Lebanon: a nation crushed by another country’s crisis

*Hussam, aged 1, and his sister *Hajar, aged 4, who are bold severely malnourished baby and live in a Syrian refugees' tented encampment in Northern Lebanon. Photograph by Mary Turner/Panos Pictures for Concern Worldwide  *name changed for security reason
*Hussam, aged 1, and his sister *Hajar, aged 4, who are bold severely malnourished baby and live in a Syrian refugees' tented encampment in Northern Lebanon. Photograph by Mary Turner/Panos Pictures for Concern Worldwide *name changed for security reason

With Syrian refugees making up a quarter of its population, Lebanon now has the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world. A country already suffering from weak services and infrastructure, Lebanon’s population has increased by around 25% since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. As a result public health is deteriorating and living conditions are worsening, severely affecting the lives of both the refugees taking sanctuary, and the host population.

Since 2011 when the Syrian war began, 13.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Many have not left Syria and instead are ‘internally displaced’, continually moving around the country in a desperate attempt to escape the fighting. However, according to the UN, over five million people have fled the country.

Forced to flee, but where to go?

In 2015, the UK government committed to take in 20,000 refugees by 2020 under a scheme set up to support people fleeing the Syrian conflict, and the number of Syrian refugees in the UK now stands at 10,000. This number is at 12,000 in France, and just over 100,000 in Sweden. Overall, UNHCR has counted 1,000,000 asylum applications for Syrian refugees in the European Union. So, if five million people have fled Syria, and one million are in Europe, where are the other four million?

85 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries. Lebanon – considered a ‘moderately developed’ country – has often been at the centre of Middle Eastern conflicts because of its borders with Syria and Israel and because of its own conflict. Over the past seven years, Lebanon has continually offered refuge to those forced to flee the incessant violence in Syria. The number of Syrian refugees registered to be living in Lebanon is almost at one million (the same amount that the entirety of Europe has taken in), and in a country where the overall population is just six million, it is unsurprising that the inundation of people seeking shelter there is now taking its toll.

*Kafya, 30, centre, sits with her family who all share a house which Concern will be fitting with windows and doors, in Northern Lebanon. Photograph by Mary Turner/Panos Pictures for Concern Worldwide  *name changed for security reasons
*Kafya, 30, centre, sits with her family who all share a house which Concern will be fitting with windows and doors, in Northern Lebanon. Photograph by Mary Turner/Panos Pictures for Concern Worldwide *name changed for security reasons

Drastic consequences

According to the World Bank, the country’s GDP has dropped by 2.8 per cent annually, and the total estimated cost of the crisis to Lebanon’s economy was US$7.5 billion. Socially, even the most remote Lebanese communities are feeling the pressure of this massive population growth with Syrian refugees now living throughout Lebanon in more than 1,700 localities, outnumbering local residents in some areas. Fifty eight per cent of the 1.3 million poorest Lebanese live in urban areas and are assumed to be the population most affected by the overcrowding created by the mass influx of refugees. [Habitat for Humanity]

Lebanon has shown remarkable generosity; far more than many other countries that are likely to be much better equipped to help those fleeing for their lives. However, because of these factors, increased competition for jobs and resources – in particular, housing – is fuelling tensions between Lebanese host communities and Syrian refugees. Furthermore, with the rapid onset of winter in a country where temperatures drop to below zero, the need for adequate shelter in the face of severe overcrowding for both parties is becoming more and more crucial.

Keeping out the cold

Adequate shelter in Lebanon is hard to come by. Over half of the Syrian refugees in the country live in informal tent settlements or sub-standard buildings that are overcrowded and in extremely poor condition. Concern works to negotiate rent-free, rent-freeze and rent reduction agreements for tenants (yes, they still have to pay rent, even if there are no windows or doors), coupled with building materials and technical support so that landlords can rehabilitate their properties in order to make them fit to live in. In the Informal Tented Settlements, we work to help families by distributing essential items like tarpaulins, stoves, blankets, emergency cash to new arrivals, and repair and insulation kits so that families are protected from the elements.

Concern employees organising the distribution of new tent kits (including wood, plastic sheeting etc) to families whose homes were recently burnt down. The tents are going to be built on this field in Northern Lebanon. Photograph by Mary Turner/Panos Pict
Concern employees organising the distribution of new tent kits (including wood, plastic sheeting etc) to families whose homes were recently burnt down. The tents are going to be built on this field in Northern Lebanon. Photograph by Mary Turner/Panos Pict

Lebanon has been shaking at the knees in an attempt to hold up the heavy load that the Syrian war has brought. If we can’t – or won’t – share the load with regards to how many refugees our countries take in, we must help those upon whom the load has fallen.

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