Lebanon's Syrian Dilemma
11 September 2023
Lebanon hosts far more than its fair share of Syrian refugees. Although the actual number is unknown, the Lebanese state estimates that more than one in four of the country’s residents is Syrian: a staggering figure, particularly in a tiny country hit by a crippling economic crisis. For ordinary Lebanese, who suffer from shortages of basic goods and services, this presence indeed represents an unmanageable burden.
Such misgivings, however understandable, capture only part of the picture. If Syrian refugees weigh on some parts of the economy, they are vital to holding up others. In fact, they are so deeply embedded, in so many sectors, that it is hard to imagine the economy without them. That has been true for decades, but never more so than today. Hence the disruption when, in spring 2023, a wave of deportations led many Syrians to shut themselves at home—and Beirut’s bustling delivery services all but ground to a halt.
Syrians and Lebanese also have more in common than they tend to assume. Both lose much from an economy built on informality and the exploitation of most workers, regardless of their nationality. Both tend to wish that Syrians could go anywhere but Lebanon: whether west to Europe or east to Syria, if conditions in either direction were not so punishing. In the meantime, both have to gain from finding a better accommodation: one that lets Syrian workers play a constructive role in reinventing Lebanon’s broken economic model.
Many Lebanese employers are quick to stress just how much they rely on Syrian labor—even when they otherwise resent the presence of refugees. Many such workers are skilled, and willing to take on jobs that Lebanese would rather avoid—whether due to status, expertise, or working conditions. Indeed, Syrians can be seen across the country tackling arduous jobs involving long hours and physical risks. Vegetable markets are stocked with produce picked by Syrian women, who toil in the sun from early in the morning until the evening. The solar panels sprouting on Lebanese rooftops are often installed by young Syrians, who carry backbreaking concrete blocks to the tops of buildings.
Critically for Lebanese employers, Syrians make do with lower wages, which they may combine with other sources of income, be it aid or remittances. Weak or nonexistent social protection often makes for exploitative relationships. A Syrian in her twenties recalled: “I used to work as a cashier, alongside other Syrians as well as Lebanese. After 2019 [and the devaluation of the Lebanese pound], our salaries got so bad that Lebanese employees left. Only Syrians remained.”
The Syrian workforce is also highly adaptable. Syrians step in to fill daily or seasonal positions in key sectors like agriculture and construction. They move around the country as needs arise: A Syrian farmworker might pick potatoes in the planes of the Bekaa valley during the springtime, then move to the heights of Keserwan to pick tomatoes in the summer. When covid hit, a myriad of delivery drivers—most of them Syrian—stepped up to zip essential goods to households across the country, a legacy that is now part of everyday life.
Syrians are only one of the foreign workforces that Lebanon depends upon. In 2020, the International Organization for Migration estimated that some 20% of Lebanon’s total workforce was foreign—including sizable cohorts of African and southeast Asian laborers. Syrians, though, are unique for just how much they have in common with their Lebanese employers. They speak similar dialects of the same language, share cultural references, and have a long history of economic and social exchange.
They are also far more convenient to employ than many other nationalities, who must be brought from overseas and registered via convoluted paperwork. As a result, Syrian labor’s centrality to Lebanon goes back decades: In 1947, the then Lebanese Minister of Public Works acknowledged that 25% of the laborers on the building sites supervised by his ministry were Syrian—as discussed by historian John Chalcraft in his authoritative research on the topic.
All of this makes Syrian workers an essential pillar of Lebanon’s way of life, especially as the economy crumbles. Lebanese employers have leaned more heavily than ever on cheap and expendable labor. This allows them to keep prices down for customers, who in turn buy products that are de facto subsidized by underpaid Syrian workers. Of course, not all employers pass the benefit down to consumers. A Syrian mason scratched his salt-and-pepper beard and explained angrily: “I used to get ten dollars per meter when I installed stones. Now I only get around four. The contractor still invoices my work at ten, and pockets the difference.”
While countless Syrians do the same work for less money, others have stepped into new and occasionally unexpected roles. Agricultural labor, for example, is changing in nature. Although it has long been dominated by Syrian workers, the growing risks of running a farm has led some Lebanese landowners to hand over to Syrians the actual management of their land. “Lebanese farmers are afraid of losing money if they harvest their own land,” said a successful farmer in Zahle, resting on the hood of his massive jeep. “So they prefer to lease it for a fixed sum to Syrians, who then assume the risk.”
Indeed, as old economic structures break down, Syrian workers are helping shape new systems and interconnections. Areas that host large concentrations of Syrians have become cheap service hubs for residents of all stripes. In places like the Bekaa town of Bar Elias or the Beirut suburb of Burj Hammoud, Syrians and Lebanese alike find everything from low-cost appliances to affordable food, barbers, tailors, and shoe stores—sometimes undercutting business in more affluent parts of the country.
Meanwhile, in a country that has long been struggling to manage its garbage, Syrians contribute to a nascent circular economy. They sort through trash that might otherwise wind up in the Mediterranean, and sell recyclables to Lebanese companies—which in turn export to countries like Turkey. They offer repair and maintenance services, in particular in electronics and electricity, to satisfy a growing demand among Lebanese who seek to make the most of their shrinking budget.
Unwittingly, Syrians also bring hard currency to a Lebanese economy thirsty for cash. Between 2015 and 2022, international donors granted Lebanon 9 billion dollars to respond to the refugee crisis, according to UNHCR
. In 2020, Reuters
revealed that Lebanese banks had leveraged parallel exchange rates to hoover up half of the UN’s contributions that year—about 750 million dollars. Alongside aid, Syrians also receive remittances from relatives abroad. This injects much needed dollars and euros into the system, and allows employers to retain workers on otherwise unlivable salaries: "I wouldn’t be able to live on what I earn without help from my sister in Berlin,” complained a Syrian saleswoman in her twenties. Cash handouts from the UN play the same role: They don’t suffice to cover a family’s needs, but enable its members to work for a lesser pay.
Finally, and critically, it would be a mistake to reduce Syrians’ role to that of working class and exploited labor. Their position in Lebanon’s economic tapestry is far more diverse. They include artists and creators, heads of organizations and companies, students, tourists, and a diverse array of skilled trades practiced both in person and online. “I work remotely for a company in Qatar,” said a Syrian engineer who has chosen Lebanon as his home. All of them, of course, are also consumers: buying locally, renting apartments, and using Beirut’s airport to connect with the world.
All of the above, however, has a hidden downside. By holding together Lebanon’s crumbling economy, Syrian labor also enables some of this system’s most dangerous flaws. The abundance of cheap foreign labor, combined with weak or absent regulations, allows Lebanese employers to cut costs by slashing wages and working conditions for everyone. This hurts Lebanese, who are liable to be replaced by Syrians who are easier to exploit. A Lebanese saleswoman, eight-months into her pregnancy, described how she was dispatched from her job at a cakeshop: “The shop closed during covid. When it reopened, I was told there was no job for me. They had hired two Syrians, who between them received the same salary I used to make.” The Lebanese model pits vulnerable workers against each other, in an exploitative economy harmful to all.
This relationship also negatively affects Lebanese employers. Precarity and informality makes Syrian workers endlessly flexible, but it can make them equally unreliable. Many will easily switch employers, even for a marginal increase in salary. Longstanding employees can suddenly be detained, deported, and barred from entering Lebanon. A Lebanese entrepreneur in the northern town of Bcharré noted the potential for chaos: “A Syrian here killed a Lebanese, so young residents rushed to expel all Syrians. They even came to my house to kick out the concierge. But the same youth refused to pick the apples that we relied on refugees to pick—so we had to call them back!”
Meanwhile, the surplus of Syrian labor allows Lebanese businesses to avoid desperately needed improvements to unproductive practices. In its most recent five-year strategy
, Lebanon’s Ministry of Agriculture acknowledged that this sector remains dependent on outdated techniques offset by cheap working hands. Likewise, the construction sector has been booming for decades thanks to underpaid labor, despite having long ago reached saturation: As much as 23% of Beirut’s properties were empty in 2019, according to a study
by Lebanese urbanists Mona Fawaz and Abir Zaatari.
All in all, the presence of skilled and cheap Syrian labor represents a wasted opportunity in an economy begging for reinvention. Syrians bring in not just capital but competence, in areas as diverse as agriculture, construction, and manufacturing. They also bring the traditions of an industrial economy and the related expertise. But today, Syrians are mostly reviled by a system that fails to capitalize on that resource other than through short-sighted exploitation. Most Lebanese workers aren’t better off, but that’s the point: A gradual shift toward healthier work relationships would benefit everyone, by reducing the scale of social dumping.
* * *
Until now, Lebanon has failed to capitalize on its abundance of skilled, cheap Syrian labor. Provided the right environment, these workers could easily help revitalize Lebanon’s defunct economy. Syrian workers offer the competence—and even some of the capital—needed to kickstart underdeveloped sectors like food processing, pharmaceuticals, and textiles. They might also help diversify and consolidate Lebanon’s tourism sector: Syrian expats increasingly rely on Lebanon as a hub; when they pass through, they often stay in local hotels and eat in Lebanese restaurants.
But how to enable such a shift, in a country that is increasingly eager to push Syrians away? Ideally, officials in Beirut would recognize that the current system hurts Lebanese too—and thus work toward a more humane and coherent framework for labor in general. That may be too much to hope for, in a system paralyzed by gridlock on far less contentious topics. A starting point, then, would be to simply acknowledge this group on which Lebanon relies so thoroughly. Politicians do score points through summary deportations or by confiscating the motorbikes of Syrian deliverymen. But it comes at a cost, not just to Syrians but also to the Lebanese employers and consumers who depend on them.
Lebanon’s foreign backers have a role to play, too. Western states—which have long refused to accept their fair share of refugees—must at least link their aid programs in education and vocational training far more rigorously to Lebanon’s economic needs. In charting that path, the best place to start is listening not just to Syrian workers, but also to their Lebanese peers—and the Lebanese that employ them both.
Illustration credits: Iron workers by Reginald Marsh painted in 1923 from Chrtisties's. Licensed as public domain.