With little aid in Lebanon, Syrians dig their own wells, forage for roofs

Aid to Syrian refugees is ad hoc because of the country's rejection of formal Syrian refugee camps.

By , Correspondent

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    Syrian refugee men stop water from entering their tents, at a temporary refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Marj near the border with Syria, Lebanon, January 7, 2013.
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In a dusty field outside Chtaura, a transit town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on the road from Beirut to Damascus, a group of men are digging a well, dredging up heaps of wet clay before inserting a tube and turning a crank until brown water bubbles out.

“We build it ourselves and just charge families whatever they can pay,” says one of the laborers, a Syrian refugee who lives in the informal camp that the well services. The water is only suitable for washing, however, and even then there is not enough of it to serve the entire community.

Beside the makeshift well is a new, state-of-the-art latrine, with a ceramic pot surrounded by corrugated iron. About six months ago, the Christian charity World Vision built 12 toilets for the camp’s approximately 140 residents. The laborer says he hoped World Version or another aid organization would return to construct systems providing clean drinking water, too. When that didn't happen, a few men in the community collected the equipment and began digging their own wells.

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This is the nature of aid in Lebanon. Refugees interviewed perceive it as helpful but wholly unreliable. In the informal Bekaa camps where 40 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live, they complain that aid workers arrive to register refugees and occasionally provide them with small cash grants, but then disappear for long stretches of time.

Most often, they are representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the main aid-coordinating body for refugee assistance.

Providing consistent aid to Syrian refugees is more challenging in Lebanon than in Syria's other neighbors, like Jordan and Turkey, where tens of thousands of refugees live and receive services in official UNHCR camps. Lebanon’s camps mostly resemble the community near Chtaura: informal refugee "areas" with a few hundred residents renting space on a Lebanese landowners’ field.

They live in houses built from collected and donated scraps of wood and plastic because the Lebanese government has so far prevented UNHCR from establishing official Syrian refugee camps, wary of having another refugee population on their hands indefinitely. Thousands of displaced Palestinians who fled to Lebanon "temporarily" following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and establishment of the state of Israel are still there today, the UN-funded camps built to provide shelter for a few years are now quite permanent. 

“[Syrian] refugees in Lebanon are distributed among 1,400 different locations, making registration one of the most complex urban operations in the world,” says Joelle Eid, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Lebanon. More than 50 humanitarian organizations serve Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and outreach to refugees happens through local municipalities, local authorities, refugee focal points and outreach workers. 

Only 24 percent of the agency’s appeal for $1.7 billion has been provided to sustain its assistance to the more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon through 2013. 

“Compared to the needs of both host communities and refugees residing in Lebanon, the funding levels are extremely low,” Ms. Eid says. “As a result, agencies have to make difficult choices in terms of the criteria for assistance distribution. Cash grants as such are only given to extremely vulnerable refugee families and some host families."

The Lebanese government is divided over whether to establish fixed camps. As early as November 2011, when only 3,643 Syrian refugees were registered with UNHCR in Lebanon, the Future Movement urged the government to set up camps, and other Sunni and Islamist leaders opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad soon joined this stance. Pro-Assad Hezbollah and its allies remain firmly opposed to the establishment of camps.

“We will not tolerate Lebanon becoming a corridor or base for foreign meddling in Syria” a senior Hezbollah official told International Crisis Group in June 2012. “This is why we rejected the establishment of refugee camps in Lebanon despite repeated calls by March 14 to that effect. They would become areas on which armed groups could fall back and in which they could seek refuge.”

In June 2013, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman argued that camps should be set up inside Syria, under the protection of a Western-led no-fly zone. Also in June, UNHCR began to push back on the Lebanese government’s continued prohibition of camps, requesting that the Lebanese government allow it to establish formal camps. The high cost and limited resources for serving the more than 1 million Syrian refugees dispersed throughout the country is unsustainable and deteriorating, the agency argues.

“At the beginning of the Syria crisis, the majority of refugees who came to Lebanon settled with host families,” Eid says. “Today, two years into the crisis the majority of refugees are living in rented accommodation. With rents increasingly on the rise, many refugees are at risk of eviction.”

One of those at risk is Sammar, a young mother of two from the Bab al-Amr neighborhood of Homs, razed by the Syrian regime in 2012. When she first arrived to Chtaura in late June 2103, the Lebanese owner of the camp let her family stay for free the first week they arrived. Now they live with her husband's family while construction of shelter for her family is stalled. She says a Canadian aid organization promised to provide her with wood to complete construction, but it never arrived.

Even though Sammar's family lives with relatives who pay the landlord rent, he is threatening to evict her family.

“It’s bad here,” she says. “I don’t trust these Lebanese.”

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