Another tragic winter looms for Lebanon’s Syria refugees

Friday 06/11/2015
Refugees dread another harsh winter

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.”