Another tragic winter looms for Lebanon’s Syria refugees
BEIRUT - With winter at the doorstep, hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in temporary refugee tents in Lebanon’s vast open fields are praying for less snow and rain.
The refugees dread another harsh winter, the fifth in exile for many, amid even poorer living conditions. At least four Syrian refugees froze to death when the country was hit by a series of snowstorms last winter.
“The conditions are very, very bad,” Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said. “This is why we are seeing the refugees risking their lives to escape [to Europe] by sea.”
Humanitarian groups agree that conditions have been deteriorating for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, as cash-strapped international aid agencies are forced to cut assistance.
“This year it will be much worse,” said Iffat Edriss, president of Cedars for Care, a local charity.
“Assistance from international organisations has declined dramatically and refugee families are now on bread-debt. They are borrowing money for bread,” added Mona Ayoub, project coordinator of Lebanon for Refugees, another group working to ensure the refugees have the means to survive the harsh weather.
According to a recent report by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the vulnerabilities of Syrian refugees have increased 100% in some areas. “UNHCR and partners estimate that 195,000 Syrian families in Lebanon (975,000 people) will suffer from winter and will need assistance to keep warm and dry,” the report warned.
Amid this gloomy outlook, Lebanon has seen a surge in private initiatives to help prevent a deadly scenario for Syrian refugees this winter.
Dafa (Arabic for “Warmth”), a campaign by a group of media celebrities, was launched at a public event in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, where hundreds donated food and new and second-hand clothes and food.
The organisers, who did not limit their beneficiaries to Syrian refuges, have chosen not to accept financial donations.
“We decided to restrict it to in-kind donations and not deal with money for transparency and simplicity,” Tarek Abou Saleh, co-founder of the campaign, said.
Sawa (“Together”) for Development and Aid, a non-government organisation that started as a youth initiative in 2001, is organising a November 16th event to collect donations, for which a social media campaign with the slogan #BeforeTheStorm has been ongoing for weeks.
Despite the efforts, the general public feeling towards the matter is less than encouraging. “Sympathy still exists and donations never stopped but many Lebanese have now become tired,” with the Syrian crisis more than four years old and with no solution in sight, Edriss said.
“The situation has become worse as the socio-economic conditions of the Lebanese people deteriorated, prompting many donors to chip in on condition that their aid would reach Lebanese beneficiaries only,” she added.
“We’ve had a number of incidents in which a family comes in and ask to have some of the items but we had to reject their request because the items were meant for people from another nationality.”
The small-scale private initiatives can hardly fill the needs amid the Lebanese government’s incapacity to help the refugees. Disagreement over aid policies between Lebanon and international donors has prevented international assistance from flowing in.
The international community has been critical of the government’s decision to close the border to Syrian refugees more than a year ago and prevent the UNHCR from registering newcomers. That measure was paralleled with a ban on work for refugees or else they would lose their refugee status and assistance stipends.
As Lebanon’s already weak infrastructure crumbled under the pressure of the refugee influx, international organisations have refused to invest in development projects related to the humanitarian crisis caused by the refugees unless Syrians are among the direct beneficiaries.
Drowned in the swamp of inaction left by this gridlock, Syrians are left with little choice but to bypass the law and seek work in the informal sector.
“Last year, 40% of Syrian refugees worked in informal sectors. This year, the already high rate is expected to skyrocket amid the government’s non-existent refugee strategy,” said an economic expert who requested anonymity.
“The government’s policy has thus backfired as the informal sector is neither taxable nor monitored.”
Unlike Jordan and other neighbouring countries harbouring Syrian refugees, Lebanon has refused to officially establish temporary refugee camps, fearing they would encourage Syrians to stay and become permanent refugees like Palestinians. About 425,000 Palestinian refugees are registered with the UNHCR, most of whom live in 12 official refugee camps across Lebanon.
Such a decision proved to be detrimental for the Syrian refugees, especially those staying in mountainous areas, because formal camps would have had portacabins, ready-made homes often used in humanitarian housing projects, instead of the often-leaky tents that are currently in use.
“If you allocate space for the temporary camps, the international community is willing to help,” Edriss said. “Because the whole process would then be organised and humanitarian agencies would know where their money is going.
“But if you leave families scattered across Lebanon, it is impossible to systemise the aid in an effective manner.”