Syrians Need Not Apply

Lebanon is facing yet another shortage: a lack of foreign workers to work as maids and nannies in Lebanese homes.

Before Lebanon's economic collapse began in 2019, Lebanese paid foreign domestic workers between $200 to $400 monthly, and the workers sent much of that home to their families. But as Lebanon's currency lost more than 90 percent of its value, and Lebanese banks limited dollar withdrawals, it has become nearly impossible for Lebanese families to pay their domestic workers in dollars. That has left many foreign workers with little choice but to leave. Lebanese media reported that the number of foreign workers dropped by nearly 100,000 (or over 37 percent) in the aftermath of the economic crisis. New arrivals of foreign domestic workers have fallen by 85 percent, and recent reports indicate that only 5 percent of Lebanese families seeking a maid or nanny are successful.

Since more than a million Syrians fleeing civil war are now living in Lebanon, they would seem to be part of the solution. Unlike foreign workers, they are not sending their earnings overseas, so they can work for Lebanese pounds rather than dollars. There is no language barrier. And domestic work is also one of only three sectors in which the Lebanese government permits Syrians to work. In March, the Lebanese government added domestic workers to the list of Syrians permitted entrance to Lebanon.

But Syrian domestic workers are unlikely to become the norm. Widespread discriminatory attitudes towards Syrians continue to constrain Syrians' job opportunities. As Lebanon's economy fell into decline in 2019, fines for the "illegal employment of foreigners" have exclusively targeted Syrians. Opportunistic politicians have capitalized on anxieties concerning Syrian refugees "stealing" Lebanese jobs and are proposing legislation that would make it harder for Syrians to work—as maids, or anything else.

With Lebanon's economy in free fall, attitudes toward refugees have only hardened, and Syrians are less likely than ever to fill the gap. Unless those attitudes soften, the paradox is set to continue.

This article is part of the series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.

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Caleb Harper
Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Middle East Program

Will McChesney

Former Intern, Middle East Program