospects in sight, they are further discouraged by the worsening humanitarian and economic crises there.
"It is still better here than in Syria," said a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of security services in his country.
The man, who has been working as a concierge in an apartment building in Beirut since 2012, recently smuggled his wife and three of his children back into Lebanon.
"I paid 2 million Lebanese pounds to a smuggler to bring them back from Syria through one of the illegal crossing points in Hermel" on the eastern border, he told UPI. "I took big risks by smuggling them in that way, but I had to because I could no longer afford to pay for their living there and survive here."
When he first brought his family from the Homs region eight years ago, the war was still raging in Syria. The regime forces were forced to retreat, and opposition forces, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, captured the area where they live.
"We felt safe in Lebanon... I had a job, we got food assistance from the UNHCR, and my children were enrolled in schools," he said of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
But in 2019, when the Nusra Front left and the regime regained control of the Homs area, he sent his family -- except his now 18-year-old son -- back to Syria "as we feared that the regime confiscates our empty house there."
By moving back to Syria, his family lost their refugee status and any assistance from the UNHCR. By entering Lebanon illegally, they have no record with the Lebanese security authorities.
"The situation in Lebanon is getting worse. Everything is so expensive, and medications are not available, but we have to bear all that for the sake of our children," he said.
If the situation further deteriorates in Lebanon, he will have to consider returning to Syria, at risk of his son being taken for military service, or try to immigrate to any other country. "We really don't know what to do."
Hope to return
Lebanon hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrians, of whom 851,717 are registered with UNHCR, according to the agency's figures from May. It also registered a total of 64,714 voluntary Syrian refugees returning from Lebanon since 2016, with a peak of 22,728 in 2019. However, the number of returns may be significantly higher.
UNHCR spokeswoman Dalal Harb said the return of the Syrian refugees is a complex issue, with voluntary repatriation remaining the preferred solution.
"Most Syrian refugees hope to return to Syria. However, it is not about their wish to return but when they would be able to return," Harb told UPI. "And 'when' is related to a variety of factors: safety and security, shelter, access to essential services such as hospitals and schools and livelihoods."
An UNHCR study showed that half of the 65 percent of Syrian refugees surveyed have indicated that their house or apartment in Syria are uninhabitable.
Harb said the refugee agency has been providing "life-saving assistance," consisting of 400,000 Lebanese pounds (nearly $20 at the black market rate of 20,000 LL for 1 U.S. dollar) per month to the neediest, in addition to 100,000 LL from the World Food Program for each member of the family.
Almost 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty, up from 55 percent in early 2019, according to the United Nations.
The Lebanese, who have been supportive and generous with the Syrian refugees, now stand in no better situation.
The severe economic crisis has sunk the Lebanese pound by more than 90 percent and pushed 78 percent of the 6 million population into poverty, with an estimated 36 percent living in extreme poverty, according to a study by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in March.
With poverty rates increasing on both sides, the fear of competing over the limited resources is increasing. Lebanon is experiencing severe fuel and medicine shortages while food prices are skyrocketing.
"Tension already began in densely, overcrowded areas in the [eastern] Bekaa and other areas," Nasser Yassin, a professor and head of the Crisis Observatory at the American University of Beirut, told UPI. "The Lebanese see that Syrians are getting assistance, even if it is a minimal one ... while they don't have any."
Yassin, a specialist in social policy, said the situation has become worse as a family of five now needs 100,000-110,000 LL per day for food.
"Even with the decline and the economic collapse, it is still better for the Syrian refugee to be in Lebanon rather than in Syria ... at least they can still find jobs here," he said. "If the conditions in their home country improve, this is what will make them return, but there is no such willingness from the Syrian side to take them back and feed them.. So better keep them in Lebanon."
Only a political settlement and a post-war reconstruction drive that would generate jobs would dissipate Syrian refugees' fears and encourage them to return to their home country.
"If a political solution is achieved, and rebuilding Syria begins, there will be stability and lasting calm ... That would encourage the refugees to return," Ola Boutros, Lebanon Crisis Response Plan Deputy General Supervisor at the Ministry of Social Affairs, told UPI.
Boutros said Lebanon's efforts to secure an organized and safe return of the Syrian refugees, which began in 2018, stumbled when the authorities were forced to close the border because of an alarming spread of COVID-19.
"The current crisis and all the accumulating pressures are delaying the return process and preventing the government from dealing with it as a priority," she said. "The refugees issue needs a regional solution backed by the international community... It needs a working plan and a mechanism that would guarantee their return within five years and staying there."