American Task Force for Lebanon Director George Cody: An eyewitness account of two Syrian refugee “settlements” in Lebanon

“Welcome to hell,” our escort exclaimed as we arrived on April 18 in Tel Abyad, a Syrian refugee “makeshift settlement” in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Tel Abyad was the second makeshift settlement we were taken to see by UNICEF and SAWA Group, a Lebanese NGO. The first was Ali Nahri, also in the Bekaa. The Bekaa has about 65 such settlements and the Akkar region in Lebanon’s north has a similar number.

The euphemism “makeshift settlement” is used to respect the sensibilities of the Lebanese, for whom camp is a loaded word and reminiscent of the 65-year sojourn of the Palestinian refugees and their 12 camps in Lebanon. The makeshift settlements that we saw were camps, although without the permanent concrete structures of the Palestinian camps.

In Ali Nahri and Tel Abyad, tents were set up, except they were not really tents. Wooden frames were erected and covered with an inner layer of burlap from agricultural sacks and an outer layer of tarpaulin donated by UNHCR, a U.N. refugee agency; UNICEF, or NGOs. The tarpaulins often collapsed under the unusual snowfall Lebanon experienced this winter and leaked during the unseasonal rainfall this spring. Ali Nahri and Tel Abyad pre-existed as encampments for Syrian seasonal agricultural and construction laborers in Lebanon. After the outbreak of conflict in Syria, these seasonal workers brought their entire families, and this nucleus was supplemented by Syrian refugees with no previous connection to Lebanon.

The refugees pay the Lebanese landowner of Ali Nahri about $133 a month for each tent, and this includes the land rental, electricity and water. The Tel Abyad landowner does not charge rent. When we visited, there were about 117 tents in Ali Nahri and about 150 tents in Tel Abyad. The sanitation in both settlements was execrable. One knows the extreme modesty of Arab societies, but in Tel Abyad, there were no latrines and inhabitants had to defecate behind the hills on the settlement periphery. There were some latrines in Ali Nahri, but many had not been connected to water. Water was stored in donated water tanks, but there were no filters. One man lifted a tank lid and we saw flotsam in the water.

Given the poor sanitation, diseases were unsurprising. The biggest problem is mite-borne scabies, in addition to bed bugs, fleas and a skin disease called “habba Halabiya” or cutaneous leishmaniasis, a parasite transmitted by sand flies. We met an afflicted woman with a large, weeping boil on her cheek.

We asked why refugees from Idlib and the Kurdish refugees were in Lebanon, given that Idlib is closer to Turkey and the Kurdish populations are closer to Iraq and Turkey. We were told refugees prefer to make their way to Lebanon, even though the sanitation is better in the official camps in Turkey and Jordan, because there is more freedom and there is a chance to work, if they can find jobs.

The question is, given the destruction of housing stock and economic infrastructure in Syria, will the refugees return? A veteran Lebanese politician assumes that 20 to 25 percent of the Syrian refugees will ultimately remain in Lebanon.

How many Syrians are there in Lebanon? There are currently 482,313 Syrian refugees either registered with or contacting UNHCR to register. (Refugees must be fully registered to get health services.) The agency has a 2-6 month registration backlog and the poor often cannot get to the agency’s four registration centers. Other Syrians do not register, including the wealthy, Syrian workers and those with Lebanese relatives. The Lebanese government believes the actual number of Syrians in Lebanon to be just under one million, almost a quarter of Lebanon’s population. The UNHCR numbers exclude Palestinian refugees from Syria, about 10 percent of those crossing into Lebanon, as they register with the U.N.’s Relief and Works Agency. Since Damascus is 37 kilometers from the Lebanese border and Homs is 20 kilometers away, Lebanon could receive a quantum jump in refugees as security in these two cities deteriorates. The U.N. refugee agency anticipates one million Syrian refugees (registered or contacting to register) in Lebanon by the end of the year.                  

To date, the United States (the largest contributor) has committed $83 million to Lebanon for the Syrian crisis, and just announced an additional $10 million. Although this assistance is admirable, the number of refugees is accelerating. Lebanon has kept its borders open and the international community needs to keep its pocketbooks open. In addition, countries that have pledged money for the Syrian refugees need to fulfill those pledges and the U.S. should use its good offices in this regard.

Cody is executive director of the American Task Force for Lebanon