Syrian refugees wait amid fatigue and tension in Lebanon

Syrian refugees wait amid fatigue and tension in Lebanon
7 min read
07 July, 2017
Lebanon’s Syrian refugees are stuck in dire living conditions, waiting for an end to the war as the protracted crisis builds pressure on the hosting community, writes Alessandra Bajec.
More than one million Syria refugees live in Lebanon, many of them children [AFP]

Since the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011, Lebanon has absorbed more than one million Syrian refugees, registered with the UN's refugee agency, making it the country that hosts the world's largest refugee population per capita.

Such an intake has produced a demographic shock as Lebanon's population has surged by 30 percent within only three years. It has had wide-ranging implications on all aspects of life here.

After an initially positive response from the Lebanese people, who helped by providing shelter, services and support in the first years of the Syria crisis, attitudes have hardened towards the refugee population, with the ongoing war next door and the Lebanese government blaming the displaced for state failures and structural problems existing long before the crisis.

"We have pre-existing problems in Lebanon which wouldn't have reached this magnitude today if suitable measures had been taken," said Paul Sawaya, liaison officer at UNHCR's Zahle office. "Now, the easy escape is to blame the Syrian refugees."

Such long-standing problems are mainly due to a lack of unified governmental policies and mismanagement, says Sawaya. They are reflected at regional and local levels, and have been only exacerbated by the refugee crisis.

With the impact of the Syrian crisis adding increasing pressure on Lebanon's infrastructure, public services and labour market in already under-developed communities, there have been rising tensions between recent arrivals and the hosting community.

"There has been less acceptance in hosting refugees, fatigue is palpable around Lebanese residents," commented Lisa Abou Khaled, public information officer at UNHCR Beirut.

Misconceptions about Syrian refugees have fed into a negative narrative based on fear and an inability to identify and address the real problems. 

One common fallacy is that that refugees have taken jobs from Lebanese workers. The majority, however, are only allowed to work in the three sectors they used to occupy in the years before crisis: construction, agriculture and cleaning services - where there is usually low competition as Lebanese citizens often do not want to work in these sectors.

Besides that, Lebanese businessmen are keen on hiring Syrians as cheap labour, with no contract nor social protection. Since it is difficult for refugees to obtain work permits, they mostly work in the informal economy.

The other frequently stated belief is that refugees are using up public infrastructure. While there has been an increased demand in basic services, the vast majority of Syrian refugees are concentrated in historically deprived areas of Lebanon, where more than half of all poor Lebanese live.

George Ghali, programmes manager at ALEF, the Lebanese human rights watchdog, mentioned electricity and water supplies, and waste management, have been problems for many years - yet are now blamed on the refugees.

On top of that, Syrians are striving to cope in conditions which have seen more than 70 percent of refugees in Lebanon living below the poverty line.

"Over half of the refugees live in substandard shelters, tents, garages or animal shacks," said the UNHCR's Abou Khaled. "More than 80 percent of them pay rent for living in these shelters which is an average of $200 [monthly] plus charges for water, electricity and fuel."

Given such expenses, she explained, more than 90 percent of refugees are in debt. A large number have no income and no access to work.

My mother-in-law underwent heart surgery, she now needs to take a medicine which we have to buy

A group of five Syrian refugee women in Bar Elias, a village in the Bekaa valley, have lived in a tent camp for the past five years. They are all from Homs. None of their husbands have been able to find work since they fled to Lebanon, except for working the land one-two days per month when needed.

With an average of six members in each family, these women said they depend entirely on UNHCR assistance. Still, that is not enough.

"Some basic healthcare expenses are covered by the UN, but not all. I need to take an injection every day which I have to pay for," said Fatima, a volunteer teacher at Bar Elias camp. "My mother-in-law underwent heart surgery, she now needs to take a medicine which we have to buy."

Humanitarian assistance is insufficient. Those families who need basic food assistance get e-cards, run by the World Food Programme (WFP), which are loaded with just $27 per person per month to buy food. The UNHCR provides a further $175 monthly per family in cash assistance - but only for the most vulnerable - just 24 percent of the refugee population.

Moreover, this extra cash aid is granted irregularly, depending on funds available.

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Conditions in the makeshift refugee camp outside Zahle are harsh [AFP]

Conditions in the camps are hard - tents boiling hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.

With 75 informal settlements, Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley has one of the largest concentrations of refugees in Lebanon.

"This area gets flooded during winter," said Walid, an education outreach volunteer at the camp. He and his family of seven live here.

Mona, another refugee living in the tent city, added: "Germs spread quickly inside tents; kids easily get sick. We live near the Litani River which is highly polluted, causing very bad smell and diseases."

Given the country's overstretched infrastructure, scarce resources and increasing refugee needs, the tension between the refugee population and the host communities brought on by the protracted displacement has led to discrimination.

In April, Lebanon's army issued eviction notices to more than 10,000 refugees living close to Rayak airbase, a military airport in the Bekaa Valley, due to "security reasons". A few thousand camp residents have relocated so far, many moved to nearby plots of land.

It was the first massive eviction plan seen in Lebanon. 

"At least 6,000 refugees are currently at risk of eviction," Ghali noted. "There is this idea of not forcing refugees out but letting them move gradually, so the eviction order will be carried out anyway."

Evictions are an ongoing issue affecting Syrians living in informal settlements, particularly in the Bekaa.

Reasons vary - some private owners of land on which camps are built have decided to stop renting to refugees, some municipalities want to clear refugees out of residential and industrial areas, while the Lebanese armed forces have been ordering evictions over security concerns raised by populations close to miitary facilities.

Often, these evictions are conducted at short notice and with no alternative accommodation offered - so refugees have to find their own way. In many cases they move to nearby informal settlements, otherwise they stay temporarily with relatives in other areas until they find a more permanent place to which to move. 

Ratcheting up the tension further, the army carries out arbitrary raids of refugee camps, rounding up those who do not have valid residency permits. Refugees are expected to pay $200 per person per year in order to renew their permits.

The UNHCR recently reached an agreement with the Lebanese government to lift residency fees for registered refugees, which has now to come into force. But unregistered refugees still have to cover this expense. 

Most residents of the Bar Elias tent settlement have no valid permits, leaving them vulnerable.

"We're always afraid the army may come any time, early morning or at night," said a resident named Widat. The army had raided another camp 500 metres away, he said.

ALEF's George Ghali expects more hostile rhetoric and intimidation towards Syrian refugees ahead of next year's parliamentary elections, "under the guise of protecting the Lebanese".

No party or ministry will risk a "soft" approach by mediating with municipalities or easing tensions in the local communities, he says. This can only augment animosity and a sense of fear over the Syrian arrivals.

Meanwhile, Syrians are longing to return to their homeland, with no near end to the war.

"We understand we are a burden here, we can feel it," Widat added. "Right now, though, there is nowhere safe for us to go in Syria."

There has been recent talk among some political figures of returning refugees to "safe zones" inside Syria, but the situation remains so volatile - with no guarantee that refugees can return safely.

"UNHCR's position," said Abou Khaled, "is that conditions in Syria are currently not conducive for refugees to return in safety and dignity."

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Beirut. Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec