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Syrian refugee children play together near tents at an informal tented settlement in Akkar, Lebanon, on Oct. 19, 2021.WALID SALEH/Reuters

Syrian refugees are struggling in Lebanon and their needs are increasingly being obscured by the broader Lebanese economic crisis, says a top official with the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Kelly Clements, the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, said Lebanon’s collapsing economy affects everyone in the country, but especially refugees.

“Because there is such a broad swath of Lebanese that are now suffering as well, refugees are kind of under the radar. But they continue to be among the most vulnerable,” Ms. Clements told The Globe and Mail.

The World Bank has described the economic meltdown unfolding in Lebanon as one of the worst financial crises in modern history. The country’s currency has lost 90 per cent of its value in less than two years, and its central bank has warned that it can no longer provide subsidies for fuel purchases because the payments have drained its foreign reserves. The recently formed Lebanese government has raised the price of fuel a few times as part of a gradual lifting of the subsidies.

Electricity outages across the country now last between 20 and 22 hours a day, while the costs of the private generators many rely on are steadily rising. The crisis has forced many Lebanese families to choose between generator power, medicine, food and education. Meanwhile, refugees are also suffering.

“The issues facing refugees in Lebanon are quite profound,” Ms. Clements said.

Lebanon’s dark days: In Beirut, blackouts and economic collapse test families’ endurance

The UN Refugee Agency released a report last month on the vulnerability of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. It says their living conditions are rapidly deteriorating, and that nine out of 10 are living in extreme poverty. Almost 60 per cent of Syrian refugee families in Lebanon live in dangerous, overcrowded shelters, the report says, and their risk of being evicted is increasing. In June, 49 per cent of Syrian refugee families in the country faced food insecurity, with two-thirds of families limiting portion sizes.

And Syrian refugee children are bearing the brunt of the crisis in Lebanon, according to the report. Thirty per cent of those who are school-aged have never had formal education. Primary school attendance dropped by 25 per cent among refugee children in 2021. And child labour is on the rise: At least 27,825 Syrian refugee children are working in Lebanon, the report says.

Ms. Clements visited Lebanon recently. She said she found the drop in school attendance to be the most disturbing aspect of the crisis. “We’ve got a crisis of the next generation in addition to the survival of the current one,” she said.

An encounter with a Syrian family in their home in Lebanon was, she said, one of the saddest she’d had in her 30-year career working with refugees.

The family of eight, including six children, live in an apartment in Beirut. The eldest child, a 16-year-old, had been at the top of her class, but could no longer go to school as her family struggled to make ends meet. Because of the lack of electricity, she couldn’t keep her cellphone plugged in long enough to maintain a charge. “They were worried about being kicked out of their apartment, not able to pay the rent,” Ms. Clements said.

Lama Mourad, an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, said the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon has deteriorated with the disappearance of opportunities for informal work amid the economic crisis.

“They were the backbone of the Lebanese economy with regards to agriculture, services, construction. … Now that equilibrium, that was not ensuring rights by any stretch, but was providing Syrians with a certain level of access to the Lebanese labour market, and some level of security of presence in the country, is really disrupted,” she said.

What little money Syrian refugees can earn from precarious labour is now worth even less, and they have to compete with Lebanese who are desperate for work, Prof. Mourad said.

The disruption in the labour market comes at a time of increasing conversation in Lebanon about forcing Syrian refugees to return to their war-torn home country. Prof. Mourad added that she is concerned that Lebanon’s economic troubles will present an opportunity for the Lebanese state to act on that idea.

“If international aid dollars and direct cash support continue to remain really low, and even the sort of very limited but accessible wages that they had access to in the Lebanese labour market are basically gone, what does that mean?”

Ms. Clements said the UN is getting fewer resources than it received just a couple of years ago, even as Syrian refugees’ needs increase.

“This is something that we need to, as an international community, continue to address and make sure that we have the kind of support that’s required for refugees, that frankly still can’t go home,” she added.

The Canadian government has committed a total of $4-billion in humanitarian aid and other assistance for Syria, Iraq and the surrounding region, including Jordan and Lebanon, since 2016, said Geneviève Tremblay, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada.

At a March conference on Syria hosted by the UN and the European Union, Ottawa pledged an additional $49.5-million for Syria and the surrounding region, raising Canada’s annual contribution for humanitarian aid, development and stabilization support for 2021 to $330.5-million, Ms. Tremblay said.

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