Lost souls of war without an end
The conflict tearing Syria apart has caused 200,000 deaths and displaced 10 million people. Neighbours like Lebanon can no longer cope with the tsunami of refugees
Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30
Every night they wind their way through the traffic in Beirut's most fashionable neighbourhoods, selling roses to club-goers or offering to clean windscreens for a few dollars. Their accents mark them out, as does their unkempt appearance.
Now in its fifth year, the conflict that began as a popular uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has claimed over 200,000 lives and displaced more than 10 million people inside and out of the country.
The Syrian exodus is one of the biggest movements of people the region has ever experienced. Its consequences will be far-reaching as the Syrians reshape the social fabric of the countries where they have sought shelter.
Around four million Syrians have registered with the UN refugee agency UNHCR in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.
Many of those who have made it further afield to north Africa have attempted the dangerous crossing to Europe on rickety boats run by people smugglers charging thousands of euro for passage across the Mediterranean.
Tiny Lebanon has received the highest number of Syrian refugees in the world. With more than 1.3 million refugees registered here, Syrians now comprise one quarter of the country's population.
One UN official observed that Lebanon's predicament is comparable to the United States taking in 80 million people within four years.
UNHCR estimates there are more than 400,000 child refugees from Syria in Lebanon and it is believed at least one in 10 of them work. The stories behind the statistics are grim.
Some of the children working as hawkers, window cleaners and shoe-shine boys on Beirut's streets have been abandoned by their families while others came to Lebanon alone, often simply walking over the border.
According to UNICEF, more than 4,000 children from Syria have crossed into neighbouring countries with no adult to look after them.
"The Syrian children we see on our streets are a daily reminder of how the war next door is affecting us and will affect us for years, if not decades, to come," says one Beirut resident.
"The influx is putting a lot of pressure on our society."
Lebanon's social affairs minister Rashid Derbas recently described the refugee crisis as the "most dangerous" the country has faced in recent years.
Derbas said the "unprecedented" number of Syrian refugees had overburdened Lebanon's health and education sectors and had put further strain on its already creaking infrastructure.
Many Lebanese, mindful of the history of the country's substantial population of Palestinian refugees, argue that it also poses a threat to the country's delicate sectarian balance.
Others fret about security, concerned about the possible presence of armed elements among the refugees.
"We already see signs of how Syria's war has come to us," says a resident of Tripoli, the city in northern Lebanon where factions supporting one side or the other of the Syrian conflict have clashed.
Because the Lebanese authorities have not allowed the UN to establish formal refugee camps, some 1,700 makeshift settlements have sprung up across the country. Many refugees live in abysmal conditions in unfinished or derelict buildings, warehouses, sheds and garages. Others have built rudimentary tents from whatever materials they can find. In Beirut, some Syrians have sought refuge in the teeming Sabra and Shuttle camps, where generations of Palestinian refugees have grown up in ramshackle homes.
The UN has warned that the Syrians will become increasingly vulnerable as whatever savings they have gradually run out. A bigger humanitarian crisis looms.
Nevertheless, the Lebanese government is adopting a tougher line in an attempt to stem the flow of people from across the border. UNHCR stopped registering Syrian refugees in Lebanon in May at the government's request.
This means newly arrived Syrians cannot get UN assistance including health services, legal advice and shelter support, making their situation even more precarious.
There are also concerns about the plight of stateless newborns among the population of Syrian refugees.
Research into some 6,000 Syrian babies born in Lebanon in 2014 found that 72pc did not possess an official birth certificate, which could mean they will not be recognised by Syrian authorities in the future.
Stateless, unwanted and traumatised by war, Syria's lost generation will haunt Lebanon and the region more widely for decades to come.