In Safety but in Tenuous Conditions - Conflict & Intl. Politics

In Safety but in Tenuous Conditions - Conflict & Intl. Politics


In Safety but in Tenuous Conditions

Picture from the blog Heinrich Von Arabien

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June 26, 2013
Bente Scheller
Germany would do well in following Lebanon’s lead in many respects when it comes to the number of refugees the country offers accommodation to. More than 500.000 men, women and children are registered, the real number is estimated to be at about the double amount. That means Syrians by now nearly make up one fifth of the population in Lebanon and the Syrian-Lebanese border remains open. In this context it seems shameful that Germany – after more than two years into the conflict, mind you - has brought itself to accommodate merely 5000 refugees, starting now.

Though Lebanon has been spared from the dramatic circumstances reported from the Jordanian Zaatari camp in which several children froze to death during winter and which was hit by flooding, it does not look especially rosy here either: most refugees look for accommodation there where they already have a link.

Many come to Beirut first. The poorest of the poor camp out on traffic islands beneath the stilted motorways. Their belongings tucked into few plastic bags, they spend the entire day there, some of them stand in the middle of the dense traffic, begging. Whoever still has savings surges into the already overcrowded Palestinian camps Sabra and Shatila, for instance – sadly renowned for the massacre in 1982. “Many Palestinian inhabitants stay with friends and family in order to earn some money by renting their homes out to Syrians for little money”, my colleague explains during a visit to the camps. A scant room, without carpets, without everything, costs 300 Dollar a month – the cheapest one can find in the expensive capital. By now there are nearly 2000 Syrian families here, oftentimes with up to ten family members, which have registered themselves here alone. “Here, as well, this has not stayed without consequences”, my colleague tells me. “Prices for everything have risen. A good initiative was the founding of a committee which one can approach whenever one has the impression that demands are excessive. Committee representatives then turn to landlords or merchants and act as an agent.”

However, the rise in living costs is not the only problem. “Many Syrians from rural areas have landed in our mixed Muslim and Christian village”, a friend tells me. “It was the first time for many that they saw women in short skirts. They clearly have nothing to do and especially the young men hung out on our village square and molested us. Thereupon the mayor imposed a curfew for male Syrians after 7 pm. That is not exactly good, but we cannot be the ones who no longer feel safe there.” In many places, such night-time curfews have become normal by now.

Thus far, Lebanon has not erected any camps and receives only little aid for refugees. Whoever arrives here is on his or her own. “We have a piece of land in the Bekaa valley at our disposal from private landlords and have made plans for a refugee camp there”, says a representative of the aid organisation Najda Now. “We even have received the permission of the local administration, but it of course is important that the supply of water and sewage is regulated from the very beginning and the infrastructure is set up. We would need 30.000 Dollar for that, but no one wants to supply us with that money as long as there is no agreement on the governmental level.”

Many arriving people can only live off their savings as Syrians are not granted work permits. Many of them engage in off-the-books work and accept being paid extremely low wages in their despair. That in turn cost many Lebanese their jobs and increases social tensions. “Syrians also serve as scapegoats. There is much more poverty since the crisis has taken its course and as a result there also is much more street criminality. The blame for all this is being laid on the Syrians.”

“You notice the increase in hostility”, a Syrian friend explains. “We do not differ from Lebanese on the outside, which is why there is no open discrimination, but you oftentimes hear how we are badmouthed.” I get an impression of that while driving through the city that afternoon. Someone heading for the Syrian embassy wants to hop on. “Not on my way” announces the driver through the window and puts his foot down: “Look, Syrians are even too stupid to know where their own embassy is”, he tells me. Me: “But the embassy has moved.” Driver: “Who cares, it’s his business how he gets there.” When I tell the story to my colleague, she nods. “Directly in front of us a car got involved in an accident. Immediately the driver assumed that must have been a Syrian, as they drive like a “mad bunch”.” – which would be quite some achievement given the Lebanese driving habits.

“Where do most refugees settle down?”, I ask. “Some of them go to the especially conservative areas because people there are more likely to feel an obligation to help others,” my colleague says. “But wherever they see a possibility. For instance, some have set themselves up in a no longer used prison in the Bekaa.” When visiting in March, an Islamic aid organisation directed us towards a quarter at the edge of the city. Hundreds of refugees live here in unfinished concrete buildings that merely consist of intermediate ceilings and support columns. The ice-cold wind that whistles through the buildings is only countered by chipboards and canvasses with which individual families have sectioned off their own small areas. Mats, clothing, blankets are lying around, but nothing to heat the place. Mostly tiny children’s clothes are fluttering on washing lines in between the columns. A steel barrel has been placed in front of the house from which the penetrative stench of burnt waste spreads out. That is the only available cooking facility.

“Have you received help from anyone?”, we ask. “One organisation was kind enough to give us the canvasses. And we are allowed to fetch water over there.” A women carrying a baby points to another unfinished building a hundred metres further, from which a couple of boys carry over buckets. “Where do you come from? And how did you live there?” The camp’s oldest shrugs: “We are from the outskirts of Homs. The situation got so bad there at the beginning of this year that it became unbearable. A couple of men from our area were occupied on construction sites here, that is why we came here. We do not wish to complain, we did not have much at home. The main thing is that we are in safety.” – “What do the children do? Do they visit school?” – “No, there is no space for that in the schools.” “Come, have some coffee with us”, they invite us. The situation has not impaired their hospitality. We politely decline. “Once we are back in Syria!” The woman beams.

I meet a journalist in Beirut who has just arrived from Cairo. “Syrian women have become a downright myth in Egypt. Even our caretaker dreams of taking one of them, even though he already has two wives.” From time to time the rumour would spread that Syrian women would be procured in this mosque or the other, and that anyone interested did not have the feeling of doing anything wrong. The only thing one presumably would have to be able to provide was a room for the marriage, which was said to be dirt cheap – whilst many Egyptians could not afford marrying an Egyptian woman – and they had the feeling of doing a good deed by helping these women. She quotes a gentleman who is said to have praised “Bashar, thank you that you have sent us so many Syrian women.” The trafficking of women is not quite that obvious in Lebanon. But here also stories about marriages out of desperation and families who resort to selling their daughters can be heard circulating. “Sexual harassment has become socially acceptable due to this concept,” my colleague Haid Haid states. “For me, this is a new phenomenon. For many years I worked with Iraqi refugees for the UNHCR in Syria. There also was sexual exploitation there, but prostitution is frowned upon and by naming it differently here, one has helped to enhance the social acceptance of these appalling circumstances.”


First published on Heinrich von Arabien on June 20, the international refugee day.
Translated from the German by Christine F. G. Kollmar.

About the Author

Dr. Bente Scheller is director of the hbs Middle East office in Beirut. She specializes in foreign and security policy and holds a PhD of Free University of Berlin on Syria. Before coming to Beirut in 2012, she was head of hbs' Afghanistan office in Kabul.


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