The multi-layered turmoil currently unfolding in Lebanon has sparked much global concern. As well as its impact on the population at large, the country’s 1.5m refugees are at particular risk. Comprising over a fifth of Lebanon’s 6.8m people, their plight has been dubbed a “crisis within a crisis”. Speaking to us for an Agora Radio podcast, Dr Filippo Dionigi of University of Bristol argued that Lebanon’s situation stems from a convergence of three ‘mega-crises’ and three long-term issues. Combined, these six factors have had an overwhelming impact on Lebanese people and refugees alike.
The Economic crisis
Due to years of political and economic governance mismanagement, Lebanon’s economy collapsed in 2020. The resulting devaluation of the Lebanese Lira has had far-reaching impacts, from reduced foreign currency reserves causing a shortage of basic goods to the rationing of medical supplies for surgeries and lack of medicine in pharmacies. Unemployment rates are high, and it is estimated that more than 50% of the population struggles to access essential supplies such as food.
The pandemic hit Lebanon just as it hit the rest of the world, bringing both social and economic consequences. It exacerbated pre-existing issues like the country’s unequal, largely privatised, healthcare system, and lockdowns had an especially harmful impact on the refugee population, deepening these inequalities. Refugees are only allowed to work in three sectors: agriculture, construction, and waste management. These jobs are often seasonal and fall under irregular employment, resulting in the UNHCR recently reporting that almost 90% of Syrians displaced in Lebanon now live in poverty.
2020 Beirut explosion
The 4 August blast in the Lebanese capital was a demonstration of negligent management that resulted in hundreds of people losing their lives and thousands losing their homes. Speaking about the accident, Dr Dionigi said that “never before has the recklessness of the Lebanese governmental system been so clearly displayed”. This disaster, which occurred only a little over a year ago, traumatised many in Lebanon and showed the irresponsibility of the state more clearly than ever before.
The current Lebanese power-sharing model of government originated through colonial domination by France, and is based on sectarian and confessional rules. This system is so fractionalised that it is not able to implement meaningful reform. Despite country-wide protests against the system, this is the current institutional context of Lebanon.
Just as many Lebanese people have been protesting against the political system, there have also been widespread protests against corruption. New anti-corruption laws have been adopted to some extent, in particular following the 2019 protests. The lack of trust in the government has led to doubts as to whether this will bring consequential changes, however.
Hezbollah is a political and military actor that is unique to Lebanon in that it holds a military force that is significantly stronger than the Lebanese army itself. The organisation undermines the legitimacy of the state by holding power over some government institutions without being held accountable or responsible to the Lebanese people.
Together, these six factors present huge challenges for Lebanon and its people. While the future remains very uncertain, Dr Dionigi finished by affirming that “the future of Lebanon is in the hands of the Lebanese” and that “the greatest hope for Lebanon is its society and civil society”.
If you would like to learn more, listen to our full conversation with Dr Dionigi here.
Hannah Kuehn and Shona Warren are co-Heads of Agora’s Migration Programme.