At the time of the December 2015 vote on military action against Islamic State in Syria, the UK Government set out a strategy to eventually resolve the refugee crisis and defeat terrorism in Syria through achieving a political transition to a representative inclusive government. While pursuing this by diplomatic means, the UK would aim to contain the refugee crisis to the region by means of humanitarian aid and by encouraging regional states to improve refugees’ conditions.
Over a year on, Syria Notes interviewed a number of refugees in Lebanon on how they now view their prospects.
Habiba, a middle-aged woman living with her husband, is one of an estimated 10 to 20,000 Syrian refugees who fled to Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in South Beirut. She volunteers in a small organisation to make bread, in return for a daily ration. Like many, she can’t see a future in Lebanon beyond survival, and has little hope of returning to Syria.
“We would need safety, an end to the war. We would need to be able to return to our old homes, our old work and money to rebuild them,” she says. “There is no country left.”
Habiba says she would not accept a transfer or resettlement to another area in her country, but only wishes to return to her home in the countryside of Aleppo.
‘There is absolutely no work, no money. All the money in Syria now comes from people outside, and from political groups. If you don’t have any connection with a [fighting] group, you get no money.’
A Syrian family from Homs living metres away in the camp agrees saying that they wouldn’t consider returning unless guarantees for their safety could be made and they would only return to their village.
“We won’t go back until the war is over and change is made… this will never happen,” says Abu Majed, who is unable to work in his field of construction due to severe illness. The family of seven live in a two room flat in the camp and all the children Majed, 11, and his two elder sisters work to provide a living for their family, with the teenage girls earning around 150 dollars working in clothes factories and shops in the surrounding Beirut suburb of Dahieh.
Syrians who settle in Palestinian camps in Lebanon are among the poorest of those millions who have fled the war. In Bourj al-Barajneh at least 30,000 people are crammed into an area of one square kilometre without adequate access to services.
Palestinians in Lebanon have been deeply affected by the Syrian crisis; overcrowding is visible on the streets and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) can barely keep up with collecting the mounting rubbish. Yet despite the potential volatility of the camps there have been few problems between Syrian refugees and their Palestinian hosts, and although Palestinian organizations have suffered vastly reduced funding, clinics, and children’s nurseries in the camp have informally opened their doors to Syrian refugees without any recompense.
“Palestinians and Syrians are the same”
“Life is much better in the camp than outside. There isn’t as much racism, and no Lebanese security… I’m afraid to go out because of them,” says Habiba. “I don’t have a visa because it costs $1,000 a year now—maybe my husband earns ten dollars on a good day. If I was caught Lebanese security just takes us to the border.”
“We just go outside the camp only when we have to… life is much better here,” says Um Majed. “Palestinians and Syrians are the same.”
As Lebanon has made it more difficult and expensive for refugees to obtain legal status, now only around 30 per cent of Syrian families are living legally in the country. Like many refugees in the area, both Habiba and the family claim they are unable to register with the UN, and therefore unable to take a visa card providing refugees with a basic income. They also have no access to the health clinic for refugees in the camp, and it is extremely difficult to attend schools.
“They [the UN] don’t say outright—that they won’t register us—but they say they need to study our cases… it takes years,” Habiba explains, adding that other refugees with connections or different attitudes are able to register in multiple organisations, taking the same benefits from everyone. Syrians who lack the necessary identity documents are also unable to register.
“There is no coordination… some register with the UN and Makhzoumi organization and take rent from both, while some of us don’t have anything from anyone.”
“We don't need blankets. We need money”
Habiba says there is also a lack of planning in distributing aid. “Last winter everyone got heaters. This winter everyone got mattresses and blankets. We don’t need heaters and mattresses and blankets. We need money for rent. It seems a waste to buy heaters for people who then sell them to get rent money.”
Housing is expensive in the camp with a two-bedroom flat costing around 300 dollars a rent a month plus hefty bills, often inflated by generator costs, as government electricity supply to the camp is minimal. Rent and utilities are the most significant expense for refugees in Lebanon, and is partly why Majed’s sisters are unable to go to school.
“I want my daughters to continue their education, but the expenses are too much, and we need money to live,” says Um Majed. “This really upset one of my girls especially – she was getting such good marks, and could have done well. But even if they finish where is the future? What other jobs could they get here?”
Abu Majed says that any back-to-school schemes must consider the loss of children’s earnings where families without support desperately need the money. Where the number of registered refugees in Lebanon is estimated to be around a million, there is thought to be an additional 500,000 unregistered refugees like Habiba and Abu Majed’s family in the country.
“People are still coming, everyday, smuggled through the mountains. It’s not difficult to get through the border – the Lebanese security are not as strict as Turkey and Jordan, and it’s the same language and there is a little work,” Habiba says.
Habiba feels that the destiny of Syrian refugees is likely to become the same as their new Palestinian neighbours; to remain stateless and in limbo for decades in a country where they are unwelcome.