Storms put fate of Syrian refugees in Lebanon on the line

Shrinking aid budgets and broken promises among donor countries exacerbated living conditions in the camps and policies have been left to dictates of local concerns.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Frozen camps. Syrian refugee children stand near tents at a makeshift camp at the Lebanese  border town  of Arsal, Lebanon, January 9.  (Reuters)
Frozen camps. Syrian refugee children stand near tents at a makeshift camp at the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon, January 9. (Reuters)

TUNIS - A strong winter storm hit Lebanon’s makeshift refugee camps, piling snow and rain on those torn between the machinations of Lebanon’s politics and Russian plans for their repatriation.

ReliefWeb, a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said more than 70,000 Syrian refugees, more than half of whom are women and children, are at risk, and more bad weather is expected.

Juriya Ramadan, from Deir ez-Zor, Syria, told ReliefWeb from her flooded shelter in the Bekaa Valley: “People are sick. Everywhere there is water. We cannot sleep at night. It has been three days like this. All night we sit and watch the kids and we cannot do anything for them. Their situation is very bad.”

“From the very start of Syrian refugees’ arrival to Lebanon (in late 2011), those in the unofficial camps have been living in the kind of conditions one still sees across much of the Bekaa Valley today,” analyst Alex Rowell said.

Shelters of little more than thermoplastic sheets strung across breeze blocks and old tyres, often with no electricity, water or sewage dot Lebanon’s countryside.

“Some have been able to fortify and develop these structures, using bricks and cement and other rudimentary construction materials,” Rowell said, “but, if so, this has been either of their own initiative or with the assistance of one NGO or another.”

Shrinking aid budgets and broken promises among donor countries exacerbated living conditions in the camps and policies have been left to dictates of local concerns.

“While some municipalities have taken on disproportionately high numbers of refugees, spending above-average per capita sums, others have flat-out refused to accept any refugees,” Rowell said. “Many enforce curfews at night and other discriminatory measures against Syrians.”

However, for Lebanon’s caretaker government, paralysed by division and with a cabinet apparently no closer to being formed than when the country went to the polls in May, the crisis is unlikely to draw any major policy change.

“I think there’s been a real growth in the sympathy for the refugees among the people of Lebanon,” Nasser Yassin, director of research at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute said.

“Certainly, looking at social media you see that people are concerned. However, I don’t think it’s going to mark a major policy shift. People are too concerned about domestic politics and maintaining Lebanon’s sectarian balance.”

Russia has been making the case for the refugees’ return to Syria, which would bolster the Assad regime’s legitimacy and help Moscow make the case for further international involvement in Syria’s costly reconstruction process.

“I think the terrible conditions in the camps do help reinforce the case for their return,” Yassin said, “However, we’re still to hear as much from the refugees themselves.”

Whatever the argument may be in the Kremlin, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the rain-sodden, frozen camps of Lebanon. For many, that refugees now have the option of returning “yet overwhelmingly choose to remain in such unimaginable misery,” Rowell said, “only further underscores their aversion to life under [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s regime.”

That refugees would rather remain in the camps than return to the prospect of torture, detention, conscription or the “staggering official corruption and misrule at all levels,” Rowell continued, adding, “Even freezing winters in flooded camps [are] preferable by comparison.”

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