In early April 2014, the UN High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) claimed that the number of Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon passed one million, amounting to a quarter of the host country`s resident population. The UNHCR in Lebanon registers at least 2,500 new Syrian refugees every day. Hosting the highest per capita concentration of refugees from Syria in the world, Lebanon is finding it increasingly difficult to keep pace. The small country, beset by exacerbated sectarian tensions, is already stretched to breaking point with rapidly depleting resources. International aid agencies, municipalities, and local authorities face growing challenges in dealing with the mass influx of Syrian refugees.
Lying in the last agglomeration before Syria, the Beq‘a Valley border-town of Arsal in northeast Lebanon has featured a recent surge in families fleeing intense fighting in the nearby al-Qalamoun region. As of today, more than a total of eighty thousand Syrian refugees have fled to Arsal. This number is double the town’s estimated population of forty thousand residents. Arsal has come to a saturation point as the overpopulation has put severe strains on basic services such as shelter, water, and sanitation. There are around forty informal tent settlements (ITS), twenty-eight collective shelters and private accommodation currently housing refugees in Arsal. Most of the refugees that have arrived are women and children.
In one tent, there are two families living together. Laila Chemali, thirty-four, and her three girls were first displaced from their home in Qara a year and a half ago. Next, they moved to Yabrud. Then, when the fighting started there, they reached Arsal under warplane strikes more than a month ago. Chemali complained they are still not registered as refugees. “I’ve tried several times to call the UNHR, the line is either busy or nobody’s answering,” she sighed, “One day, I was calling for hours without luck.”
In order to register with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an appointment has to be booked by phone. So long as no one from the UNCHR’s office picks up the phone, many Syrians have to go through several attempts at calling and wait. Standing outside her tent is an elder woman who spoke on condition of anonymity. She arrived in Arsal with her twelve family members about a month ago. Their very modest single-room tent has one camp stove. She has tried to contact the UNHCR to register, but has not yet managed to speak to someone. “Without refugee cards, we can’t buy food, fuel, or basic necessities. We don’t have any money saved up,” she lamented.
[The outside of a tent set up for a Syrian refugee family. Image by author.]
[The inside of a tent set up for a different Syrian refugee family. Image by author.]
In Arsal, Action Contre La Faim (ACF) has continued to support refugee communities and new arrivals with its food security, water, and sanitation programs. Two from ACF team showed a contingency stock containing hygiene kits, wastewater tanks, water taps and filters, garbage bins, and baby kits. ACF has had a presence in Lebanon since 2006, initially supporting communities caught in the crossfire during the armed conflict between Israel and Hizballah. Since then, ACF’s intervention has expanded as refugees poured in from the Syria war.
Bassem Saadallaoui, ACF’s Lebanon Wash Coordinator, explained that it is essential that humanitarian agencies work in coordination with the local municipality. At the start of an emergency response and beyond, the local municipality is the best-placed institution to advise on where to intervene for concerns such as waste management. ACF distributes garbage bins to refugees living inside the ITS, and supplies Arsal municipality with big containers located nearby. The beneficiaries are responsible for emptying their bins into the containers, which are then collected by the municipality. “The problem is the municipality cannot collect garbage regularly,” ACF’s Wash Coordinator said, “access to some areas may be difficult or some ITS may be isolated.”
Struggling on stretched budgets, scarce resources, and limited equipment, Lebanese municipalities and local authorities are burdened with increasing pressures as the refugee communities expand. Although it is not their responsibility to support refugees, some municipalities have been helping out of their initiative with no additional funding. They provide informal support such as registering newly arrived refugees, facilitating housing arrangements, and negotiating increased access to water. “Municipalities are trying to survive but they’re not receiving the support they need,” Victoria Stanski, Mercy Corps’ Director of Programs commented, “It’s a huge burden on them.” Humanitarian organizations have been on the ground to support municipal authorities since the start of the influx. The UNHCR is coordinating the inter-agency response under the direction of the Ministry of Social Affairs. According to officials, Arsal is now one of the areas with the highest concentration of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.In Arsal, the municipality needs help to bear the burden of what some consider an unsustainable and on-going influx. There is hardly any empty space to erect additional tents and accommodate the newly displaced, as more families await securing shelter in the overcrowded Lebanese border town. “Arsal municipality used to deal with waste generated by roughly 35,000 residents, now the total population has almost tripled from the Syrian refugee crisis,” Saadallaoui added, “They’re doing what they can with the little means they have.” In conjunction with the municipality, ACF is also digging new wells, rehabilitating some water tanks, and reinforcing the existing water system. Despite not having the capacity to carry out the response, Saadallaoui noted that Arsal municipality assisted ACF with garbage collection and water tracking at the beginning of the influx.Many of the Syrian refugees fleeing to Lebanon have settled in historically marginalized regions of the country. The area’s remoteness, poorly developed infrastructure, and a relatively weak local civil society structure characterize much of the Beq‘a region. Many Syrians are in direct competition for resources and jobs with struggling Lebanese families. Residents of Arsal have on several occasions voiced their frustration over the growing unemployment rates and the reduction in wages, which they blame on the increased number of Syrians. Reduced border trade with Syria, and hardly any vibrant businesses, Arsal’s economic activity primarily derives from the export of a special rock used in the building and construction sector. Syrians today are competing with local Lebanese laborers over this local industry. Many have also complained that the town`s resources are becoming scarce due to overpopulation. Mostly Sunni, but surrounded by Shi‘i villages, Arsal has also seen sectarian tensions rising and security deteriorating.
[Arsal. Image by author.]
Sitting at a cramped corner in her shared tent, Chemali argued without hesitation that, besides income, the other major issue is the poor health service. The nearest hospital is a ten-minute drive away. “When medicines are available there, they’re dispensed for free but when they’re out of stock, we have to purchase them from another hospital” Chemali stated.
Souad Khlif, thirty-five, and her three daughters share the tent with Chemali’s family. They only recently made it to Arsal. They felt supported in the emergency phase, when the UNCHR and INGOs provided humanitarian assistance through distribution of core relief items like mattresses, blankets, stoves, fuel, baby kits, and food parcels. The help they are now receiving is not enough. Khlif is grateful for the support by the host community despite the dire socio-economic situation they endure. “The Lebanese are showing a lot of generosity towards Syrians,” she said right away, “they’ve been treating us very well.”
Walking away from tented settlements, living conditions in collective shelters worsen strikingly. Since mid-November 2013, event halls and mosques have also been used to accommodate new arrivals from Syria. Previously functioning as an event hall for ceremonies, one collective shelter counts seventy-four families crammed in a hall split into family units with dividing cloths to separate one from another. Any refugee would rather live in an ITS. Outside the hall, what used to be a pool in the garden is now an open air sewage where wastewater from basic washing fills it up. The pool has been a health and safety hazard on a few occasions, with children dropping into the water. One man living in the shelter mentioned INTERSOS may no longer dislodge waste water from the pool. “If they don’t have the capacity to do it, we will take charge of it’’, he voiced out.
Refugees living in shelters are very distressed, stuck in small units in a hall with no sunlight, and very little space to spend time outside the shelter. Both Said and Abdenataa have asked to be moved into tents. However, they have to wait. With newcomers continuing to flee violence next door, the priority for humanitarian agencies is to secure lodging to more incoming refugees. Maissa Said, thirty-nine, lives with her four kids and Amina Abdenataa, thirty-three, in one unit inside the shelter. When Said’s family reached Arsal, over six months ago, they were homeless as there were not enough tents. Some residents told them to take refuge in the collective shelter.
[Photo taken inside a shelter, showing adjacent family units. Image by author.]
Sticking very close next to each other, shelter dwellers have to put up with very low living standards. One critical problem is poor health given the high transmission of diseases in a mass-shared setting. “Everyday, there’s a car driving people to the nearest hospital for medical treatment’’, Said explained. “If one family member gets sick, everybody else is ill.” Things turn harder in winter with severe cold and diseases spreading fast, hitting family after family in such a crowded environment. While standard medicines are given out to beneficiaries by the local hospital, people need to go to another facility and pay out of their own pockets for any specialized treatment.
The shelter situation remains extremely challenging given the refugee overpopulation of Arsal and the stretched hosting capacities in the area. “We now wonder if there’s another large influx, where will refugees go? There are no more places to shelter them here,” ACF’s Lebanon Wash Coordinator warned. Tent settlements are built on privately owned Lebanese land, reminds Saadallaoui. So it is up to the landlord to accept to have an ITS built on his land or not. If he does not, no one can build anything. Humanitarian agencies are working with the local authorities to identify additional shelter options in case of further influxes. However, no one can tell how and where they will be able to provide refuge to newcomers. With the refugee flow expected to continue, the limited capacities of Arsal municipality, and the considerable pressure on the infrastructure and services, local and international partner organizations are preparing for the worst.