by Erika Bozzato
Early in the month the number of Syrian refugee hit 3,000,000. As many as the whole population of Rome. You would need more than 40 Olympic Stadiums to assign a seat to all of them. It means 1 in 8 Syrians was forced to flee the country, not considering internally displaced people, estimated around 6.5 million people. Refugees fled mainly to Syria’s neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. They found very different situations and they had to cope with a variety of problematic issues, one of the most crucial being the housing.
Lebanon is hosting at the moment more than a million refugee, an impressive number considering the population of the country, amounting to around 4 million people. Unlike other countries, Lebanon did not agree to set up refugee camps, as government fears organizing camps would encourage refugees to stay. You can find collective shelters only in handful places, where the refugee concentration is especially high. Therefore Syrian settled down relying to their financial possibility and previous contacts –if any- in the country.
Some of them rented proper flats in Beirut or other cities, but most of them have to cope with a very unsecure shelter situation and a lack of affordable housing. At first many Syrian families used their savings to pay the rent, but problems quickly arose when these run out. Hundreds of thousands of refugee live in substandard, overcrowded and unsuitable accommodations, without secure tenure and exposed to the risks of exploitation and forced eviction. Many live in unfinished buildings, lacking sanitation services and ill-suited to cope with the winter, frigid and snowy in the internal part of the country.
It is also estimated that 15% of refugees in Lebanon are living in Informal Tended Settlements (ITSs). I have visited several of them
during my period here in Bekaa valley, while implementing GVC’s WASH programmes. ITSs can be very different: some of them are small, hosting as little as one family, other are much more extended, hosting a few hundred of people. They could be located in the outskirts or in empty spaces of villages and towns, on agricultural lands or in more isolated areas. They may have drinkable water or not, there may be some greenery around or not. In some of them people placed tents with some order, planted vegetables and flowers around the tents and have drainage canals or schools, others are thrown in the sun and dust.
Refugees have different agreements with their landowners – some of them are hosted for free, many do pay a considerable rent. In some cases they work for the landowner, especially as unskilled agricultural labour. Even before the crisis in Syria, seasonal workers used to come to Lebanon in summer to work in the fields. With the crisis they fled to the land of their summer employers, and settled down there.
Supporting them is sometimes complicated. Apart from the chronic lack of funding – it has been calculated that only 44% of funds needed have been covered – some logistics problems hinder the work of organizations and NGOs. Due to the rather spontaneous character of the settlements, refugees are not always easy to locate. A number of them are also living in security-restricted areas, whose access is controlled by Lebanon Security Forces. In order to access them for working-related reasons, or to introduce materials such as hygiene kits and water tanks, you need a special permission, to be requested in advance and at the mercy of Lebanese bureaucracy.
On the other side public services in Lebanon, including education, health and transportation are meagre, not event able to meet the needs of the local population, let alone supporting Syrians in needs. Further, and most crucially, it has to be considered that Syrian refugees started to flow to Lebanon during summer 2012, with thousands of new arrivals each week. On one side they had, and still have, emergency basic needs, on the other their stay in Lebanon is becoming more long-term, arising social and livelihood issues that go beyond the emergency. These include tensions with hosting communities and competition with local workforce, and it is probably one of the main aspects that organizations working with Syrian refugees – and their donors – should have in mind when planning new interventions.