Lebanese officials are opting to double down on efforts to extract as much funding as possible from the United Nations amidst one of the worst economic meltdowns in modern times. The ongoing battle between Beirut and New York over energy costs reflects the corrupt nature of Lebanon’s ruling class and the relationship flaws between the two entities. Lebanese leaders are effectively choosing to extort UN agencies supporting refugees in their country to sustain a corrupt system and bypass reforms—an effort that will only further harm refugees in the long run, possibly by design.
On August 21, the Lebanese Council of Ministers announced that it would cut electricity to Syrian refugee camps if the United Nations fails to pay for supposed dues owed to the Electricite du Liban (EDL), Lebanon’s state electricity provider. This follows an initial June decision to bill the United Nations for energy costs associated with Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in the country. At the time, Caretaker Energy Minister Walid Fayyad argued, “We cannot allow this issue to disturb the financial balance of Lebanon's state power company, which was on the brink of collapse.”
The cabinet’s effort is a continuation of anti-refugee trends in recent years. Lebanese authorities, under Fayyad’s instruction, began collecting payments for electricity supplied to Palestinian refugees in December 2022. The move was highly unpopular amongst the Palestinian community in Lebanon as it occurred during a period of decreased funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency handling humanitarian and development activities associated with Palestinians. The UNRWA is responsible for the infrastructure in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, paying most or the entirety of the electricity bills for individuals and families living there.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon work within a similar system supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the UN International Organization for Migration. Electricity provision falls within the UN’s mandate in its work with Syrian refugees across Lebanon. In this regard, UN funding covers fuel purchases and generator upkeep that largely powers formal Syrian refugee camps and falls outside traditional Lebanese power generation. A substantial majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in formal or informal camps, while those living in informal camps often have little to no electricity.
Fayyad and Lebanon’s political class ignore these facts, instead choosing to scapegoat refugees while extorting humanitarian actors providing basic provisions to those most in need. While horrific, the approach is hardly surprising when observing the Lebanese government’s treatment of Syrian refugees, who regularly face arbitrary arrest, torture, and refoulment to Syria. Work permits are few and far between and housing is nearly impossible to obtain, let alone at a fair cost. As a result, an estimated 90 percent of Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty.
Worse, Lebanon’s January 2015 residency regulations created an intentional catch-22 for Syrian refugees by requiring registration with UNHCR or a Lebanese sponsor to remain in the country legally. Both present undue burdens for Syrians, especially as the regulation also prevents UNHCR from registering new Syrian refugees unless they are children of registered individuals. Registration fees cost $200 to renew and individuals must have many different documents—often difficult for displaced Syrians facing passport delays with their home government. As a result, only 16 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon have legal status to reside in the country. Syrians are thus regularly taken advantage of due to their unstable position in the country, entrenching their status as the country’s poorest individuals.
Perspective matters when observing government policies and their impact on those most in need. Beirut understands that it cannot squeeze pennies from the poorest in the country but sees an opportunity to extort UN agencies in the guise of balancing the electricity sector—a notoriously corrupt space defining the patronage and clientelism that has ravaged Lebanon to this day. Fayyad talks about the “financial balance” of the EDL as if this is a norm in Lebanese history when this is far from the truth.
Rather, the EDL is possibly the most inefficient and wasteful aspect of the Lebanese government. Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a comprehensive review of the EDL’s structure and governance in March, highlighting the scale of inadequacy that has come to define the institution. In the last ten years, EDL has run a deficit of “between $1.5 to $2 billion per year” while receiving annual budgetary transfers from the state averaging “3.8 percent of Lebanon’s gross domestic product (GDP) over the last decade, amounting to almost half the overall fiscal budget.” The report shares one particularly damning statistic, noting transfers to the EDL between 1992 and 2018 amounted to over $40 billion of the country’s public debt.
Yet the EDL produces an average of one to two hours of electricity per day, according to HRW’s 1,200 household survey. The question thus becomes one of efficiency: why is the EDL running deeply red numbers while producing barely any electricity?
The answer is corruption and mismanagement. On the technical side, Lebanon relies on heavy fuel oil and diesel for power generation and has failed to maintain its infrastructure. In terms of corruption, clientelism and nepotism are major issues. Preferential contracts within these corrupt networks, such as the 2020 tainted fuel scheme and the 2021 Karpowership scandal, produce kickbacks for the private sector, bribes for government employees, and politicians who maintain the status quo to their benefit. An informal private diesel generator industry valued at $3 billion has also grown substantially in recent years as households have shifted to private methods of obtaining electricity. This sector is powerful, with tentacles throughout the Lebanese government that prevent reform towards more affordable options like renewables or a more efficient EDL.
It is within this context that the United Nations and world leaders should push back on Lebanon. Extorting the UN agencies keeping Syrian refugees afloat amidst one of the worst displacement crises in modern times over so-called unpaid energy bills while operating an openly corrupt electricity sector should be called out as hypocrisy. To be sure, Lebanon is facing a brutal economic crisis and the ugly aspects of a racist global refugee and migration system refusing to fairly disburse the displaced in other countries. But Syrians are the poorest segment of Lebanese society and the least connected to the country’s electrical grid. Such facts should disqualify Beirut’s blatant efforts to pinch pennies from international institutions as some of Lebanon’s elites work to profit off a system harming Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian families.
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl.