Lebanon Marks Milestone with Millionth Refugee
Lebanon Marks Milestone with Millionth Refugee

As the millionth refugee was registered in Lebanon, thousands of school-aged children were setting off to work in the Bekaa Valley.

There were similar stories in Beirut, Tripoli and any number of Lebanese towns and cities. Syria's three-year war has turned a generation of pupils into providers.

The lack of young men that can support refugee families is striking. Thousands are in Syria, fighting the government and its allies. Thousands more have escaped the conflict as refugees but have been badly injured and are unable to work. Only the Syrian government knows how many are languishing in state prisons.

For the families that have found refuge in a neighbouring country, it often comes down to the children to contribute to the family budget. The legions of Syrian children working in Lebanon are working for a pittance.

Most of the million refugees that have registered with the United Nations have done so because they're in dire need of financial support. If they are lucky enough to find work, they are more likely to accept the wage they are offered.

According to a new report by the International Labour Organisation, the average salary for a refugee in Lebanon is just $277 per month. It's barely enough to provide for one person, let alone a family.

Moreover, the same report showed that the Lebanese minimum wage is $448 per month, which suggests two things.

Firstly, Syrians are being exploited. Lebanese employers have been presented with a vast supply of labour, all desperate to work in any kind of job. They can take their pick of whoever will work at the lowest possible wage. It's a cold calculation but on the whole Syrians are grateful that they are able to work at all.

But the arrival of a huge and desperate labour supply has caused a stir among the resident population, who are finding themselves priced out of the labour market.

Many Lebanese complain that Syrians, especially children, are willing to work for lower wages and are taking jobs in manual labour, agriculture, retails and in the services sector. Construction workers have lost out on work as their employer would prefer to hire a Syrian for three or four times less what they would have to pay a Lebanese man.

The ILO report said that the influx has caused a downward spiral on wage levels that shows no sign of stopping. "The large supply of low-wage Syrian workers causes further deregulation and expands informal employment resulting in downward pressures on wages and the deterioration of working conditions. In turn, this negatively affects Lebanese host communities and refugees who are both increasingly unable to live in dignity or maintain sufficient access to livelihoods," said Mary Kawar, Senior Employment Specialist at the ILO.

The complaints are also common in Jordan, Syria's neighbour to the south, which has registered more than half a million refugees. It has led to public protests and a number of Jordanian MPs called on the King to close the border to any new arrivals from the war-ravaged country.

It's not just displacement in the labour market that has upset the communities hosting Syrian refugees. The huge influx of families has led to a spike in property rental prices. Rents have doubled and even tripled in towns and cities near to the Syrian border in Jordan, while similar stories have come out of Lebanon too.

Syria's neighbours are struggling to cope with the influx and Lebanon is suffering the most. Syrian refugees now make up a quarter of Lebanon's resident population. As it registered its millionth refugee in Lebanon, the United Nations announced that Lebanon has now become the country with the highest rate of refugees per capita in the world.

But in reality, there's little that the international community seems willing to do about it, other than fling more money at the problem. While some European countries such as Sweden and Germany have allowed a limited number of vulnerable refugees to resettle, the vast majority of refugees have been left to survive in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

For now, the countries baring the biggest burden will have to adapt, as they have been since the crisis escalated in 2011. Tackling Lebanon's labour market challenges remains one of the key issues facing the ILO.

"This report reveals that the response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon needs to take on a holistic and comprehensive approach which addresses Lebanon's pre-existing labour market challenges and balances the humanitarian support with the developmental needs of Lebanon's host communities," said Frank Hagemann, Deputy Regional Director of the ILO ROAS.

"The focus should be on creating decent work opportunities through actions that regulate informal labour, protect minimum wages, promote safety at work, provide social protection and encourage sustainable enterprise development," he said.

With the conflict showing no signs of abating and Lebanon receiving 2500 new refugees daily, the challenge is only going to get bigger.