By Racha El Daoi and Rebecca Crombleholme
“The coronavirus has made the financial situation much worse for us refugees. I used to work at a restaurant but lost my job as the pandemic hit,” explains Samer, a Syrian refugee and father. “Now, I’m not able to provide for my family anymore.”
In crisis-hit Lebanon, life is a struggle for everyone. There are fewer jobs, schools have been closed and food prices are sky-high. But it’s even harder for refugees who don’t have savings or personal items to sell. Losing their one thread of protection – the roof over their heads – has now become a daily reality.
A country facing economic collapse
Despite the resilience of its people, the unprecedented economic crisis in Lebanon is pushing the population to breaking point.
Last year saw nationwide protests against government corruption, economic mismanagement and poor public services. The country entered 2020 in fragile condition.
And then, Covid-19 arrived. Strict lockdown measures were introduced, and many people lost their jobs. The Lebanese currency sharply decreased in value, and the costs of goods increased dramatically. Finally, in August, a massive explosion hit Beirut port, causing extensive damage to the entire capital city.
Lebanon hosts one of the highest numbers of refugees per capita in the world. This has put additional pressure on the small country’s infrastructure and public services. The government has implemented strict policies to restrict refugees’ ability to work.
Crackdown on foreign workers
As per official government policy, access to formal work for refugees in Lebanon is limited to three sectors: agriculture, construction and cleaning. The General Security Office (GSO) requires Syrians who wish to work in Lebanon within the permitted three sectors to obtain a “pledge of responsibility” signed by a Lebanese sponsor, who is then held liable for their actions. As a result, it is very difficult for Syrians to get access to formal work or to acquire and maintain legal stay without a sponsor.
Starting in June 2019, the Ministry of Labour (MoL) implemented an initiative targeting undocumented foreign workers, which lasted for several weeks. It resulted in numerous fines and shop closures, with negative repercussions for struggling Syrians and Palestinians working informally.
Memories of home
Randa is a mother and Syrian refugee living in Lebanon. The last thing she wanted to do was to leave her beloved home in Syria. Owning her own home meant that she was never threatened with eviction.
“I had my own pretty house. It was big and fully equipped with furniture and electronics,” Randa reminisces. “I loved ironing because I would see my whole village from the window in the corner where I worked.”
But when the lives of her family were put at risk, she decided that they must flee to the safety of Lebanon. She never imagined the challenges that awaited them.
“My husband used to take care of our family and was a very responsible person, but since he left us, I am the head of the household,” says Randa. She was forced to depend on her brothers and oldest son to provide for the family, but they lost their jobs following the crackdown on foreign workers. They now have no source of income.
Still in debt
Randa has already been displaced five times since she left her home in Syria; she knows what it means to have to leave her home. This constant state of insecurity has not become any easier.
“Without enough money we couldn’t afford the rent, and our landlord threatened to evict us,” says Randa with fear in her voice. “He repeatedly insulted us and tried to confiscate our furniture.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) intervened through support from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) under the Collaborative Dispute Resolution programme to negotiate with Randa’s landlord to postpone the eviction. He initially agreed on but then quickly changed his mind.
“The landlord refused to cooperate, so I had no choice but to leave my home. I am still in debt to him,” she explains.
How NRC supports families at risk of eviction
Collaborative Dispute Resolution (CDR)
NRC intervenes with CDR activities in cases of housing disputes between refugee tenants and property owners to mitigate eviction threats and strengthen the security of tenure of refugee households. The CDR intervention is often the first line of response to an eviction threat and aims to assess the eviction case, inform the parties involved on HLP rights and responsibilities, including the need to follow due process of law for an eviction. CDR also offers a facilitated negotiation in order to postpone eviction deadlines, reschedule payment of arrears and draft new lease agreements.
CDR interventions have proven to be effective in reducing eviction risks in the short run. However, due to the root causes of the eviction threat (lack of work and consequent inability to pay rent), this approach alone cannot replace a long-term final solution. Therefore, CDR should be paired with complementary assistance (ex. cash assistance) to increase the ability of the tenants and owners to cope with the evolving situation and improve security of tenure.
Cash for rent (CfR)
CfR as a conditional cash modality aims to support households’ financial means to secure rent and avoid evictions. The modality provides direct cash assistance to households or property owners in the form of monthly payments for at least three consecutive months. While during the Covid-19 outbreak, health-related vulnerabilities were crucial in the selection of households, CfR is also intended to support individuals facing individual protection risks, including gender-based violence and child labour.
Threatened with homelessness
Samer, 30, fled Syria with his family in 2013, and is now in a similar situation to Randa. He previously worked in a restaurant but lost his job when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. “I’m not able to provide for my family anymore,” says Samer regretfully. His family has also been threatened with eviction.
“The relationship with my landlord has generally been okay but due to the financial situation I was three months late with our rent payment, so he threatened to evict us,” says Samer.
“I was given 10 days to pay or leave. But how could I pay my rent with no money?” he asks. “I saw the whole world collapse in front of my eyes. With no job and income, I had nowhere to go with my family.”
“People can only think about their own families now”
The current circumstances are also difficult for Samer’s two children. Although they are too young for school, the constant isolation at home is affecting their wellbeing.
“We are not spending time with anyone and I can see that my children are more frustrated since the coronavirus,” Samer says. “We are friends with our neighbours and used to help each other out, but the situation is worse for everyone, so no-one is able to look after anyone else anymore. People can only think about their own families now.”
“My wife is pregnant, but we can’t afford to pay for the medications she needs because of the increase in prices. We are surviving by borrowing money to buy basic goods such as vegetables and other food items,” Samer adds.
What we are doing to help
We have been able to support both Randa and Samer, but unfortunately the support is temporary. For both families to live in security, they will need to find a long-term solution.
“NRC negotiated with my landlord to postpone the eviction and supported me with ‘Cash for Rent’ assistance for three months,” Samer says. “Without that, we would have ended up on the streets without any protection.”
“My family and I feel safer now thanks to NRC. It’s reassuring to know that we have the coming months covered. However, if the coronavirus situation prolongs and I can’t find a job, I fear that we will be at risk of eviction again,” says Samer.
Dreaming of long-term security
Meanwhile, Randa has been able to find an alternative place for her family to live. But she’s worried about the future.
“Last week I moved into a new place where the rent is lower. The property owner has submitted the necessary documents and NRC is now assessing my eligibility to receive cash for rent support,” says Randa. “The new landlord is nice to me, but I am still anxious that we will not be able to afford the rent in the future. If my son doesn’t find any work, we will end up on the street.”
For both Samer and Randa, the most important thing is to figure out a way to provide security for their families: a roof over their heads, food on the table, and a place for their children to go to school.
“For the future, the only thing I hope for is that life would become easier so that I can secure a decent future for my children,” says Randa. “I want to be able to give them what they need without worrying about tomorrow.”
Randa believes that this is no longer possible in Lebanon. “This can only happen if we can resettle to another country,” she says.
This feeling is shared by Samer. “I hope that one day my family and I can resettle to a third country. I want to be able to provide for my children and give them an education,” he concludes.
After years of displacement, evictions are a harsh reality for many refugee households in Lebanon. It leaves families like Randa’s and Samer’s living with a constant sense of insecurity.
*Names have been changed upon request