Saturday 16 December 2017

'At least in the Mediterranean they are dying quickly'

If Europe has a refugee crisis, then Lebanon has a refugee catastrophe

Left: Syrian refugee Abdullah Al Hamad and his family, who have been living in a refugee camp for two years
Left: Syrian refugee Abdullah Al Hamad and his family, who have been living in a refugee camp for two years
Children at the camp in Akkar in northern Lebanon
Children playing in the refugee camp in Lebanon
A child in the refugee camp in Lebanon
Tents at a similar refugee camp in the town of Deir Zanoun, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon Photo: AP
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The first thing you notice is not the dirt or the smell, but the flies. The floor inside the cramped, dark tent is crawling with them. After a while, flicking them off your skin seems a waste of effort.

"At least the people who are drowning in the Mediterranean are dying quickly. We are dying slowly," said Syrian refugee Abdullah Al Hamad, who has been living in a refugee camp in Akkar in northern Lebanon for two years.

He decided to leave Syria after his wife was killed during the carpet-bombing of Homs by President Bashar Al-Assad's forces. Now Abdullah, his four young daughters and much of his extended family are living in tents in a field, paying $50 (€44) rent per tent per month for the privilege.

Of the 150 people living on this informal settlement, nearly half are children. They used to receive $30 per person per month from the World Food Programme, but because of a lack of funding from international donors, this ration had to be cut. Now they get only $13 a month for food, with this meagre assistance capped at five-member families.

If Europe has a refugee crisis, then Lebanon has a refugee catastrophe. Since the start of the conflict in 2011, more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees - three-quarters of them women and children - have fled to this tiny country, which is half the size of Munster. If this number is added to the 500,000 Palestinian refugees who first arrived in 1948, refugees now comprise 33pc of its population.

Although Lebanon undoubtedly saved many lives by keeping its border open to so many people for so long, the strain is finally beginning to show. In May, the government demanded that Syrians who had entered the country since last January be de-registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and said it was unable to take any more.

Given the hand-wringing that is going on in Europe at the prospect of absorbing 350,000 refugees - or 0.068pc of its population - few could blame the Lebanese for closing their borders. However, the plight of the Syrians who are languishing there is desperate.

Unlike in Jordan, there are no sprawling refugee camps in Lebanon. Instead, relatively small groups are scattered throughout the country, finding shelter anywhere they can - in unfinished buildings, dilapidated garages or makeshift accommodation in open fields. When they first arrived, many had savings so they could afford to pay rent and support their families. But with the war now in its fifth year, this money has dried up and living conditions are rapidly deteriorating.

Although the world finally woke up to the crisis in Syria last month, Concern decided it had to respond to the disaster in early 2013 when its team first began operating in Akkar, the poorest region of the country with the second-highest concentration of refugees. Engineer Pat O'Halloran said the dispersed nature of the settlements had posed some unique problems.

"We have installed clean water and toilet facilities in 138 informal settlements at a cost of $5,000 per camp, but our major expense is the recurring costs involved in bringing in fresh water tanks and desludging sceptic tanks, which amounts to $35,000 per month," he said.

While ensuring camps have safe drinking water and waste facilities is a necessity in the short-term, Concern is also planning for the medium and long-term by renovating decrepit buildings to house refugees and improving the water and waste network, which will ultimately benefit tens of thousands of people.

"UNHCR and the EU are providing funding for some of these big infrastructure projects and we are delivering them, working with local municipalities to do so," said Mr O'Halloran.

"The beauty of these projects is that they help both the refugee and local Lebanese populations - they reduce tensions and encourage people in Akkar to continue hosting large numbers of refugees."

Education is another key focus. Due to the huge numbers of refugee children who have entered Lebanon in the past four years, public schools have begun educating children in two shifts - one in the morning and one in the afternoon - to cope with the pressure.

However, as the curriculum in the former French colony is still taught partly in French, Syrian children need French classes before they can enrol in schools.

Concern has set up classes in temporary settlements to tutor children in French, Arabic and maths in order to ensure they can access education.

Of the 400,000 refugee children who are now living in Lebanon, it has been estimated that more than half are not in any sort of formal education. Concern's important work in this area will ensure that large numbers of Syrian children don't join this lost generation.

Regretfully, a funding crisis is threatening to unravel much of this good work.

For instance, Concern has refurbished a large building where 20 Syrian families are housed, each living in one room for which UNCHR pays a landlord rent - reduced to $89 per month in return for the building work.

The families living here were chosen because they are particularly vulnerable, with illness preventing the men from picking up casual work. But UNCHR's Syrian budget is only 37pc funded, so it can no longer continue paying this rent. Now these families are facing imminent eviction.

If world leaders are wondering why so many Syrian refugees are making the dangerous journey to Europe, they need look no further than these families - and their abandonment by the international community - for answers.

Irish Independent

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