Lebanon Evicted Syrians From A Refugee Camp; They Refused To Go

Jul 26, 2015
Originally published on July 29, 2015 2:10 pm

The Syrian refugee crisis is getting worse by the day.

Not only are more refugees fleeing into Lebanon, but aid to those who have already arrived is being cut dramatically.

The United Nations World Food Program earlier this month slashed the monthly food subsidy for Syrian refugees in Lebanon to just $13.50 per person. Less than a year ago the figure was $30 per person per month. The reason for the decision was reportedly a budget shortfall.

In addition, tensions are growing between Lebanese and the swelling number of displaced Syrians. Lebanon is a tiny country of just over 4 million, a narrow strip of land between southern Syria and the sea. By some estimates, it now hosts 2 million refugees. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has registered nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees; activists say hundreds of thousands more have also fled to Lebanon.

They're living in what the Lebanese authorities call "informal tented settlements." The authorities refuse to call the settlements "camps" out of concern that they could become long-term fixtures like Palestinian refugee camps.

The refugees in these "settlements" can't get work permits. Desperate to feed their families, many of them find work anyway, squeezing locals out of jobs.

That's just one reason for the rising tensions. In the town of Kab Elias in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, officials last week gave the roughly 500 residents of the Abu Yasser refugee settlement 24 hours to pack up and leave.

Abu Yasser is a makeshift settlement of 80 shacks. Each family lives in a structure cobbled together out of nylon tarps, plastic sheeting and mismatched planks.

The reason for the eviction notice: The locals were complaining about the noise, water consumption and filth from the camp. They say the refugees are depleting the water supply and polluting the fields. Open ditches filled with fetid water run between the shacks.

Despite the eviction order, the refugees refused to decamp.

"We don't have anyplace to go," says Khalid Nhaitar, a father of 11. "So we decided to tell them [the municipal authorities] just find another place for us."

Refugees from the settlement won at least a temporary reprieve after meeting with officials from the municipality.

But the incident underscores the growing strain that the huge numbers of Syrian refugees put on Lebanon's already strained resources.

"Initially, the Lebanese were very welcoming in how they received these people. Now, of course, that's changing," says Marc-Andre Hensel, the integrated programs director with World Vision's Lebanon office in Beirut.

"I think we need to be realistic about what we expect a country like Lebanon to do," Hensel adds. "I think long-term other countries need to take those people on. You can't expect Lebanon to host all those people for such a long time. It's far too easy to point fingers. It's a very complex problem and depending on how things develop in Syria, it could get worse."

Fighting continues to rage in various parts of Syria. While the battles continue, refugees say there is no way they can safely go home. So there is no end in sight to Lebanon's refugee problem.

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More than 4 million people have been displaced by the war in Syria, according to the U.N. At least a quarter of them have fled into neighboring Lebanon. NPR's Jason Beaubien has been visiting some of the refugee settlements along the border. He joins me from Beirut. Jason, how much of an impact are the Syrian refugees having in Lebanon?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The thing to remember here is that Lebanon is a tiny country. You know, it's just this little sliver of land between southern Syria and the Mediterranean. The population was just over 4 million people before this crisis started, and now, by some estimates, you're getting up to 2 million refugees have flooded into the country. And, you know, if you imagine this in the United States, this would be, like, 90 million people flooding in, so it's - you know, it's having a huge impact here.

RATH: And in this small country, they'd already been home to thousands of Palestinian refugees for years before this.

BEAUBIEN: That's right, you know, and this country isn't very big. It's had this really tumultuous history. It's still facing plenty of problems on its own. You know, it hasn't had a president for more than a year. It's got this huge garbage crisis going on at the moment. And now you've got one out of every four people here is a refugee.

RATH: Wow. So explain how that plays out. Are you seeing tension between the Lebanese hosts and the Syrian refugees?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, I think what's happening here is people's patience with this whole crisis is really sort of wearing out. I think early on, the Lebanese were very welcoming, but one real striking example that we had was we're out out at this camp near the Syrian border. And the night before, the local municipality had told everyone in this settlement that they had to pack up their shacks. They're basically these structures that they've made out of tarps and plastic, you know, around these pieces of wood. And tell everyone, you got 24 hours to pack up and leave.

And that didn't actually end up happening, but it just shows the tension. You know, people are feeling like these settlements are taking too much water. They're concerned about these open sewers that are flowing through them. People are complaining that the Syrian refugees are coming here, and they're having babies, and the population is just growing and growing.

You know, and to give the Syrian refugees their due, we were with a woman from World Vision - the aid agency World Vision - and women were coming up to her and saying, we want contraception. Is there some way we can get contraception? But don't have any money, you know. They're not legally allowed to work here. So there's these incredible tensions that are going on, and it's growing - the tension between the local hosts and this huge population of Syrians who have come in.

RATH: You know, a lot of these refugees have been living in Lebanon for quite some time. The crisis in Syria's been going on for more than four years. Are any of these people planning to return?

BEAUBIEN: You know, right now, we are not hearing that at all. It's one of the amazing things about sort of getting a different perspective on this. When you come to the region, you really see that this crisis in Syria, this war in Syria, this fighting between all of these different factions - Kurdish militias and Shia militias and the government forces and rebels - you know, all of this is really raging.

You're hearing about battles on an ongoing basis. And what we're hearing from Syrians that are here is that they have no intention of going back. They're terrified. And thus, you're not going to see an end to this refugee crisis until you actually see some progress in the war. And the war just seems to be raging fully over there, across the border.

RATH: NPR's Jason Beaubien in Beirut. Jason, thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.