Refugee Nation: Lebanon fails to cope with population influx
Here is a copy of my article and photo-essay for this month’s Al Jazeera’s digital magazine, available for free on iTunes.
People have long fled into and out of Lebanon but the latest refugee surge from neighboring Syria is placing a growing strain on the country’s already troubled institutions.
By Habib Battah
He grew up in a Damascus slum, but now Osama feels he led a life of privilege in Syria. The 32 year old earned enough money as construction worker to afford a modest two-room apartment for his a wife and two infant daughters. But tonight his small family sleeps on the floor, using an old JVC advertising banner as shelter, held together by worn planks of wood.
Osama’s ramshackle new home is crammed into a garbage strewn dirt lot with some 65 other tents in Ain El Helweh, near the port town of Sidon in South Lebanon. Around 400 Palestinians share two filthy outdoor bathrooms in the dusty space, which is about half the size of a soccer pitch. There are no showers and children are getting sick with diarrhea and fever.
Osama and the other young fathers say they cannot find work and are forced to feed their families half rotten vegetables, recovered from the garbage of a nearby market. Then there are the rats.
“Even dogs are afraid of them,” says Mohammed, 29, who lives in a neighboring shack and described frequent night battles between street dogs and the giant rodents. One bit a child last week he added. “He almost ate him.”
One of two bathrooms serving 80 Palestinian refugee families from Syria at Ain El Hilwe. The children are getting sick with fever and diarrhea.
The surrounding urban sprawl is no picnic either. Notorious for its militias, Ain El Helweh is one of the most violent and impoverished neighborhoods in Lebanon. It was set up on farmland to “temporarily” house Palestinians escaping the 1948 war. In the intervening decades, those tents have been replaced by breeze block homes cut by narrow alleys that are the site of frequent gun fights involving Palestinian factions and the Lebanese army. It is this lawless evolution of Ain Al Hilweh that has discouraged the Lebanese government from setting up new camps to house over one million Syrians that have poured over the country’s borders in the last two years.
But Osama and his new neighbors are not even included in these daunting statistics simply because they were born Palestinian. They hail from Yarmouk, a ghetto of Damascus, which like Ayn El Hilwe, was set up to house the 1948 refugees from Palestine. Indeed, as the world focuses on the 2 million refugees created by the current war in Syria, the region is still struggling to cope with second and third generation of Palestinian refugees, who now number about 5 million, with many living in Lebanon.
Trembling with anger, this camp resident said: “Everyday journalists like you come here–three to four per day–but nothing changes.
60 tents have been crammed into a dirt field in Ain El Hilwe, which was set up in 1948 to “temporarily” house refugees escaping from Palestine.
Well before the fighting in Syria began, Lebanon already hosted 450,000 Palestinian refugees inhabiting a dozen squalid city-slums like Ain El Hilweh across the country. Now these Lebanon-based “camps” are swelling even further with some 45,000 new Palestinian arrivals as Syrian camps like Yarmouk have become battlefields between government and opposition forces.
“We lived like kings in Syria compared to this,” Osama says, lamenting the loss of his home and the outdoor conditions his daughters must now endure. As the rainy season begins, many worry their new shacks will be washed away as well. Osama scratches his arms full of insect bites and complains there is no medicine. “We are dying in this camp.”
The misery of new Palestinian refugees represents just a small fraction of the crisis looming before Lebanon, a war-torn country itself, which cannot even provide a constant supply of electricity or water to its own citizens, many of whom live in poverty. Tens of thousands of Lebanese are refugees themselves, having fled savage shelling of their villages during the 1970s and 1980s to squat on private properties or erect ramshackle structures. Many are still awaiting government compensation from the more recent Israeli airstrikes of 2006, when thousands lost their homes after more than a million cluster bombs were dropped across the country.
Meanwhile as new arrivals push the Palestinian refugee population toward 500,000, the government estimates 1.2 million Syrians have crossed the border, with 3,000 new arrivals every day. This means non-Lebanese refugees may soon account for an almost 50 percent increase in Lebanon’s total population of 4 million, putting an enormous strain on already dysfunctional local institutions.
Despite the government’s reluctance to sanction camps for Syrians, “informal” tent cities have sprouted up on farmlands across the country, some hosting up to 1,000 refugees. In many rural Lebanese towns, Syrians already outnumber locals.
close up below:
The Bekaa Valley is dotted with informal tent settlements, which often outnumber nearby local villages.
Over the peaks of Mount Lebanon, about 50 kilometers east of Ain El Hilweh camp, lie the green fields of the Bekaa valley, home to over 200,000 Syrian refugees or about 30 percent of the province’s entire population. Driving past the lush stretches of wheat and herb crops, the landscape is dotted with such informal tent settlements, made of sticks and discarded billboards.
In the quiet West Bekaa town of Jeb Janine, the public school is now dominated by Syrian students, according to principal Abdel Rahim Shamseddine. Out of 323 pupils, only 150 are Lebanese, he says.
That there was space for so many new students is a testament the vast exodus Jib Janeen has witnessed over the last several decades as many of its residents have fled to South America due to war or a lack of jobs.
Days before the start of the fall semester, Shamseddine receives a steady stream of parents, trying to enroll. He tries to accommodate them but says the school has reached capacity: “There’s no more room,” he explains.
Even for those that can get in, there are bureaucratic problems. Sana, a 45-year-old widow from Homs tries to enroll her son in the 9th grade, but cannot produce transcripts from previous years and is told she will have to enroll her son in 7th grade instead.
“What if my town is burned” she pleads with Shamseddine. “Who is going to remember to bring school transcripts when we left our clothes behind?”
In rural Jeb Janine, most students at the local school are Syrian. But some are turned away because they cannot produce transcripts.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says it has pressed the Lebanese government to forgive transcript requirements for Syrian students but the message has not reached Shamseddine, who says he is only following orders from the Ministry of Education. He tells Sana her son may enroll, but it will be a wasted year because he won’t earn credit. Then there is the curriculum. While Syrian public schools are entirely Arabic-based, Lebanese schools teach mathematics and sciences in English or French.
Still Sana, who has been living in a car garage with her three children, is one of the lucky ones. Some 300,000 Syrian children will need education this year but accommodating all of them would mean a doubling in the size of the Lebanese public school system. The state cannot afford such a massive expansion project and thus has only been able to push current capacity to the limit by accepting 34,000 Syrian students.
Yet a few blocks away from the school, around 1,000 Syrians living in tents on a patch of farmland, have priorities other than education. Like the Ayn El HIlwe lot, most of the shelters here will likely be flooded during the first rains. And with little to no work, the families depend on monthly food vouchers from the UNHCR worth $27 per person. But due to a lack of donations, the agency has begun to make drastic cuts to the amount of aid it distributes, ending voucher support for some 35 percent of families starting this month.
Around 1,000 refugees live in Jeb Janine’s informal settlement. Most children will not be able to attend school, but there are other priorities.
The UNHCR has asked for $1.2 billion to fund its operation in Lebanon, but has received just 38 percent of that goal. According to a report this month by Oxfam, the main weapon’s suppliers in Syria including Qatar and Russia, have provided just 3 percent of their fair share of the UN’s humanitarian appeal. France and the United States meanwhile have delivered only around half of their respective shares, the report said.
Among those cut off from aid in the Jib Janeen camp is 18-year-old Abir Ali Faisal who fled her hometown of Rakka. She has 10-month old daughter and only enough food to last 15 more days, she says. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
On the other hand, 23-year-old Zahira Hillal says she applied for UNHCR food vouchers a month ago but has not yet received any help. Her family of five have been surviving on potatoes, given as payment to her husband who works at a nearby farm. She cannot afford milk for her 7 month old child who stares blankly with an mouth open. Hillal opens the flap of her tent to reveal a barren concrete slab half covered by a straw mat.
“We have no sheets or blankets,” she pleads. “At night we are dying from the cold.”
To make matters worse, Hillal says her tent is one borrowed from another family that will return to claim it in the coming weeks.
23-year-old Zahra (left) says her family is surviving on potatoes. She says they have received no aid or blankets.
Meanwhile, down the dirt path that cuts through the camp– and will most certainly turn into a mudslide this winter– is 60-year-old Mariam and her 16-year-old son. Mariam suffers from seizures but also says she has not received any assistance since arriving in the camp four months ago. Like many others, she depends on neighbors to provide food. But when pressed by an aid worker, Mariam admits she has not registered with the UNHCR. It’s unclear why the neighbors whom she depends on have not alerted her to the process.
60-year-old Miriam suffers from seizures and has not applied for aid. She and her 16-year-old son share food with neighbors.
18-year-old Abir is among 30 percent of refugees who have been cut off from aid by the UNHCR due to lack of funding. She doesn’t know how she will feed her 10-month-old daughter.
Back in Beirut at UNHCR’s bustling offices in a converted apartment building, Communication officer Roberta Russo says the agency is doing its best with the limited resources it has. She acknowledges that voucher distribution takes about a month from registration but says families simply cannot receive aid until they have registered. She concedes that some fear registration or are illiterate, but maintains that all families crossing the border receive information pamphlets. Those that were cut off from aid can appeal the decision, she says.
As for the winter preparations, Russo says the UNHCR will be distributing plastic sheets. But it’s hard to imagine how this will protect against the torrential Mediterranean storms that bear down on the country, flooding even the paved streets of Beirut.
In addition funding gaps, Russo says the agency’s efforts are hindered by lack of centralization with aid workers stretched out over 380 informal settlements across the country, up from just 76 settlements at the beginning of this year. And while the agency prefers that refugees integrate into host populations, distribution is becoming costly and thus the UNHCR is currently lobbying the Lebanese government for allow “transit settlements,” a more diplomatic term for official refugee camps.
Some families in the Bekaa say they are surviving on water and potatoes; others eat half rotten foods.
To help relieve the pressure on the state, the UN is asking donors to help build infrastructure, that will benefit the local population. In addition to schools, healthcare is also at risk, with most public hospitals operating at full capacity and few beds left, even for Lebanese patients.
“There is no place to put people,” Russo says.
Unsurprisingly social pressure is mounting. Many Lebanese have opened their doors to refugees, sheltering some 36,000 for free at their houses and properties, according to UN figures. Thousands more are being housed in abandoned buildings or spare rooms in exchange for home improvements or rent subsidized by aid organizations, most of whom are Lebanese. But two years into the crisis there is growing unease about such a large refugee population, expanding at such an astonishing rate and with no end in sight.
“Lebanese people have been extremely generous and welcoming, but after two years we are seeing a little bit of tension,” Russo admits.
Local television is rife with stories of Syrians hurting the economy, alleging that some are establishing business without paying taxes or taking jobs from Lebanese by accepting lower wages.
By 2014, the Lebanese government estimates 320,000 Lebanese will become unemployed due to cheaper Syrian labor. This will send 170,000 nationals into poverty, where a quarter of Lebanon’s population already lives, says Ramzi Namaan, an advisor to the Lebanese prime minister on the humanitarian crisis. He says the Lebanese government is in urgent need of job-creating projects but has yet to receive any direct assistance despite donor pledges.
A local Bekaa market is dominated by Syrian businesses. Government officials warn that cheap Syrian labor will put put tens of thousands of Lebanese out of work.
Meanwhile the fast-growing Syrian population already comprises 50 percent of some 1,500 Lebanese villages or localities he says.
“My worry is that tension is building up.”
In the small southern town of Lebaa, locals recently held a street protest against plans to convert an abandoned school into a shelter. “We already have 50 families living here,” a priest told the cameras. “We cannot handle any more.”
Fueling suspicions, a handful of Syrians have been been implicated in the string of car bombings in Lebanon this year, allegedly working for or against regime allies in the country. In September, an explosive device killed a Syrian tennant from Idlib at a flat he was renting in the coastal town of Hallat. Though the blast is still under investigation, some locals assumed he was preparing a bomb.
“We don’t want them here anymore,” a middle-aged resident told Future News in a reference to the 2,000 Syrians living in the town. “Neither the good ones nor the bad ones.” In other villages, curfews have reportedly been imposed on Syrians, enforced by vigilante groups.
See full news report here:
At the school in rural Jeb Janine, principal Shamseddine says a TV crew visiting from a pan-Arab news network encouraged the Syrian students to chant anti-regime slogans. He promptly asked them to leave knowing that many in the Bekaa region have long supported the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which has been tied to the Assad dynasty for decades.
Shamseddine says he is trying to reduce tensions by minimizing the number of flags at school, even taking down Lebanese flags as well as banning all talk of politics on campus. At the same time, there is hope that many of the children are getting along with their new Syrian classmates.
“When you put the ball on the playground, everyone becomes friends.”
But the refugees are also frustrated. With the cutting off of aid money and the onset of winter storms, camp conditions are likely to worsen.
Many of the tents are made up of canvas and cardboard picked out of the garbage and will undoubtedly wash away during the upcoming winter downpours.
At the Ain El Hilweh settlement, many are fed up with journalists reporting on their situation. While taking notes during interviews, a tall man as thin as bones walks up and grab this reporter’s pen, then slaps it back down on the notebook.
“For what,” he says, trembling with anger. “Everyday journalists like you come here–three or four per day–but nothing changes.”
Another resident pleads for him to calm down, explaining that people need to know how the refugees are living.
“Refugee,” the man fires back. “You are not a refugee. You are a prisoner!”
A few days later, rain gushed down across the country for several hours in the first winter downpour. The tents in Ain El Hilweh have predictably been flooded with one collapsing on a refugee and breaking his leg.
“The children are getting sick,” says camp coordinator Abu Saleh El Makdah over the phone. “No one is helping us.”