President Michel Aoun said Thursday that the grave economic situation, presence of Syrian refugees and the reluctance of Lebanese to take low-paid jobs has caused unemployment to soar to 46 percent.
Aoun made the remarks during a meeting with a delegation from the Lebanese Press Syndicate at Baabda’s presidential palace.
“Unemployment has increased to reach an alarming 46 percent,” Aoun told The Daily Star during the meeting. “The reason is because Lebanese are selective about choosing a desired job. Because of this, they are replaced by Syrians working at a lower wage.”
Official figures estimate the number of unemployed at 25 percent among the general population and 35 percent among youth aged 18-25.
The government has repeatedly said that many Syrian refugees are working on construction sites and in factories and farms for below the official minimum wage, without receiving any social or medical benefits.
Aoun also claimed that the number of Syrian refugees in the country had reached 1.86 million.
The number of those officially registered with the U.N. refugee agency in Lebanon is less than 1 million.
“Today, the United Nations thanks us for our humanity in dealing with the Syrian refugees,” Aoun said.
He added, however, that he had told EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn a few days before that thanks and compliments “do not feed bread” to the refugees. “You have to resolve the refugee case before we ourselves become refugees,” Aoun recounted telling the commissioner, who was reportedly displeased.
Aoun also spoke of protests that have flared up across the country in the past months as workers demand pension and salary increases.
“We started talking about the salary scale in the first two months of my term. ... I told them, ‘Before you talk about increasing salaries, you have to tell citizens that Lebanon has gotten poorer.’ But the opposite of that happened. They demanded a raise,” Aoun said.
“And now you see the deficit in the budget ... and the civil protests that are happening. You can’t just give a [salary] raise to one sector and leave out others.”
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He said these dynamics were behind his comment, made Wednesday, that Lebanon would be heading toward bankruptcy if it continued on its current trajectory. The statement, he said, was intended as a warning, to push people to take responsibility.
In a session of Parliament held Thursday to discuss the budget, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil said that, despite growing debt, Lebanon was “not a bankrupt state” and “has never suffered a setback in paying its obligations to lenders.”
Despite the current situation, Aoun urged optimism. “Our reality should not make us frustrated. We know that the situation is difficult, but we can overcome it,” he said.
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