Syria Refugee Influx Taxes Lebanese Economy and Nerves

Abu Faruq, a kiosk owner in an upscale Beirut district, does not hide his opinion about the influx of Syrian refugees: "Lebanon is occupied by foreigners," he grumbled. "They're ruining us."

As the conflict in neighboring Syria stretches into a third year, a wave of refugees has flooded Lebanon, stretching its economy and testing its resources as well the nerves of its citizens.

The United Nations says that at least 474,000 Syrian refugees have entered Lebanon, but experts say the figure could be closer to 700,000, in a country with a population of more than four million.

"May God be with the Lebanese people... Lebanon can't take them all," Abu Faruq said.

Ali, a taxi driver, is equally incensed, saying the influx threatens his livelihood.

"They're taking our customers," he said.

"Some of them are working as drivers without a license. No one stops them, no one can say anything."

Economists say the influx of refugees, and the conflict they are fleeing, has had a negative impact on Lebanon's economy.

Nassib Ghobril, chief economist at Lebanon's Byblos Bank, reeled off a string of alarming statistics: a 17.5 percent drop in tourist arrivals last year, following a 23.7 percent drop the year before, declining industrial exports, nosediving foreign direct investment (FDI) and a fall in both consumer and investor confidence.

"Consumer confidence dropped 37 percent in 2012, after a 29 percent drop in 2011, and FDI in Lebanon decreased by 68 percent in 2012," he told Agence France Presse.

"These are record lows since 2007," he added, saying that inflation was also on the rise.

And yet Syrians inside Lebanon are spending, packing cafes and restaurants in Beirut's trendy Zaitunay Bay, and encouraging landlords to demand ever higher rents in an already hot property market.

Half of the cars parked outside two serviced apartment buildings in the city have Damascus license plates.

But economists says the Syrians' consumption is not nearly enough to cover the overall losses to the economy.

"The impact is certainly a net negative," Ghobril said.

Lebanon's government is also feeling the pressure directly because it subsidizes basic goods such as bread and flour, and services like electricity and healthcare.

And the refugee population is growing at an alarming rate, with UN figures showing it has more than doubled since January, when it stood at around 200,000 people, to 474,461 in mid-May.

Not all those arriving are poverty-stricken. Some came early, rented homes and bought cars, enrolled their children in local schools and even started businesses.

In southern Sidon, a former Damascus resident who declined to give his name has set up a supermarket with a Lebanese partner on Quds Street, now home to several Syrian-run businesses.

"I left because of the shelling and the problems," he said, dragging on a cigarette.

"The profits just about cover the rent with a bit to get by, but in the future, if there's a solution in Syria, I'll definitely go back with my family."

He said locals have been receptive, and 32-year-old Fady Qambaz, a Lebanese citizen working his vegetable stand nearby, insists he has no problem with the newcomers.

"We say welcome to them and I hope God helps them, they're not doing anything wrong and we have to help them."

Other Syrians have had less luck and are forced to stretch their savings, stopping daily at local moneychangers to see whether the exchange rate is any more favorable.

Others have resorted to selling their valuables to jewelers like Bilal Abu Harb, who has a shop in Beirut's Hamra district.

"They have a child who needs to see a doctor or they need to pay their rent and they don't have any money," he said, rifling through a box filled with simple gold rings and pendants.

"It's really sad to see. When a man comes with his wife, you see they have tears in their eyes when they're selling, it's really terrible for them."

For those whose money has run out -- or who never had any to start with -- begging is the only option.

Near Abu Harb's shop, Syrian women clutching children mingle with shoppers and diners, hoping for a handout.

One woman stands dressed in a black overcoat, her face covered with a black veil that leaves only her downcast eyes visible.

Her arms are outstretched, one hand open for donations, the other simply displaying her Syrian passport.

Source: Agence France Presse

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