HomePoliticsAnalysisOn the tales of bikes poverty and suicide rates

On the tales of bikes poverty and suicide rates

This handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian refugees returning from Lebanon to their country through the al-Zamrani crossing on May 14, 2024. Beirut repatriated several hundred Syrians on Tuesday in coordination with Damascus as pressure mounts in cash-strapped Lebanon for the hundreds of thousands of refugees to go home. (Photo by SANA / AFP)

A masterclass in public safety, Lebanese style: who needs efficiency when you have checkpoints? “Hawajez” - a new WhatsApp group directs motorcycles to identify checkpoints

In a bold move to dodge pressing economic crises, authorities have heroically decided to crack down on motorcycles, and Syrian workers without permits – while rumors suggest bicycles and aliens are next on their hit list. Why fix unemployment or inflation when you can target two-wheeled menaces instead? It’s a masterclass in misplaced priorities: solving the economy one confiscated bike at a time. As poverty rises, at least we’ll have fewer bikes cluttering the streets. Bravo, leadership!

It is news to the authorities that most of the Syrian displaced or refugees entered through illegal mountain crosses mushrooming between Syria and Lebanon.

In a shocking revelation, it turns out that illegal bikes are often registered to Syrians, a fact that seems to have completely blindsided our ever-vigilant authorities. Who knew that simply looking at registration documents could uncover such a scandal? Meanwhile, the rest of us, armed with common sense, wonder if the authorities are as oblivious as they appear or just putting on a farcical show. It’s almost as if they’ve been too busy cracking down on the bikes themselves to notice who owns them. Newsflash, indeed!

In a dazzling display of bureaucratic brilliance, authorities have blissfully ignored the fact that the national vehicle registration office has been shut for months. The result? A nation of law-abiding citizens frantically navigating the Kafkaesque maze of nonexistent paperwork, while their motorcycles languish in impound lots. Critics argue this is akin to banning books while keeping libraries locked, but who needs logic when you have enforcement? As the engines of industry grind to a halt, we can only marvel at this masterstroke of administrative absurdity. Register your bikes, they say – if only the registration offices were open.

In a heroic quest for public order, the Beirut Guard Municipal Police Regiment and Internal Security Forces have turned the city into a labyrinth of random checkpoints, following an order from Lebanon’s caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi to stop “motorcycles or mopeds driven by Syrians who don’t have a residency permit,” catching unlicensed motorcycles faster than you can say ‘bureaucratic overkill.’ Citizens now play a thrilling game of dodge-the-cops, where winning means getting to work on time. Meanwhile, real criminals breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the forces are too busy shaking down delivery drivers to bother with actual crime. It is a masterclass in public safety, Lebanese style: who needs efficiency when you have checkpoints? The order was issued as part of a series of memos calling for a crackdown on Syrian nationals in Lebanon.

NOWLEBANON was able to confirm that there are some 363,000 unregistered motorcycles in Lebanon. 50 percent of them are believed to have been used in different security issues, sources said. The move has rapidly transformed the business landscape. The noble intention of preserving public safety has ironically thrown businesses into a chaotic tailspin, leaving entrepreneurs scratching their heads and customers tapping their feet in exasperation. First on the chopping block are the manouche, burgers and pizza delivery joints, once bustling with the symphony of revving engines and eager appetites. Now, Lebanese cheese and thyme pizzas, the glory of a whole nation cuisine, arrive cold, the cheese congealed into a rubbery mass, as beleaguered delivery boys trudge through traffic on foot. Meanwhile, e-commerce businesses, the backbone of the modern economy, are left paralyzed. Swift, same-day deliveries have become a distant memory. Packages, once zipping through city streets on nimble motorcycles, now take leisurely tours via public transport. The economy might as well revert to the days of horse-drawn carriages for all the speed we are seeing now. To our luck we are not close to Valentine Day. Flower shops, once renowned for their timely deliveries, are now struggling to deliver wilted bouquets hours late. Romantic gestures are met with awkward silence as lovers sheepishly present flowers that resemble the aftermath of a botanical apocalypse. The age-old tradition of spontaneous romantic surprises is now replaced by pre-planned disappointments.

Motorcycle repair shops, ironically, are also feeling the pinch. The crackdown has sent their clientele into hiding, much like the motorcycles themselves. Mechanics now sit idle, reminiscing about the glory days of grease and gears, their wrenches gathering dust and rust. Who knew that saving lives could come at the cost of livelihoods?

Fawzi, a motorcycle accessories vendor, told NOWLEBANON that his business plunged by more than 60 pct because of the crackdown. On the streets are motorcycles ranging from 500 to 5000 USD dollars, they require around 200 in maintenance and accessories yearly. Now they need more than 30 pct of their value in customs registration.


“Hawajez” – a new WhatsApp group

In the realm of Lebanese brilliance, behold a new WhatsApp group named “Hawajez” (checkpoints in Arabic) with 800 members (and counting), dedicated to directing motorcyclists in identifying and locating security checkpoints – a true testament to our nation’s ingenuity. Who needs GPS when you have a legion of digital strategists orchestrating evasion tactics? This modern marvel showcases the Lebanese knack for turning everyday challenges into innovative solutions. Forget traffic rules; we navigate checkpoints like a digital game of chess, outsmarting the enforcers at every turn. With each new member, the group’s collective genius grows, crafting elaborate strategies to skirt legal entanglements. It’s a symphony of subversion, where every ping heralds a new victory against the establishment.

Who needs official roadmaps when you have this clandestine network of checkpoint avengers? It’s like Waze, but with a touch of rebellion and a sprinkle of Lebanese flair. Here, evading the law isn’t just a skill – it is a form of art. And as the group swells in numbers, so does our pride in Lebanese resourcefulness, proving once again that innovation thrives in the face of adversity.


The crackdown ABC

Lebanese General Security appealed to fellow citizens not to hire or host Syrians unless they hold a regular residency permit, threatening with sanctions those who do not respect this measure. Even the conditions to obtain or renew residency permits have become stricter. General Security has also threatened sanctions against those who hire Syrians illegally and stated the intention to close all economic activities managed by Syrians that do not follow the rules

Since 2011, Lebanon has been facing an unprecedented crisis of Syrian displacement, accompanied by a lack of proper governance from successive governments. This situation has been further exacerbated by interference from the ruling powers in Syria, hindering the return of refugees. Simultaneously, the international community has failed to establish a political solution that contributes to their return with legal, security, economic, and social guarantees. Lebanon has failed to manage the Syrian exodus crisis,  a matter accentuated by the absence of political consensus over the cause of the exodus. Lebanon remains by far the country where the exodus has been accentuating.

In a stroke of twisted logic, some have linked Syrian refugees to everything from rising poverty to skyrocketing suicide rates. Apparently, the mere presence of displaced families is enough to topple economies and shatter mental health, because why address systemic issues when you can scapegoat the vulnerable? It’s a convenient narrative for those who prefer finger-pointing over problem-solving. Meanwhile, refugees, fleeing unimaginable horrors, are left wondering how they became the culprits in someone else’s tragic tale.

Economic challenges have pushed Syrians in the country into poverty with more than 90 percent of refugees reliant on humanitarian assistance to survive. Unconfirmed figures say there are 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, 950,000 of whom are registered with the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a figure that is threatening the fragile socio-political nexus of the country.

For many years, agricultural workers have come from Syria to tend the region’s fields. These days, the Bekaa Valley hosts 39 percent of Lebanon’s registered Syrian refugees – by far the highest regional proportion in the country.


A human rights issue?

The issue was seen as an abuse of human rights by many. “Checkpoints put in place to restrict the movement of Syrians across the country are discriminatory and part of a larger set of coercive measures that continue to be employed by Lebanese authorities – including municipalities and security services – to make Lebanon an unwelcome place for refugees and push them to return to Syria,” Ramzi Kaiss, Human Rights Watch’s Lebanon researcher, told Syria Direct.

Firas, a Syrian displaced refugee, told NOWLEBANON that he will do everything  “to reach Europe by sea.” “Italy is the first leg of the trip, but I want to reach my cousin in Germany… Lebanon is growing increasingly hostile to our presence.”

Just like Firas, many other Syrians are preparing to leave from the northern coast of Lebanon. “Italy is the first country in Europe where refugees arrive and are hosted,” they explain.

There has been more than a national advertising campaign calling on the international community to “undo the damage” caused by the continued presence of displaced Syrians in Lebanon. Widely reported crimes and rape were linked to Syrian burglars, this stoked more public anger against Syrian refugees. And there had been many reports of mob violence against Syrians, particularly in predominantly Christian areas. Some political leaders have called the Syrian presence in Lebanon as “an existential threat.” Bassam Mawlawi, the caretaker Interior Minister, called for fewer Syrians in Lebanon, while Minister of Social Affairs Hector Hajjar said any Lebanese person describing all Syrians as refugees was a “criminal conspirator” against the state. Earlier in April, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said nothing united the Lebanese more than the “issue of displaced Syrians.” He also said most of the refugees would be repatriated once the international community recognizes “secure zones” in Syria for them, despite the ongoing war in Syria and the persistence of a regime millions of Syrians have fled.


Poverty rates

Research underlines that the presence of this population of refugees has also fueled poverty. The World Bank revealed that the poverty rate in Lebanon has increased more than three-fold over the past decade, to 44% of the total population. Poverty affected 1 out of every 3 Lebanese in 2022.

Lebanon is a rough case of the Pareto principle which was developed by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in 1896. Pareto observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. He also witnessed this happening with plants in his garden – 20% of his plants were bearing 80% of the fruit. This relationship is best mathematically described as a power law distribution between two quantities, in which a change in one quantity results in a relevant change into the other.  1% of the Lebanese account for 25% of the national income is a clear reflection on that. Wealth distribution and Pareto’s 80/20 principle emerged in their results, which suggests the principle is a collective consequence of these individual rules. Wealth distribution in Lebanon is not a stranger to this .

This is not new nor news. Since 2005, Lebanon has been characterized by extreme inequality in both income and wealth. The richest 1 percent of the population receives, on average, 25 percent of national income, while the poorest half receives less than 10 percent. Regarding wealth, the richest 10 percent of the population owns almost 70 percent of total wealth. Additionally, the middle class and the poor have little chance of upward mobility. Over 81 per cent of suicides in Lebanon in 2023 were men, and a little over 70 per cent of suicides were Lebanese, followed by 20 per cent being comprised of Syrians.

The WB report ‘Lebanon Poverty and Equity Assessment 2024: Weathering a Protracted Crisis’ published last week examines the current state of poverty and inequality in the country. It documents the impact of the economic and financial crisis on households as well as the effect on labor market dynamics. The report builds on a household survey conducted in collaboration with WFP and UNHCR between December 2022 and May 2023, covering Lebanese, Syrians and other nationals  (except for Palestinians in camps and gatherings) in five governorates across Lebanon. Data collected covered demographics, education, employment, health, expenditures, assets, income and coping strategies.

Now in its fifth year, the protracted economic and financial crisis has compelled households to adopt a variety of coping strategies, including cutting back on food consumption and non-food expenses, as well as reducing health expenditures, with likely severe long-term consequences. To better reflect these changes in household behavior, the report adopts a new unofficial poverty line developed for 2022. The existing national poverty line from 2012 no longer captures the current consumption patterns or conditions faced by households in Lebanon today.

The report reveals a significant increase in monetary poverty from 12% in 2012 to 44% in 2022 across surveyed areas. It also highlights poverty being unevenly distributed across the country. Notably, in the north of Lebanon, the poverty rate reached as high as 70% in Akkar, where most residents are employed in the agriculture and construction sectors. Moreover, not only has the share of poor Lebanese nationals tripled to 33 percent from a decade ago, but they have also fallen deeper into poverty with the poverty gap rising from 3% in 2012 to 9.4% in 2022. Concurrently, income inequality appears to have worsened among the Lebanese.

With the rapid expansion of a dollarized cash-based economy, Lebanese households earning in dollars find their purchasing power preserved, while those without access to dollars are increasingly exposed to escalating inflation. Remittances have become a pivotal economic buffer, increasing from an average of 13% of GDP between 2012 and 2019, to about 30% in 2022 (partly due to a denominator effect) and surging by 20% in nominal terms between 2021 and 2022. These financial inflows are playing an increasingly critical role in preventing a segment of the population from falling into poverty.


Socio economic causes leading to suicide

The ongoing war in Gaza and Lebanon has compounded financial and economic stress. In a December survey across the Arab world, 97 per cent of respondents said they felt psychological stress as a result of the Gaza war, with 84 per cent reporting experiencing this to a great degree. Lebanon’s cross-border clashes have grown in intensity since they began in the wake of Hamas’ 7 October attack, encompassing vast swathes of Lebanon.

Over 90,000 people have been displaced from southern Lebanon, and the specter of war hangs over the country. Human Rights Watch has warned that millions of people in the country are at risk of famine. Among poor Lebanese, suicides due to insolvency and desperation have surged.

A number of scientific research studies conducted in different countries have shown a relation between higher suicide rates and the economic situation. Published in 2015 in the World Journal of Psychiatry, a study titled Systematic Review of Suicide in Economic Recession cited Greece as an example. Between 2008 and 2011, a “significant and positive” correlation was found between the suicide rate and unemployment and debt.

According to the Central Administration of Statistics (CAS) and the International Labor Organization (ILO), Lebanon’s unemployment rate in January 2022 was 29.6 percent, with 32.7 percent of women out of work compared to 28.4 percent of men. The unemployment rate of youth was 47.8 percent. In a 2021 Gallup report, 74 percent of people surveyed expressed that they were stressed for a “substantial part of the day,” 56 percent felt sad and 49 percent felt angry.

According to the World Bank (2021), the Lebanese financial and economic crisis is likely to rank among the top three most severe global crises episodes since the mid-19th century. Although this economic depression started a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic, its direct effects have been immediate. Furthermore, the port explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020 has exacerbated these effects.

According to a 2019 World Health Organization report, 77 percent of suicides took place in middle-income and low-income countries. In Lebanon, 82 percent of the population now lives in “multidimensional poverty,” said the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) in a 2021 report. Psychological stressors seem to increase as inflation continues to rise.

“These factors can affect pre-existing mental disorders or trigger them,” said the report who added that anxiety disorders and the feeling of powerlessness do not necessarily translate into an increase in suicides. “There are usually pre dispositions [somber mood, anxiety, depressive symptoms…] that, when exacerbated by economic, social and political factors, can contribute to suicidal thoughts and behavior.”


Where do we go from here

In this dystopian scenario, the black market thrives. Motorcycle taxis, now operating under the radar, charge exorbitant fees for a taste of their former freedom. Will business delivery, desperate to meet deadlines, engage in cloak-and-dagger transactions for a speedy ride, risking fines and public shaming for the sake of efficiency? And is this ecommerce market ruled by Syrian drivers only?

The Syrian presence in Lebanon has been categorized as a “conspiracy narrative,” hence the ambiguity of addressing the issue in international arenas and amongst local parties and circles. In this troubled context, a multifaceted approach is essential to address the political, sovereignty, economic, and socio-economic challenges, along with exploring pathways of cooperation with the United Nations and other international organizations and donors.

Accordingly on the medium and long term there are three alternatives to deal with the issue of the repatriation of the refugees: the first option is the ‘do nothing’ alternative since security conditions in Syria are still not ripe; secondly, the ‘full return’ option with political and international guarantees for a safe medium; and finally a ‘step-by-step return’ to safe zones, a deal which will involve all actors namely the Arab league the United Nations and international organizations.

As for the motorcycle crackdown, all this upheaval begs the question: what next? A crackdown on bicycles? A ban on roller skates? So cracking down on motorcycles is the first step to fixing an economy in limbo and restructuring bank deposits. Because clearly, seizing bikes is the magic bullet we’ve all been waiting for! Forget economic reforms and financial oversight – tackling two-wheeled transport is the real solution. Next, perhaps banning roller skates will solve the housing crisis? Truly, we’ve entered an era of groundbreaking economic strategy. In this brave new world, it seems that the road to economic ruin is paved with good intentions. Businesses are left clinging to the hope that someday, the wheels of progress will turn once more, and the hum of motorcycles will return to save the day. Until then, we can only sit back, chuckle at the absurdity, and wait for the next unforeseen consequence of well-meaning governance.


Maan Barazy is an economist and founder and president of the National Council of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. He tweets @maanbarazy

The views in this story reflect those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of NOW.