Whilst European leaders complain that Europe is reaching a critical point where it can no longer absorb any more refugees, and concerns over immigration have driven the UK towards an ignominious EU exit - with a population of just 4 million, Lebanon is home to more refugees than the whole of Europe combined. And this all in a country which has been unable to elect a president since 2014, has mounting levels of public debt, rising rates of unemployment, sectarian tensions, and water, rubbish collection and sanitation systems in a near perpetual state of crisis.
Despite these challenges, Lebanon has not collapsed. In fact, miraculously, it appears to be coping despite having the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world. So, what lessons can Europe learn from Lebanon? How is Lebanon managing with a population where one in four residents is a refugee?
Life is unquestioningly getting harder for refugees in Lebanon. Lebanese authorities have made residency and working permits increasingly difficult to acquire. Since the government changed its rules last year, registered Syrians must now pay $200 to renew residency permits, and Syrians without residency permits must now find a Lebanese citizen to sponsor them. Refugees are also now not allowed to work, unless it is in the sectors of agriculture, construction, or as cleaners/doormen - and again this permit requires a Lebanese sponsor, something which is increasingly difficult for Syrians to find.
Without permits, refugees are living and working in Lebanon illegally, and live in constant fear of being imprisoned or deported back to Syria. These laws deny refugees the ability to move freely, and makes it difficult for their children to attend schools. Living and working illegally is a reality forced on the majority of refugees, and this leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and ill-treatment at the hands of employers and landlords.
However, despite nearly every refugee we met having a story to tell about abuse, Lebanon has experienced no widespread protests or reports of systematic persecution. And despite the law denying many refugees the right to work, in practice many Syrians have been able to find jobs, however poorly paid.
This is largely owed to Lebanon and Syria’s extensive and long-standing informal networks between Syrians and Lebanese which existed prior to the outbreak of war. After a deal drawn up in 1993, Syrians were allowed to work in Lebanon without visas, meaning around half a million Syrians were working in Lebanon before the conflict began.
Many of the designers we met in Lebanon explained how the border with Syria barely existed for them before the war. Just two hours drive away, they would travel to Damascus frequently to meet up with artisans and work with them to produce new products. Since the war began, designers have simply brought production in-house, employing their own team of Syrian artisans in Beirut.
Lebanon has also been, and still is, dependent on Syrians for unskilled labour. By working illegally for low pay on farms or building sites, Syrians do work that few Lebanese are interested in doing. And so, despite what the law says, the authorities are happy to turn a blind eye to Syrians who are working without permits.
While the Lebanese government’s treatment of refugees has been far from perfect, Lebanon is nevertheless managing in extraordinary circumstances. By virtue of the number of refuges per capita alone, Lebanon is dramatic proof that Europe is able to take on more refugees. Lebanon has also shown that if refugees are absorbed into the economy, rather than keeping them in camps without the rights to work, refugees needn’t be a burden, but rather an important economic contributor.
International treaties recognise that refugees are a shared responsibility, and yet Europe has been shirking this responsibility, placing the greatest responsibility on neighbouring countries with the least resources to cope. Lebanon has been bearing up despite tremendous pressure, but it is unclear how much longer this can continue. More than ever before, Europe must step up. And that means you too, Britain.