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What do socioeconomic inequalities mean to adolescents living in Jordan and Lebanon?

Flipchart used to capture adolescents' reflections on inequalities @ GAGE

Insights from GAGE qualitative researchers

World Refugee Day 2022 encourages public awareness and support for refugees globally. Yet whilst this attention is often given to emergency humanitarian situations, the majority of the word’s refugees live in protracted exile in lower- and middle-income countries; it is therefore vital to understand how their challenges and needs change over time, and the consequences for development

This is the first of two blogs which reflect on adolescents’ experiences of inequality in Lebanon and Jordan in the context of protracted displacement. Whilst the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda calls for efforts to address gaps between the poorest and wealthiest within countries, mass displacement has exacerbated entrenched socioeconomic inequalities in Jordan and Lebanon over the past decade. Jordan is home to 2 million Palestinian nationals and after Lebanon, where Syrian refugees account for a quarter of the population, has the second largest number of Syrian refugees per capita in the world.

In this piece, Sally Youssef and Sarah Alheiwidi reflect on how young people in each country have responded to the consequent challenges for social cohesion and opportunities presented by these layered crises.

Kate: Sally and Sarah, what kinds of inequality did young people observe between refugees and host communities in each country?

Sally: Both refugees and host communities in Lebanon generally think the other community is getting more support than the other. Palestinian adolescents also felt that they were disadvantaged than Syrian refugees because of the focus of the international community on the Syrian conflict. Because of the economic crisis, Lebanese and refugee adolescents perceived they were both in the same situation; no one had any electricity, water, or rights. However, some Lebanese adolescents expressed resentment of Syrians because whilst they are in the same situation, there are no aid agencies routinely helping them. Despite this perception, Lebanese boys are not subject to the same pressure refugee boys experienced to leave education and work to help their families cope with economic vulnerability.

There was little mention by any adolescents of assistance from the state; whether or not you get any help was based on favouritism and connections. Refugee adolescents however felt that whilst they do not have same rights as citizens, the struggles of the Lebanese state to even support its citizens meant that they did not expect it to recognise their rights. Instead, they expressed their frustration at UNHCR and at countries in Europe which were in a position to grant them assistance and provide opportunities and rights that were lacking in Lebanon – but were not doing so. The hope of migration was common amongst adolescents, especially Syrian refugees.

Sarah: Much of what Sally mentioned is applicable to Jordan, except that there is no sympathy expressed by refugees about the plight of local people. Refugees are seen as receiving a lot of aid, with a focus on Syrians – in part because Palestinians have been in Jordan so long. Palestinians feel that they receive no assistance. The COVID pandemic and subsequent economic downturn has affected everyone in the country, but the perception amongst Jordanian adolescents is that the economic situation has changed the most for their communities, as refugees still receive aid without needing to do anything.

Syrian refugees do not have the same opportunities for work as the host community and feel obligated to accept lower pay for the same work. The lack of rights granted by the state was a concern for Syrian refugee adolescents and contributed to a sense of injustice; refugees are not permitted to buy a car or own a home despite living in Jordan often for many years.

Adolescent refugees also observed differences in the quality of education. Schooling in host communities is delivered in two shifts, with Jordanians taught first then Syrians, and the quality of the second shift was seen as being worse, leading Syrian adolescents to feel there was little point in continuing. Higher education is also very expensive so the view amongst many was that they might as well stop school now as they would have to stop eventually. Jordanians were more able to continue with education as they were not expected to work or forced to marry.

Sally: Syrian boys in Lebanon also believe its normal for them to accept what they are paid so that they can just get the job. They also think Lebanese men and boys behave in an entitled way and don’t make enough effort. On the other hand, Lebanese boys see Syrians as exacerbating the economic situation because of their acceptance of less money for work.

Kate: In each country, what do you think influences young people’s perceptions of fair treatment?

Sally: I think this is linked to the state’s ability to provide rights and assurances. In a perfect world, adolescents said things would be different: everyone would get what they needed. Living in a welfare state was seen as key to equality. With this in mind, Lebanese adolescents talked more about opportunities for decent work and futures in a country that assures basic rights. The lack of faith in the state by refugees meant they were not in a place to ask for or wait for rights to be provided.

If we had asked these questions a few years ago I think there maybe would be more of a sense amongst refugees that they had rights and entitlements to claim, but as the Lebanese people are now seen as deeply vulnerable too, this has affected perceptions of what it is reasonable to expect.

Sarah: Adolescents in Jordan felt that differences in outcomes were reasonable, as the Qur’an says everyone receives different blessings – but these should not be a result of corruption and favouritism, which many felt they were.

What was also seen as unfair was where international aid was focused; Jordanian adolescents felt that they were marginalised in this type of assistance, whilst Syrians talked about distribution and services being decreased or inadequate.

Sally: Being a refugee also affected perceptions of fairness in Lebanon. Syrian boys felt it would be better if they were in Syria because they wouldn’t face harassment and injustice. Because they or their parents might have come to Lebanon or Jordan anyway to work, this was less about opportunities, but about living a life of dignity in their own country.

Kate: Which topics were young people most passionate or opinionated about?

Sally: Everyone enjoyed discussing corruption! Corruption is a means to everything – accessing aid, scholarships, work opportunities, and protection. It’s everywhere. Affiliations with political parties allow you to access income and/or social support that is paid in more stable currency, which makes life easier during the current crisis. Officials also ensure access to basic services for those who follow them, and you need these networks to access education.

Sarah: In Jordan corruption came up in relation to clans and tribal connections. Adolescent refugee boys felt that they are not sons of the country and are thus not able to benefit from tribal connections that are necessary for getting decent work; even if a person has a good degree he will lose out on an opportunity to someone with these connections.

Kate: What were young people’s solutions to addressing the causes of inequality in their country?

Sally: In Lebanon, young people believe the current situation will never change and violent protest or war can be the only answer. Very few believe that peaceful protests, elections and using their voices constructively will achieve anything because the economic conditions in Lebanon and sectarian political system are so deeply interconnected. A drastic event is needed to address this. Indeed, some adolescents even held a negative view of the protests as being not just useless but more harmful. The failure of the protests to achieve change and then the sudden collapse of state has led to a feeling that change is impossible.

Sarah: In Jordan, young people were more optimistic about things changing for the better, but their solutions were much more focused on the community level than on structural change.