BAR ELIAS, LEBANON — Maysoun and her kids were watching TV when their house exploded. It was 2012 in Damascus, Syria, and a plane had just bombed their section of town. The stones of their home had crumbled, hitting Maysoun in the head. In excruciating pain, she looked at the blood on her body and was sure she was dead. Then, she looked at her husband, and she saw what death really looked like. Most of the stones had crushed him, his head was badly bleeding, and parts of his body were all over the ground.
But Maysoun’s four kids were still alive. So she took them and ran. For a year straight, they slept wherever they could—on the floors of schools and hospitals, sometimes outside—as the Syrian civil war ravaged on. With little else to lose, Maysoun found a way out in 2013: she could head to neighboring Lebanon. With her one-year-old in arms, and three other children by her side, she travelled by foot to cross the border.
Maysoun came to Bekaa Valley, a farming region in eastern Lebanon with the country’s highest concentration of Syrian refugees. Her family joined a community of Syrians who were living in Bar Elias, a small town where they slept on thin cots in a one-room shelter and used a hole in the ground for a toilet. The United Nations refugee agency gave them $80 per month, which was enough to live off rice. But Maysoun couldn’t afford to send her kids to school. So when two of her daughters turned 17 and 18, respectively, she married them off. “I didn’t want them to get married, they were young” she told me. “But I didn’t have enough food and money. It was still better than being in Syria.”
That was, until they had to run again.
The Lebanese Armed Forces destroyed the Bar Elias shelter in July as part of the nation’s new campaign to push Syrian refugees out of the country, which has included destroying shelters, deporting refugees, and cracking down on unauthorized Syrian workers and businesses.
Since the crisis began in 2011, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians have poured into the tiny country with an already crumbling economy. Now, one in four people living in Lebanon are Syrian, giving it the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. With Syrians occupying ever more jobs, space, infrastructure, and medical care, Lebanon has been struggling to bear the costs. As a consequence, the number of Lebanese living in poverty has risen by nearly two thirds over the last eight years, according to the UN’s Development Program (UNDP).
The problem is, no other countries are willing to take some of the load off of Lebanon. President Bashar al Assad’s regime doesn’t want any refugees back; it’s killing, arresting, and torturing many of the Syrians who return. Countries worldwide are slashing resettlement slots, especially the United States, where the Trump administration has all but shut the door on Syrians. In other words, the world has left Lebanon to carry a burden it cannot manage.
Now, with millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon who are soon to be forcibly evicted, they will have little choice but to return to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises or go somewhere else where they are neither wanted nor welcomed.
How did Lebanon end up in this situation? After the 2011 uprisings in which masses of Syrians demonstrated against their government, Assad’s regime cracked down on dissenting citizens through the use of bombings, torture, and chemical weapons. It forced 5.6 million people to flee—and another 6.6 million to be displaced internally.
Most went to the nearest places they could that had something approaching stability. Turkey resettled the majority of Syrian refugees, taking in more than 3.6 million, followed by Lebanon and Jordan, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
But Lebanon took a far different approach than the others. While Turkey and Jordan set up formal refugee camps, Lebanon had an open-border policy. As part of that approach, it didn’t establish any camps and wouldn’t grant any Syrians with official refugee status.
Part of its rationale was to avoid repeating history. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Palestinians who resettled in neighboring countries, like Lebanon, stayed permanently. Today, roughly seven percent of the country is Palestinian. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati was also wary of potential conflicts that could emerge given Lebanon’s power-sharing system; the government is comprised of Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites, and the influx of mostly Sunni Syrians could upset the existing balance.
But Lebanon’s plan to offer modest relief while riding out the crisis backfired. For one, it didn’t expect the conflict to last this long. It also didn’t expect world powers to refuse as many Syrians as they did. While European countries resettled about one million as asylum seekers or refugees, with Germany accounting for more than 500,000 between 2011-17, the United States accepted a fraction of that: America resettled just 17,380 Syrians between 2011-16, according to UNHCR.
Then came President Donald Trump, who imposed even harsher restrictions with his Muslim-targeted travel ban. In 2018, the U.S. resettled just 28 refugees from Syria. Only one was from Lebanon.
Amid this climate of anti-migrant sentiment—as it has become increasingly clear the international community will not offer any more relief in welcoming Syrians—Beirut has ramped up its efforts to drive them out. In April, at least 16 Syrians were sent back after arriving at the airport. And in May, 301 Syrians were deported, according to Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency.
At the same time, the government is enacting draconian policies intended to drive Syrians out.
It’s handing over Syrians caught at the border to the Assad regime, putting them at a high risk of being arrested, tortured, or forced to join the army, according to Human Rights Watch; it’s arresting refugees who lack valid legal residency papers (at least 73 percent of refugees don’t have legal residency); and, this past spring, Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council ordered that refugees are not allowed to have structures made fully of cement. They must replace them with timber and plastic sheeting. Otherwise, the Lebanese Armed Forces will destroy their entire homes.
On July 1, Samira Ghazawi watched as the armed forces followed through with that promise, entering her settlement with bulldozers and demolishing more than 20 homes, including her own.
“I was afraid and cried,” Ghazawi, who is nine years old, told me. “I was scared of the men’s guns, and I thought, ‘maybe my friends are in the shelters. Maybe they will destroy the shelters while they’re inside.’”
This experience only added to the trauma she has already endured. Six years ago, she and her sister were playing at their uncle’s house in Khalamoon, Syria, when a bomb destroyed their home and killed their parents. The orphans fled to Arsal, Lebanon, where they have shared a shelter with their uncle, his wife, and their four kids. Ghazawi told me she has trouble sleeping. When her head hits the pillow, she often thinks of her parents and starts to cry, and she worries what might happen to her current home while she’s asleep.
Indeed, over the last three months, Lebanon has forced the dismantlement of nearly 2,000 shelters in Arsal, according to the Lebanon Humanitarian INGO Forum (LHIF). The Lebanese Armed Forces have destroyed 20 of the shelters in Arsal themselves.
“The demolition of the residents’ structures is nothing more than harassment to make living difficult conditions of Syrians unbearable,” Hilal Khashan, a political studies professor at the American University of Beirut, told me. “The measure in itself cannot coerce the refugees to return to Syria. It has higher expectations. It aims at placing pressure at the international community and the U.S. to find a way out.”
The massive influx of refugees has clearly taken its toll on Lebanon.
Over the last eight years, the country’s poverty rate has skyrocketed as Syrians have been willing to accept lower incomes for longer hours and no social benefits. That’s led to lower wages and fewer job opportunities for the rest of the population, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Plus, without camps, refugees have had to live among the Lebanese public, spurring an increased demand for housing that has raised costs dramatically. In turn, many Lebanese are now the minorities in their own towns. In 56 jurisdictions, the population has more than doubled, according to UNDP, putting more pressure on the already deficient healthcare and education services.
“In all of our public reporting on refugee issues in Lebanon, we call on third-party states to increase or improve their resettlement programs so Lebanon is not left to bare the high share of the burden,” said Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon and Bahrain researcher with Human Rights Watch.
But resettlement slots are on the decline worldwide. Stephen Miller, the lead White House official for immigration policy, wants to virtually end all refugee resettlement in the U.S, period. And the Trump administration is already on the way there. The Center for Global Development found that U.S. refugee resettlement was down 73 percent in 2018.
As a result, the United States is leaving a vacuum while allowing the problem to metastasize. “There’s sort of two potential outcomes: the work doesn’t get done and people suffer, it engenders poverty and terrorism,” said Hady Amr, a former diplomat in the Obama administration who’s now at the Brookings Institution. “Or, other countries step in and fill the void, which sounds good. But if the U.S. is more or less missing from the table, then other countries get to set the global agenda, and we don’t.”
Worse yet, the administration’s abandonment of refugees has weakened its ability to pressure or encourage other countries to take some of the burden off of Lebanon. Since 1980, the U.S. has taken in three million of the more than four million refugees resettled worldwide.
“We were able to go to other countries and say, ‘Hey, we’re accepting all these refugees, you should do more,’” Amr said. “Now, it’s a lot harder for us to ask for them to step up and do more when we’re doing basically nothing.”
Khaled can’t sleep. Every night, he waits until his brothers and their kids, who he lives with in a tented settlement, go to bed. Then, he pulls out one of his favorite books—a collection of Shakespeare’s Sonnets or a Victorian classic—and reads until 4 a.m.
Six years ago, Khaled fled the war and came to Ghazzeh, a town in the Bekaa Valley. Although he lost everything since the start of the war—his home, mom, and fiance—he refused to give up on his dreams. He was accepted into Lebanese University and, every day, walked from his settlement to school to study English literature.
Now, the 26-year-old graduate wants to earn his master’s degree and become a teacher. But that’s impossible for him. To protect its limited job market, Lebanon only allows Syrians to work in three fields: agriculture, construction, and cleaning. Therefore, two thirds of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the poverty line (less than $3.80 a day), and more than half under the extreme poverty line (less than $2.90 a day). It’s no surprise, then, that Khaled can’t afford grad school.
He’d much rather live in America, but his chances are incredibly slim. Refugees can only be resettled if they’re registered with UNHCR, which only 924,161 are. Khaled is not. Even if he was, the odds would still be against him. Out of the 20.4 million refugees worldwide, UNHCR resettled fewer than one percent last year.
Khaled told me his only choice is to return to Syria, where the Assad regime is forcing men to join the military. “I want to join the army,” he said. “I want to die, because dying is better than life. I waited six years for hope in Lebanon. There is no hope.” Khaled’s descent into despair reflects the broader plight of Syrians, who are losing their last refuge as the rest of the world is shutting them out.
Like many others, Khaled has accepted his fate. Instead of getting on a plane to study in the United States, he will soon be boarding a bus back to Syria, where just last month more than 1,500 people were killed.
I asked him why he would return to such a dangerous situation. “I can’t find any other answer,” he said.