Syrian refugee Mohammed surveys the fields of bright red strawberries visible beneath their protective plastic tunnels, which offer the promise of work, but soon they will all be gone.
Since fleeing war in Syria three years ago, the 38-year-old and his family of eight have lived precariously in Lebanon on his irregular earnings from seasonal farm work and rising levels of debt to stay afloat.
“I work here in the field. Sometimes I work for one, two or three hours, sometimes there is no work at all,” says Mohammed, who lives in a cluster of ramshackle shelters with 10 other Syrian refugee families in Jiyeh, a seaside town south of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut.
“I borrow money to buy clothes and other stuff for my children. We are big in debt. So we basically work to cover our debts.”
Almost seven years since the start of the conflict in Syria, the vast majority of the roughly one million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon now find themselves impoverished and in debt, with levels of hardship increasing each year.
The share of Syrian refugee households living in extreme poverty in Lebanon – defined as less than US$2.87 per person per day – increased to 58 per cent this year from 53 per cent in 2016, according to an annual vulnerability survey carried out by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, together with the UNICEF and the World Food Programme.
“Syrian refugees in Lebanon are barely keeping afloat. Most ... are extremely vulnerable and dependent on aid."
The proportion of families living below the Lebanese poverty line of US$3.84 per person per day rose to 76 per cent in 2017, while the number in debt remained staggeringly high at 87 per cent, the Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon study found.
The result is that families such as Mohammed’s are forced to make tough choices just to try to meet their most basic needs. Food insecurity affects more than nine in 10 Syrian refugee households, and Mohammed says they have had to cut down on the amount of food they eat in order to afford other essentials.
“We have health expenses – medicines. I have five daughters and they all go to school. We can’t stop them from receiving their education,” he explains. This mirrors one of the few bright spots in this year’s survey, which found that the proportion of children aged 6-14 enrolled in school rose to 70 per cent compared with 52 per cent last year.
With vulnerability increasing according to almost all of the indicators in the report, the situation is being compounded by a shortage of funding for humanitarian assistance programmes including UNHCR’s.
Mohammed’s situation was made worse in September when he was informed, due to a shortfall in funding for UNHCR’s humanitarian response in Lebanon, that the family would no longer be eligible for monthly cash assistance from UNHCR worth US$175.
“Syrian refugees in Lebanon are barely keeping afloat,” said Mireille Girard, UNHCR Representative in Lebanon. “Most families are extremely vulnerable and dependent on aid from the international community. Without continued support, their situation would be even more harrowing."
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Additional reporting by Charlie Dunmore in Amman, Jordan