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Self-immolation Shows Despair of Refugees in Lebanon
Syrian refugee Bassam Hallaq sets himself alight on Sunday in Talbaya, in Lebanon’s Beqaa Governorate. (Screenshot)

Self-immolation Shows Despair of Refugees in Lebanon

Syrian barber had reached ‘dead end’ over debts and ‘couldn’t provide for family’

The suicide of a refugee in Lebanon highlights the distress of millions of unemployed Syrian nationals in a country suffering from a harsh financial crisis since long before the global economic downturn caused by coronavirus.

Bassam Hallaq, of Talbaya, in Lebanon’s Beqaa Governorate, set himself alight on Sunday. With almost no income and sinking deeper into debt for rent and groceries, he could not support his family, acquaintances say. He was taken to a hospital, where he died that evening.

A video of the 52-year-old barber as he self-immolated circulated widely on social media.

“Hallaq reached a dead end – he realized that the only way to save his family was if he killed himself so people would help his children and wife with food and shelter,” said Hasan, a fellow Syrian refugee who asked The Media Line to withhold his last name.

“He had debts of over $1,000 and couldn’t provide anything for his family,” Hassan said. “He was desperate.”

The harsh living conditions of the approximately 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon – a population split between refugees and residents − are related to policies implemented in the years before the spread of novel coronavirus.

“The UN High Commissioner for Refugees stopped aid for many refugees after determining that the budget could not cover them all,” Hassan said. “During the past five years, only 30% of the registered 950,000 Syrian refugees [in Lebanon] benefit from UNHCR food aid.”

He also points to more recent Lebanese policies regarding work and residency rights.

“Unlike in the past, Syrians now have to apply for a work license from the government, as well as provide a Lebanese sponsor, which is very difficult,” he explained. “They have to pay $200 each year for residency permits” if over 15 years of age.

Hassan adds that even before the imposition of stay-at-home orders to fight the spread of coronavirus, Syrians in Lebanon were subject to a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

“Now the global pandemic is affecting those Syrians who managed to find work one way or another for day wages….,” he stated. “They simply can no longer work, like most of the Lebanese who were also instructed to remain in their homes now.”

Marwan Iskandar, chief economic commentator for Beirut’s An-Nahar newspaper, told The Media Line that the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is indeed very difficult, as the economy, already buckling, cannot accommodate their very large numbers.

“The Lebanese government doesn’t even have the resources to test these refugees for COVID-19,” he said.

Iskandar adds that the number of Syrians in Lebanon who are infected with coronavirus remains unknown, and therefore no one can really assess the situation.

“The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted almost every sector in the country,” he noted. “The banking system does not operate normally.”

The United Nations had previously decided to support Syrian refugees in Lebanon with $2 billion, but only part of that has been forthcoming, Iskandar says.

“I believe that the Syrians who return to their homeland have better conditions than here,” he added. “The poverty rate in Lebanon exceeds 40%. The Lebanese themselves are struggling.”

Wisam Al-Nasser, a Syrian social analyst and social media expert based in France, told The Media Line that beyond the matter of poverty, the barber apparently preferred to die rather than go back to Syria.

“The Syrian regime brags and calls on refugees to return, saying it will take care of them,” he noted. “But this incident carries a message summarizing the true problem of Syrian refugees, where regardless of hunger, a lack of work and now the coronavirus pandemic, a Syrian chose suicide over going back.”

Nasser acknowledges that authorities in the Land of the Cedars sometimes violate the rights of Syrians, but adds that there are local organizations working to help them. At the same time, he says that Lebanon, with its financial crisis and limited resources, is incapable of bearing the burden by itself.

“The issue needs international cooperation; it requires international donations and solid programs to help the large numbers of refugees,” he said.

“There’s a regional failure, especially by those countries that are rich in resources, in addition to a failure by the UN and other parties that once financed the Syrian opposition,” he continued. “As soon as the political file became marginalized and entrusted to Russia and Turkey, the humanitarian file became marginal as well.”

On April 2, a man in the southern coastal city of Sidon also attempted to set himself on fire after being slapped with a fine for opening his shop in violation of the coronavirus lockdown.

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