Serena is one of the many Lebanese who have been directly impacted by the now half million refugees who fled in 1948 and never returned. Generations later, Lebanon is struggling to balance the growing influx of Syrian refugees with the anxiety of a population that fears a replay of the Palestinian refugee crisis.
With over 1 million Syrians now in Lebanon and no end to the conflict in sight, there is a rising fear across the country that temporary U.N. tents will soon become permanent tenements, further saturating the Lebanese workforce and contributing to the deterioration of the economy.
The UNHCR recently launched a $1.7 billion appeal for Lebanon for the year 2014 to respond to the needs of 1.5 million Syrian refugees, 100,000 Palestine refugees from Syria, 50,000 Lebanese returnees and 1.5 million affected Lebanese.
The tent settlements that dot highways along the eastern Bekaa Valley are nowhere to be found in the historic city of Baalbek, a stronghold of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that dominates Lebanon. Syrian refugees are not welcome here. Just two weeks ago, a tent settlement in a nearby village was torched and its inhabitants sent fleeing. The Lebanese family that owns that parcel of land wanted to subdivide and sell it, and they feared their plans would be ruined by the growing settlement.
“There used to be seven tents for the migrant workers who tended the fields. But then when the crisis started, they brought all of their cousins, and it became 400 people,” said Hikmet Shreif, a Lebanese journalist who covered the incident. “The Syrians have no rights because it’s not their land.”
On the other hand, he said, “The state cannot kick refugees off the land; it is against international law.” Desperate to safeguard the valuable land and left with what they saw as no legal recourse, the family burned the tents to the ground.
Shreif said that this was not the first case of Lebanese landowners taking matters into their own hands against Syrian squatters. One family, some 30 miles outside Baalbek, shut down a settlement alongside their house after one of their sons, a member of Hezbollah, was killed fighting against Syrian rebels in the battle for Qusayr. In their anguish, Shreif said, the family retaliated against the settlement.
The delicate balance between Lebanon’s Christian, Muslim Shiite and Muslim Sunni population, which each comprise about one-third of the population, also threatens to be altered by the mostly Sunni refugees. The fears of a permanent population shift have led Lebanese authorities, unlike their counterparts in Turkey and Jordan, to reject establishing official camps, or even the semi-permanent housing proposed by international NGOs.
But the issue is not purely sectarian, and landowners’ fears are not unique to Lebanon’s Shiite-majority areas.
One of the most concentrated pockets of refugees is in Arsal, where tens of thousands of Syrians have taken shelter amid an ongoing regime offensive just across Lebanon’s eastern border.
In this majority-Sunni border town, Lebanese landowners are themselves working to balance traditional hospitality with the need to secure their land.
Haitham Hemeida, an Arsal aid worker, described how some landowners “have the refugees sign a [rental] contract for one or two years, but with no money.”
He himself “rents” six rooms of his house to Syrian families, but refuses any payment. “If they get money from an NGO to pay me rent, I tell them to keep it and use it for what they need,” he said.
Gesturing toward a collective of snow-covered tents and a makeshift bathroom he said: “The owner of this camp had the refugees sign a contract agreeing that they will leave at the end of the revolution.”
Asked if this meant the fall of the Assad regime, he clarified: “It means the end of the fighting, whatever end that may be.”
Engaging Host Communities
Tensions are also high in Akkar, a largely Sunni-populated region along the northern border with Syria.
Jeremy, an NGO field officer based in the area, says that he spends much of his time trekking to the homes of various landowners, working to placate fears that refugees will dig in for the long haul.
For those landowners, “the most common worry is that people will stay there. Sometimes, they want to kick them out to use the land for agriculture or to put in a building. Generally it’s because people are not paying the rent,” he said.
“Neighbors complain that people fight at night with knives and are rude. It’s quite tense,” he said, adding that other issues include the unsanitary nature of the settlements, which have no access to waste management, and the illegal siphoning of electricity supplies on Lebanon’s already-strained network (power cuts occur daily throughout the country).
“In Akkar the local population is really poor. They wonder why Syrian refugees have so much support and they have nothing,” Jeremy said.
Last week, Lebanese caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati expressed disappointment with the international community for failing to adequately provide for a refugee population who now comprise one-fourth of the Lebanese population.
“The international community did not take steps in accordance with the needs and the limited capabilities of the Lebanese state,” he said during a meeting with Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief.
Aware of the strain, NGOs like Jeremy’s are making it a priority to stimulate the economy of areas hosting a large number of refugees, and to ensure that locals feel they are getting some benefit from that hosting.
“We’re creating infrastructure networks for things like sewage and wastewater,” he said. “That way the populace will have work, and the new network benefits both the refugees and the host community. His coworker noted that “it is taboo to give those jobs to Syrians … or even to Palestinians.”
U.N. Habitat has been working exclusively with local municipalities, which in turn decide which businesses will be awarded contracts for housing projects.
Synne Bergy, a shelter planning officer for the organization, said that a government decision last week to approve tent settlements in Arsal and the north of 70 units, up from 20, represented a significant shift in policy. But the decision is also a band-aid on a larger problem.
“We are afraid that tent settlements will become more permanent without being acknowledged as proper neighborhoods,” said Bergy. Without such recognition, residents and NGOs alike are barred from upgrading or building formal infrastructure.
“Some refugees have already lived in these tent settlements for two years,” she said.
In the meantime, U.N. Habitat is doing its utmost to engage with host communities and municipalities, partner on projects and gather information on the constraints and needs of the local infrastructure.
“[Local municipalities] are very willing to deliver to both Syrian refugees and Lebanese citizens. But in some areas the Syrian population is almost as large as the Lebanese, so the demand for services has skyrocketed. By working with those communities and local authorities, we acknowledge that this is something that really puts a strain on them,” Bergy said.
“Maybe some of the larger agencies are worried that there will be corruption or time constraints if they work through local authorities, but we don’t see more corruption or time constraints. On the contrary, we found it more efficient to work with those who already know the local context, where the refugees are and what the needs are.”
She added: “Even if they are ripping us off a bit, it’s not a bad thing … the point is for the local community to feel like they’re benefiting from the refugees.”
Serena and Jeremy are pseudonyms.