When we arrived at the UN’s Beirut refugee registration centre on a hot autumn day, hundreds of people had been waiting under an unrelenting sun for hours – there were mothers with newborn babies; children; elderly. The NGO War Child has installed a small playground nearby, but it was gated shut, and there were no children inside playing. The men stood patiently in line waiting to be registered. If I could define one emotion that seemed universal amongst the people we met that day, it seemed to be: baffled.
One man waiting in line was a 21-year old Syrian from Damascus, a university graduate who once worked at one of Damascus’ best hotels as a customer service representative before he fled the war. He had been waiting for hours, clutching his dossier of papers, before being told he was not eligible for refugee aid. He told us he had travelled all the way from Tripoli, northern Lebanon (a three hour journey by car) because he was told in Tripoli to report to Beirut. Here in Beirut, he had just been told to go back to Tripoli to register, because his parents were Palestinian – even though has born in Syria – he would not be eligible for benefits from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
He tried to argue his case: it was senseless. He left the line, defeated. The journey had been expensive. Worse, he was going back to a tent in Tripoli with no more knowledge than when he set out at dawn that morning.
“There is a complete lack of information,” he said. “I wasted days trying to register, now it looks like I cannot. This kind of experience makes you want to give up.”
Others waiting in line were not sure what they would be offered once they had registered. The less well off – from rural areas – were simply confused about what they were doing there at all. They said they came because neighbors advised them to. Most of them said they had come to the registration center because they thought UNHCR could help them get to another country. One man actually said he left Syria expecting to “go straight to the German Embassy, and they would put me in a hotel. I was very misled….neighbours told me I could go to Germany if I got to Lebanon.” These were stories we were to hear repeated many times during the week spent interviewing refugees across the country.
There are 13 distribution centers around Beirut alone – in the entire country there are nearly 90. The Beirut registration centre, with its tangible air of needy confusion, and the endless snaking line of hot, weary and frustrated refugees is just one of many where millions of Syrians find themselves struggling to make sense of their new lives in exile. It also sums up one of the most challenging and frequently underestimated aspects of humanitarian response: meeting the refugees need for information.
There are no official refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon. The Syrians go to either host families; fields; migrant camps; unofficial settlements; or even parking garages. There are an estimated 1,300 unofficial refugee settlements throughout Lebanon.
The refugees bring with them a legacy of fear that makes them distrustful of any information from outside sources beyond family and friends. This same legacy is also a major obstacle to their access to humanitarian aid, and to information that can help them survive and make sense of their situation.
Most of those we interviewed are not registered with UNHCR. They fear that by handing over their personal data, they will expose themselves, and potentially their family back in Syria, to unwanted dangers from Assad’s Ba’athist regime. “I was afraid there, why would I not be afraid here?” one man told me. “Hezbollah monitors everything.” The sad truth is that this is not an altogether unrealistic assumption: it’s no secret that Hezbollah operatives are active inside Syria on the side of the Assad government regime
A UN official later confirmed that while they did not give beneficiaries’ private information to the Lebanese authorities, if they were asked to — she would have to comply.
Unregistered refugees are dependent on community leaders to communicate when food will be distributed, or leaflets and posters (if they can read). According to a Senior Program Assistant at WFP, “Unless they are newcomers, [the unregistered] are not our target audience” .
The reluctance of many refugees to register with the UN system has immediate and potentially life threatening repercussions. Not only are they on their own in sourcing basic provisions for survival, but they complain of a crippling lack of information in general. Nearly all the interviewees in both camps showed a surprising lack of interest in political news, saying: “We don’t really care about news – we just need to find out how to live here.” Their most immediate need is for information on everyday life: shelter, food, water, doctors for their children and information about schooling.
Virtually none of the families we spoke to had radios. Unlike large-scale refugee situations in many other parts of the world, radios are conspicuous by their absence. Television has always been the preferred source of information in Syrian life – although it appears that mainly the women use TVs (where they can be found) and then only to watch soap operas or comedy programs. Some men told us that if they were home they watched TV in the evenings, tuning in mainly to Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. No one watched the Syrian TV stations; nor did they want to learn news of Syrian political updates – they cared more about the everyday lives of their relatives inside: “are the crops growing?”, “ who is taking care of the animals?”.
To feed their hunger for local information about their situation in Lebanon and also in their home places, the vast majority of refugees rely on mobile phones and SMS. While cell phones are reliable and easily accessed however, call charges in inside Lebanon are prohibitive for the Syrians. Most rely heavily on SMS. Whatsapp is a godsend; the ubiquitous app of choice for cheap talk about the many small precious things that keep families connected, hoping, surviving.
UN agencies and NGOs alike know that the efficiency and effectiveness of their aid programs rely to a large extent on their ability to communicate with refugees. “Mass information is one of our biggest challenges,” said Joelle Eid from UNHCR, admitting that reaching the mass of unregistered refugees in Lebanon is a priority.
With Syrians dispersed in 1,300 locations throughout Lebanon, getting vital information to them about food distribution, health care and schooling is a monumental task. Yet most aid providers have apparently not yet invested significantly in accessible and cheap mobile/sms systems that would enable them not only to to reach, but also actively exchange information with the millions of displaced on the familiar and preferred mobile phone platforms that refugees already use regularly on a daily basis.
Near the border, several people stopped us, mistaking us for UN officials: “Is it true that 17 European countries are taking Syrian refugees?” they asked. It had become almost comical how this sliver of wrong information had been so widely misinterpreted – and how dramatically sad the reality is. Again I was struck by the absence of radio: it’s clear that the news that comes here is filtered down in an unreliable skein of Chinese whispers. When I asked about radios, I got blank stares.
The youngsters seemed more tech savvy, shrugging off my question, saying they prefer Facebook and YouTube. Yet there were no computers in sight. At Layan camp, the latest “word of mouth gossip” news is that the worst winter on record is coming. This information is passed from a local newspaper, which someone got their hands on, and has been circulating through the camp, causing deep concern. People are living in tents here, with one dirty lavatory for men, one for women, in a tin hut. Children urinate on the floor – women waited patiently for their turn to wash, to use the facilities. Compared to some camps, they are lucky – at least they have a toilet, but when winter comes, these settlements will be harsh.
One educated refugee put it this way: “I think people should be told while they are still inside Syria that they should stay. They might be a in a war zone, but they will be better off than coming to Lebanon, where their chances of getting to another country are pretty non-existent. And the life as a refugee here is hard. People are being misled that they will find paradise when they leave – then they see that they have nowhere to go, and no one wants them. They must be informed before they go about what life will be like, as a refugee.”
This post is in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee.