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Middle East

Lebanon bears the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis

media A file photo of a Syrian refugee girl sitting outside a tent at a refugee camp in Northern Lebanon. Reuters/Stringer

Today marks the fourth anniversary of violent protests in Syria that sparked the civil war between supporters of president Bashar al-Assad and those trying to overthrow his regime. After years of bloody fighting, any hope of peace seems as distant as ever.

The conflict in Syria has triggered the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Of the three million people that have fled the country, nearly half have sought safety in neighbouring Lebanon.

Never before in history has a country received such a large proportion of refugees. The make-up of this small Mediterranean state has shifted drastically, so that half the population of Lebanon is now made up of foreigners.

The Lebanese government is insistent that the country cannot cope with the sheer volume of people. The already intermittent electricity supply is being stretched ever more thinly, rents are rising sharply up and down the country, and entire communities are having to go days without water.

This has resulted in the government introducing visa restrictions – for the first time ever – for Syrians trying to cross in Lebanon, now accepting only the most pressing humanitarian cases.

The countryside is littered with small clusters of tents, known as 'Informal Tented Settlements', where Syrian families live, often surrounded by neighbours from the same town in Syria. Entire communities have been transplanted over the border.

The settlements are mostly small and sporadic. There are no officially recognized refugee camps in Lebanon as the government, which has a long history of sheltering refugees, fears that normalising the situation will forever change the religious make-up of the country.

For them, establishing official refugee camps means accepting and normalising a situation that neither they, nor the refugees themselves, are prepared for.

Even before the civil war, Syrians had long been coming to Lebanon to live and work.

"They are just like us, they are our brothers," Lebanon's Minister for Displaced Persons Alice Shabtini told me, conceding however that as they are willing to work longer and for much lower wages, "Syrians are getting more work in Beirut than even the Lebanese."

This increased competition for work is stoking tensions. Ahmed, a Lebanese coffee shop worker in the capital Beirut, told me the situation is "not fair."

"They need to abide by our rules," he said, referring to the undercutting of wages. "There is no clash of cultures, but if a Syrian will work more hours for half the money, who will hire us? Then we will all be in a bad situation'" Ahmed added.

In more rural areas however, Syrian refugees have told me countless stories of the local population helping them.

Brahim from Raqqa, a city in eastern Syria on the Euphrates river, has been living in a tent in the Bekaa Valley with his wife Maryam and their five young children for over two years. He tells me they fled Syria with nothing but the clothes on their back, and have so far only managed to get hold of two cushions for their family of seven to sleep on.

He is responsible for the whole settlement of sixty people, and for a time a few months ago they completely ran out of water. With no means to buy any more, the Lebanese residents of a local village handed over their own water supply to the refugees.

Public transport is scarce in the Bekaa Valley and Brahim and his community are largely cut off from public services. "When we have someone who is ill, the local Lebanese come and take them to the clinic. There is no tension at all," Brahim told me.

As the Syrian civil war enters its fifth year many refugees who, until now, have been able to survive on savings are seeing their funds dry up. People who have been lucky enough to afford to rent rooms or apartments now have little choice but to move into tented shelters, or worse, onto the streets.

The humanitarian relief funding is also being quickly depleted. The UN's World Food Programme has had to halve the monthly aid it gives to Syrian refugees to just $19 USD, often barely enough for two weeks' worth of food.

Much of the funding the international community has pledged to the UN is yet to arrive, leading to the despair of many Syrians. Sheikh Abdo, the head of a volunteer-run school for Syrian children in northern Lebanon, told me that the Syrian people in Lebanon have "lost all confidence in humanitarian organisations."

"We've had many promises from delegates and organisations, but in reality this never leads to anything."

 

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