By Khairunissa Dhala, Refugee and Migrants’ Rights researcher at Amnesty International
“We chose this camp because we couldn’t find anywhere to rent. We cannot afford anything since we came from Syria…my legs are swollen from the cold weather. We are trying to save fuel for the night because it is colder. If we had any work, we wouldn’t face any problem [but] it’s winter here and we don’t have any work,” a Syrian woman, aged 39, in an informal tented settlement in Bekaa, Lebanon.
The ‘forgotten camp’ in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley hosts around 20 families in flimsy canvas tents, some of which have collapsed due to the strong, icy winds. When we recently visited the area, children were running around barefoot or in sandals, while others huddled indoors, hoping to stay warm. However in some tents, water seeped through the floor and families complained that they didn’t have enough fuel.
Tents were torn and some had collapsed in the harsh weather. Volunteers were trying to reinforce one tent, and the families’ belongings were scattered across the camp. Officially, the camp is termed an informal settlement, as Lebanon does not allow refugee camps other than the ones that have existed for Palestinians for decades.
Refugees from Syria at this ‘forgotten camp’ said that they have not received consistent forms of humanitarian assistance, other than monthly vouchers from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to purchase food and fuel. Many said this was not enough, and one family said they sold some of their food vouchers to buy more fuel.
Four families in the camp were recently cut off from UNHCR assistance altogether, due to insufficient funding from donors which has forced the agency to shift towards targeted assistance. These families now rely on volunteers from the Syrian community and donations from wealthy individuals who provide ad hoc assistance.
Women told us of their desire to work and make a living for their families and for their children to go to school. One woman told us that she worked in a factory for nine hours a day, with her 17-year-old daughter and other women, who each earned 15,000 Lebanese Pounds (USD $10) per week. She said that the work is seasonal, and had stopped in early December until the spring. She said that employees prefer to hire women because they can pay them less than men. Her husband tried to work as a taxi driver but couldn’t find any work, and her son worked as a blacksmith and in a bakery for a total of 25,000 Lebanese Pounds a week (around USD $17), but quit due to the long hours and low pay.
Many said they were afraid to leave the camp due to verbal insults and threats they received from some people in the host community. One woman told us that “If we go out of the camp, residents insult us verbally. They tell us it’s our fault because we demanded freedom. They say ‘you deserve what is happening to you.’”
As a result of this, as well as complaints about the poor quality of teaching in the local school, and rumours of children being kidnapped, none of the families we spoke to are sending their children to school. According to the UN, an estimated 200,000 school-aged refugee children remain out of school across Lebanon.
The refugees in the Bekaa Valley camp said they felt isolated and forgotten. Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees from Syria, with more than 850,000 registered refugees. The actual number may be higher as the government estimated earlier this year that 1 million Syrians were in the country – equivalent to almost a quarter of Lebanon’s population.
As the conflict in Syria continues unabated and more refugees continue to cross into Lebanon seeking shelter and security, it is essential that the international community supports them. Increased financial support, through the UN humanitarian appeals, and bilaterally to Lebanon, and other countries in the region who host over 2.2 million refugees from Syria is urgently needed. Furthermore, responsibility for the refugees from Syria must be more equally shared – with the number of resettlement and humanitarian admission places in Europe and other countries rapidly increased.
Fortress Europe: Syrian refugee shame exposed (News story/briefing, 13 December 2013)
Leaving it all behind – a Syrian family’s journey to safety (Blog, 8 November 2013)
Five things that will help Syrian refugees (Blog, 26 September 2013)
Welcoming Syria’s war-weary (Blog, 4 September 2013)
How many more? – Syria conflict refugees top 2 million (Blog, 3 September 2013)