Syrian refugees in Lebanon: Trapped in distress – Lidia Paladini, Germany

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, an estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes in order to seek shelter from the never-ending war, violence and life-threatening situations. According to the UNHCR, today almost one out of every four refugees is from Syria, with 95 percent located in surrounding countries. Unlike what most people assume, the majority of Syrian people are not trying to get to European countries such as Germany or Sweden, but they find refuge in Syria’s neighboring countries, like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Lebanon alone, as the country that received the highest number of Syrian refugees in the world, gives more than 1,2 Million Syrians a safe place to live in. Lebanon’s cultural, linguistic, but especially geographical proximity to Syria makes it the first destination for many Syrians fleeing the civil war.   

A country that refuses to close its borders to Syrian refugees

Lebanon, officially the Lebanese Republic, is a country located in the Middle East and thereby Western Asia, bordered by Syria to the north and east. Other than the Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, it refuses to close its borders to Syrian citizens seeking refuge from the war and violence in their home country.

“The Government has established an inter-ministerial crisis cell, confirming its pro-active engagement in refugee issues. While the country is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and despite restrictions imposed at the border, it is expected that Syrians in need of immediate protection and assistance will continue to find safe haven in Lebanon.” UNHCR

Even the local population is putting a lot of effort into giving the Syrian refugees a safe place to live in and is trying to support the Syrian people as much as possible in getting used to their new environment.

Lisa Abou Khaled, Public Information Assistant of the UNHCR Lebanon, tells United Youth Journalists: “The Lebanese have shown great hospitality to Syrian refugees. Some families have even hosted Syrian refugee families in their own homes, without asking for anything in return.

However, Lebanon’s hospitality has come at a certain price. Lebanon’s economy, trade, and public services are strained by the Syrian crisis. Many of the public services, especially in rural areas, were weak even before the start of the crisis. There has been an overwhelming increase in the demand on services like education, healthcare and even water and electricity.”

Given the fact that of course not every part of the coexistence and the communication of the refugees and the local population is working flawlessly, Lisa says:“We have so far seen isolated events of small disputes between refugees and host communities. In order to diffuse tensions and alleviate the burden, UNHCR provides support to communities in order to foster social cohesion, mitigate tensions, and promote interaction. Institutional and community support projects include water projects, waste management, support to municipalities, equipment to hospitals, training of school teachers, school renovations, etc.”

UNHCR works in coordination with over 80 local and international humanitarian organizations. Local organizations are crucial for UNHCR, especially in remote areas that are difficult for UNHCR to access (for many reasons including weather conditions and security).

Going into detail about the struggles Syrian refugees have to face after getting to Lebanon, she continues: “Syrian refugees in Lebanon, like elsewhere in the region, are sinking deeper into abject poverty – their savings and resources are long depleted after more than four years of crisis It is becoming harder for them to pay rent, manage high levels of indebtedness and afford their basic needs.

Without being able to work, many refugees struggle to make a living.  Lack of livelihood opportunities or access to the formal labour market is cited as a problem by refugees in Lebanon.

The lack of access to legal work, leads refugees, desperate to provide for their families, to resort to informal employment – risking exploitation, working in unsafe conditions or having payment withheld by unscrupulous employers. Under new regulations in Lebanon, refugees must sign a pledge not to work when renewing their residency status.

New regulations for Syrian refugees have made it harder for Syrians to have a legal residency. Refugees already in the country must pay US$200 per year to renew their stay. They are required to sign a pledge not to work and they must present a certified lease agreement. Many refugees are fearful of arrest or detention and feel vulnerable because of lapsed residency visas. 

In Lebanon, where education is free to Syrians in a two-shift system, many children struggle to attend or find the new curriculum too difficult, while at the same time, working to support their families. While the Ministry of Education has increased by 100 percent the number of places for Syrian children (that is, 200,000 in the 2015/2016 school year), another 200,000 Syrian children will still be out of school this year. 

The 2015 UNHCR-UNICEF-WFP-led vulnerability assessment of Syrian refugees showed that 70 per cent of refugee households currently live below the poverty line – on less than US$3.84 per person per day. The same study found a 30 percent increase in refugees who do not have enough food and are therefore adopting harmful behaviours to cope, including buying food on credit, borrowing money, withdrawing children from school and begging. A 2015 shelter survey in Lebanon showed that 55% of refugees live in insecure and overcrowded shelters such as garages, shops, animal stalls and fragile tents. This compares with 31% in 2013. The need for additional support during the ruthless winter months is ever more pressing.”

Syrian refugees in Lebanon: A tough winter ahead

As if the terrible conditions in summer wouldn’t be enough, the situation of the Syrian people gets even worse during the winter months.

Below-freezing temperatures, lack of heating, leaking tents flooded by water and mud and no possibility to protect yourself from the cold – this is no nightmare, this is reality for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees having fled to Lebanon.

In the Interview Lisa Abou Khaled stated very clearly:”Winter brings subzero temperatures, snow, winds, and heavy rains in Lebanon. The vulnerabilities of refugees are exacerbated in winter, especially for refugees who live in substandard shelters, such as informal settlements.” While in summer they are suffering of massive heat waves, in winter the horrible weather conditions exacerbate their lives and make surviving an everyday challenge.

“Last winter, over 45 humanitarian agencies worked around the clock to provide winter assistance to refugees and vulnerable Lebanese as three harsh storms hit Lebanon between November and January. The assistance included a combination of cash to help the most vulnerable refugees withstand the winter months as well as the provision of stoves and blankets to all those in need.  Winter support also includes fuel vouchers and sealing off shelter kits to all those who are living in insecure dwellings.

In addition to providing cash, agencies will distribute shelter and core relief items such as stoves, blankets and warm clothes to ensure that refugees and vulnerable Lebanese are well equipped to weather low temperatures. In areas where the cash program will prove difficult to implement such as in Arsal, in-kind support and fuel vouchers will be provided. Partners will also ensure that shelters are protected through the distribution of weatherproofing kits and that classrooms in elevated areas are warm through the provision of fuel in schools.

Agencies are currently working to raise the necessary funds in order to beef up their capacity and prepare for the implementation of the program at the beginning of November.”

This video from last year may help you to imagine what winter is like for the Syrian refugees in Lebanon:

Besides all the other struggles the Syrian refugees have to face, Lisa explains what in her opinion is the biggest challenge UNHCR Lebanon has to overcome regarding the upcoming winter months:

“Over 1 million refugees in Lebanon are spread across 1,700 locations throughout the country. Reaching all those in need and making sure they have enough resources to withstand severe storms is a huge human and logistical undertaking. 

UNHCR assessments show that some 55% of refugees in Lebanon live in sub-standard shelters, including more than 3,400 informal tented sites. More than 1,200 of the informal sites are in Bekaa Valley alone. Many other refugees live in any kind of shelter they can find, including abandoned buildings, sheds and garages. 

With no government approval for refugee shelter construction or significant renovations to existing structures, UNHCR is usually restricted to supplying various materials to help refugees reinforce their shelters as best as they can. 

Since the vast majority of refugees are on private land, there are limits to what UNHCR can do to make improvements. Dwellings have sprung up in a haphazard way without any planning, site preparation, water and electricity, or drainage systems. Settlements vary in size from a few households to as many as 300 families. We have mapped informal sites across the country and continue to make improvements on the most critical places – if permission is granted by the owners. If not, we can’t do major site work but instruct residents in ways of diverting water around their shelters and alleviating other weather-related risks.” 

Important side note: UNHCR stopped the registration of Syrian refugees in May 2015 at the request of the government of Lebanon, but that doesn’t change any of the effort and spirit the UNHCR is putting into trying to give as many refugees as possible a safe place to live in and to provide them with humanitarian aid.  

If your eyes have just been opened about the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and you’re now willing to support the work of the UNHCR and help, there are many ways you, as an individual, can help UNHCR deliver aid to refugees. You can either help raise awareness on the plight of refugees, give private donations to UNHCR and refugees, volunteer, etc.

Please visit the following page for more information:

If you want to know more and stay updated about the situation in Lebanon:

A very well done documentary and summary about the situation of refugees in Lebanon during the winter months, also featuring an interview with Lisa Abou Khaled

The inspiring story of Hany Al Moliya, a young Syrian having fled to Lebanon

The UNCHR Lebanon

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