“You can’t even imagine what I’ve seen, and what Syria has seen.” –Ali, Syrian refugee, 12 years old.
In the daily media coverage of the two and a half year Syrian civil war, people like Ali have been reduced to mere statistics, numbers that frame analysis predominately focused on politics and weapons. Yet we must not forget the personal human suffering at stake, the real people and their stories. Although we cannot bring back Ali’s lost family members or the innocence of many other children, we can still be actively involved in an arena of the conflict sorely overlooked in the discourse on Syria: that is, the historically unprecedented refugee crisis.
Of the 2.5 million Syrian refugees currently dispersed across the globe, most sources estimate that over 1 million of those are living within Lebanon’s borders, the largest amount in any one location. To put this in perspective, one in every four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Such an extensive influx of people has understandably contributed to an unsustainable financial, political and social strain. Since the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, unemployment has doubled to 20% and the country’s national deficit surged to $2.6 billion. Resentment among the Lebanese population is growing as unskilled workers compete for low-wage jobs with the Syrians. The perception among many Lebanese that Syrians are ‘getting everything for free,’ by not paying taxes and getting preferential access to jobs and hospitals is also mounting, adding social tension to the economic strain. Adding to the pressure is the fact that there is currently no formal Lebanese government to take action. Imagine the recent US government shutdown, magnified to the point where the country is at a political and economic standstill for months at a time.
Although Lebanon has generously opened its borders to many Syrian refugees, it lacks a comprehensible solution on how to efficiently manage the crisis. For example, Lebanon is reluctant to build official refugee camps, causing Syrians who are not housed by Lebanese families to live wherever they can find shelter, leading to unsafe and overcrowded living conditions. Makeshift camps built by Syrian refugees themselves are rampant with disease and lack vital resources or access to humanitarian aid. Part of this reluctance to build camps, stems from the historically sensitive political topic of refugee camps in Lebanon. 12 official Palestinian refugee camps have been established in Lebanon since 1948 and are currently home to over 400,000 Palestinian refugees who have consistently been denied Lebanese citizenship, jobs, access to public education and other basic rights. In the 1970s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters were transferred to Lebanon, making the country a military base through which the PLO could launch attacks on Israel. Armed PLO militias were a contributing factor of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and many fear that history will repeat itself if Syrian refugee camps were officially established. Already, some are blaming refugees for inciting sectarian conflict. Another concern is that, like in the Palestinian case, the camps would become permanent living structures for Syrian refugees and if conditions were improved, people would never leave.
Yet there are many differences between Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees, which refute the fear of establishing camps today. Syrians have the right, legal ability (unlike Palestinian refugees), and in most cases, the desire to return home once the crisis is over. Some have even opted to return to Syria because of deplorable living conditions in neighboring host countries. Additionally, if Lebanon would allow the UN to establish official camps, part of the burden of hosting Syrian refugees would be shifted from the Lebanese state and communities to the UN and other international relief agencies. Furthermore, refugees fleeing violence in Syria currently have no military agenda, and with camps under UN supervision any outbreaks would be contained.
In order for any new refugee camps to be effective, however, it is the responsibility of the international community to ensure that they be adequately funded. As evidenced by the deplorable living conditions for refugees in Jordanian camps and the violence and crime that emerged in Tunisian camps for Libyan refugees in 2011, refugee camps are not without their own share of problems. In Syria, unfortunately, support from the international community has been lacking so far. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon lamented in September that only 40% of the estimated $4.4 billion needed for Syria and its neighboring countries affected by the war have been raised. Currently the US is the largest leading donor pledging $800 million in humanitarian aid (56% of which has yet to be fulfilled), yet when the donation is compared to GDP per capita, Kuwait is by far the largest donor and has paid 96% of its pledged amount. Considering the billions of aid the US supplies elsewhere, America certainly has the means to contribute more. It is in the long-term political interest of the US to supply more aid to host countries bearing a huge economic, political, and social burden that threatens to destabilize a critically important region in international politics.
Yet the solution is not black and white; UN camps or no UN camps. The number of refugees pouring into Lebanon is unprecedented and the reality is that refugee camps do not in the long run have the proper infrastructure to sustain the growing population. Even if refugee camps were to be established and adequately funded, the health and well-being of many refugees would still be underserved. Luckily there have been many independent institutions willing to fill in the gaps. George Mason University’s CRDC has recently established a four-day summer camp for Syrian refugee children from Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria itself, called Project Amal ou Salam, which teaches conflict resolution, provides psychological support for trauma victims and promotes education. The Za’atari Project encourages artistic expression and creativity for children living in Jordan’s largest refugee camp of Za’atari, while also teaching healthy sanitation practices in the camp. Initiatives like these are what keep hope alive for the ‘lost generation’ of Syrian children, many of whom have not attended school in over two years. Even if camps were established in Lebanon, more support must be given to such independent projects aimed at improving living conditions.
Camps must be combined with efforts towards integration for refugees who plan to stay permanently in Lebanon. Some aid should also be geared to help host communities who bear a significant economic burden by hosting Syrian refugees. This would help mitigate escalating tensions between refugees and their host communities. Almost all international monetary assistance so far has targeted the refugees, which has the adverse consequence of fueling resentment and the perception that Syrians are getting everything for free. Efforts at successful integration and projects encouraging community building are what ultimately will prepare Lebanon for the continuous influx of Syrians in the long term.
In the end, what is needed most is a tangible solution to the Syrian civil war. In the meantime, however, the refugee crisis needs to be understood by the international community and especially by Lebanese politicians from a humanitarian point of view, not just a political one. All countries have an interest in increasing funding towards the welfare of Syrian refugees and it is our duty to make this issue a high priority among our local academic, social, and religious institutions, as well as among our government representatives to fund humanitarian organizations concerning the refugee crisis. The political future of Syria resides in the health and well-being of these refugees. Above all, the crisis needs to be treated with urgency from all sides as the current precarious situation has the potential to engulf Lebanon and the entire region in yet another violent conflict.
Photo by Bulent Kilic/Getty