Lebanon's economic crisis, which is massively impacting the country's education and health sectors, has created a "lost generation" of children who have been "robbed of an education", the deputy representative for Unicef Lebanon has warned.
While Syrian refugee children are disproportionately affected by the country’s instability, Lebanese children are also struggling and have been “stripped of their dignity”, Ettie Higgins told the Irish Times.
Things are “extremely difficult” for Lebanese people but “catastrophic” for Syrian families, 95 per cent of whom are now living in extreme poverty, she added.
There are an estimated 700,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon while 30 per cent of school-aged Syrians have never been to school, according to UNHCR data. The number of children attending school has dropped substantially in recent years amid widespread strikes, civil unrest, the Covid-19 pandemic and following the 2020 Beirut port explosion.
It’s estimated 750,000 children do not attend school, 63 per cent of whom are non-Lebanese.
"You see (Syrian) children on the streets working ever day but when you pass them they don't even look at you because they have no confidence left," said Ms Higgins, who has worked with Unicef in Africa and the Middle East for more than a decade.
“The sheer humiliation of their lives, the violence they suffer on the streets, what does this mean for the future of region? It’s very scary. You have a lot of very angry young people who haven’t gotten a basic right to education and they’re growing up illiterate. It’s really tragic, it’s a lost generation.”
Unicef warned last year that 77 per cent of all households in Lebanon do not have enough money to buy food. This rises to 99 per cent among Syrian refugee households in Lebanon.
In January, the World Bank warned Lebanon's economic crisis was leading to the "disintegration" of the country's "post-civil war political economy", including the collapse of basic public services, "persistent and debilitating internal political discord" and a mass brain drain.
About 40 per cent of medical staff - around 2,000 nurses and 1,000 doctors - have left Lebanon during the crisis. Thousands of teachers have also left the country or have stopped attending work because their tiny salary no longer covers the cost of petrol for the commute.
The World Bank says Lebanon's financial and economic crisis could possible rank in the top three "most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century". In 2021, inflation was estimated at 145 per cent, the 3rd highest globally after Venezuela and Sudan.
Talar Khatchikian, a senior project assistant with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), says life has become “unmanageable” in Lebanon. “Over the years, we had war and civil unrest and then there came the explosion, which literally took away our lifelong earnings and efforts to rebuild ourselves. Lebanese people have been very resilient over the years but we’re tired now. I’m talking as a Lebanese person myself, we don’t want to be resilient anymore.”
While many Lebanese have welcomed Syrians into their country over the years, civil unrest and economic instability has made the continuation of this support difficult. “It’s become a very shaky situation and there’s this question of why is there no attention from a global perspective,” said Ms Khatchikian. “So we do feel forgotten.”
The crisis is also causing tensions between the settled population and refugees, with Syrians increasingly becoming a "scapegoat" for the country's woes, said Mathieu Luciano, IOM head of office for Beirut. The IOM has helped resettle more than 120,000 Syrian refugees abroad over the past decade, mostly in Canada, Australia and some European countries including a small number in Ireland. However, Lebanon is still hosting around 1.5 million Syrian refugees - the highest population-refugee ratio in the world.
Outside Mr Luciano’s Beirut office, most of the streets lie in complete darkness as night falls. There’s no street lighting and only around two hours of public electricity available per day. Those who can afford it pay extra for a private generator but the lack of power has made remote online education and working almost impossible during the pandemic.
The IOM has now shifted its focus to support both Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese people. Support from the international community is now calculated by need, not nationality, said Mr Luciano.
“That’s been a big shift, for a long time we were here to assist the Syrians. But obviously things have changed so we respond regardless of nationality. The crisis here is major, then situation is difficult for everyone in this country.”