Lebanon has kept its borders open for war-affected Yemenis, many of whom struggle to get by as the country grapples with economic chaos.

When Ahmed* travelled to Lebanon from Taiz in Yemen in 2014, he had high hopes for his career and future.

He enrolled for a degree in biochemistry at a Lebanese university, thanks to a government scholarship that covered his fees and accommodation. At the time, his parents were able to send him a basic maintenance stipend. But that came to an end two years later, despite the family’s best efforts. Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, had become the theatre of some of the fiercest fighting in the seven-year war between Iran-aligned Houthi rebels and government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition. He had to become a lifeline for his family back home.

“After what happened in Yemen things became so tough for them,” the 26-year-old told TRT World from Beirut, music blasting in the background of the shop where he’s been working for the past few months. “So I dropped out of college and started working. Illegally, of course.”

Since then, Ahmed says he’s been hopping from job to job in order to send the much-needed remittance money to his family in Yemen. But as Lebanon’s economic crisis grinds on, leaving 80 percent of its population living below the poverty line, keeping afloat has become a daily struggle. The Lebanese currency has lost as much as 90 percent of its value since 2019, while inflation has skyrocketed and the average cost of food increased by more than 400 percent between October 2019 and June 2021.

“I am working on finding better opportunities to work in another place, as it’s so difficult in Lebanon,” Ahmed says, “We get paid so little, approximately 30 dollars a month. I used to be able to send money to my family, but now I am only covering my living expenses.”  

Every year, hundreds of students from Yemen study at Lebanese universities, accounting for the largest chunk of the Yemeni community in the country, estimated at around 500. But no one is keeping an official count and Lebanon has remained one of the few countries in the world that Yemen citizens can enter on a tourist visa they can get upon arrival at Beirut airport - provided they can show they are carrying $2,000 in cash and proof of a hotel booking.

Since the start of the war, Yemeni students in Lebanon have seen their sources of support dry up – whether it’s government scholarship payments that no longer come in regularly, or family income sources depleted due to the ongoing economic crisis in the country, where millions are food insecure and at risk of famine.

Yemeni students have protested a number of times over the years to raise their concerns, but their voices have been largely ignored. The economic crisis in Lebanon has only contributed to a deterioration of the situation, as those, like Ahmed, who are forced to drop out and find work mostly have no choice but to join the informal labour force.

“When you go apply for a student residence permit at the General Security Office, they ask you to sign an official document that you're not going to be working in Lebanon,” says Ali Al-Dailami, a researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. Applying for a work permit is possible only upon meeting certain conditions including receiving pre-approval before arrival in Lebanon. “And if you get caught, you can get deported,” Al-Dailami says.

From student to unrecognized refugee

Al-Dailami’s research into the Yemeni community in Lebanon found that some students have decided to approach the UNHCR instead to apply for asylum and resettlement. 

“When students find their families can't provide for them anymore, what they do is they go to apply because they need support,” Al-Dailami says. 

The number of Yemeni asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon remains negligible, however – just 104 in 2020. An additional 25 had been recognised refugee status. Many, Al-Dailami says, see the process as daunting, long and leading nowhere, particularly as resettlement options are limited. While four million people have been uprooted due to the crisis in Yemen, Yemenis did not figure among the top ten nationalities resettled in the EU in 2020.

“This country has placed more powerful and wealthier states to shame by opening the doors to lots of refugees from these war zones in the region,” Al-Dailami says. A country of barely seven million, Lebanon hosts more refugees per capita than anywhere else in the world, the majority being Syrians.

Ahmed plans to find a way to resume his studies in biochemistry.

“I don’t know how many years it’s going to take me to graduate,” he says, “but I think leaving Lebanon at this time is better. I may find other opportunities for work that allow me to continue my studies.” 

“We are not treated like Lebanese students, we have to pay [our student fees] in dollars now,” he adds.

Going back to his worn-torn country is not an option either, particularly as, he says, having lived in Lebanon means he’d be seen as “taking sides.”

“Lebanon is safe, for now. You can live here, but you need fresh dollars from outside,” he says. “You work, you pay for your food and your stay. There is nothing much else you can do.”

[Note: Ahmed* is a pseudonym used to protect his identity due to his status.]

Source: TRT World