Syrian Miriam Abdulkader set herself on fire in front of the U.N. relief agency offices in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli to protest against difficult living conditions for refugees. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: No longer confined to border villages, Syrian refugees in Lebanon have become a strikingly noticeable feature of daily life. While affluent Syrians are seen shopping and having lunch in the trendy Hamra district of Beirut, its streets are also lined with those less fortunate.

Some women sit on the road along with their young children, hoping a passerby will show them some pity. Wherever you go you can see young men doing manual labour and construction work.

A Lebanese man passes by a construction site in his car and rolls down his window. “Are you enjoying Lebanon?” he shouts sarcastically.

The young boys stop their work and look at him with weary eyes, then they continue sawing away at wooden rods.

Many Lebanese have welcomed the refugees with open arms, sympathising with their plight. However, many Syrian refugees say they have been battling with Lebanese xenophobic attitudes towards them.

Lebanon is officially home to 18 different religious sects and has a long history of sectarian strife. The Syria crisis across the border has only exacerbated these tensions, drawing mostly Sunni Lebanese to sympathise with the Syrian opposition fighting Bashar Al Assad’s government, and most Shiites to staunchly back the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that is fighting alongside Syrian forces.

Many refugees say they have been confronted with frightening xenophobic attitudes by some Lebanese, many of whom ironically were in 2006 welcomed in Syria with open arms following Israel’s war on south Lebanon.

On top of the traumatising experience of these Syrians who fled the fighting, many children haven’t been to school for years and many women are left alone while their husbands, fathers and brothers are fighting in Syria.

One particularly horrific story is of Mariam Abdul Kader, a Syrian mother of four from Homs. After repeatedly seeking aid from the UN relief agency in Tripoli to no avail, she set herself on fire in front of their offices. Syrians who officially register with the UN often have to wait up to a month, before they are vetted by workers to see if they qualify for aid.

According to a report released on Wednesday by the International Labour Organisation, a third of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are unemployed.

The report says most refugees suffer due to low wages and harsh working conditions. Most of them lack skills and education, it adds.

The assessment found that the average monthly income for a Syrian refugee in Lebanon is almost 40 per cent less than the minimum wage of $448 (Dh1,645). Women Syrian refugees were particularly vulnerable to unemployment with over two thirds of women unable to find a job.

Both Syrian refugees and Lebanese residents are suffering from the lack of an unregulated labour market. Many Lebanese who are already suffering from unemployment have become more desperate to find work as Syrian refugees struggling to support their families take jobs for very low wages.

Rima, a 40-year-old Lebanese housewife, says she feels really sorry for the poor Syrians in the country, but her husband who works as a carpenter has been unable to find work in months.

“Every time there is a regional crisis, we Lebanese are forced to bear the brunt of it,” she told Gulf News. “The Syrians are working for half the wages my husband would earn,” she said. “What are we supposed to do? We cannot continue like this!”

“The large supply of low-wage Syria workers causes further deregulation of the labour market and expands informal unemployment resulting in downward pressures on wages and the deterioration of working conditions. In turn, this negatively affects Lebanese host communities and Syrian refugees who are both increasingly unable to live in dignity or maintain sufficient access to livelihoods,” the ILO report states.