There are strong historic, social and economic ties between Syrian and Lebanese people. When the conflict began Lebanese communities welcomed refugees with open arms. But as the conflict wears on, some host communities are becoming resentful of their Syrian guests.
Refugees have settled mainly in the north, and in the Bekaa valley to the east. Palestinian refugees from Syria – including many of the people I met yesterday – have mainly moved into overcrowded camps and gatherings that house the Palestinian refugees already living in Lebanon. Collectively, these are some of the poorest communities in Lebanon, but local people still provided the bulk of the assistance to newly arriving refugees.
Unlike Jordan and Turkey, there are no big refugee camps in Lebanon for the Syrian refugees. All refugees have been absorbed in host-communities and thousands of refugee families found shelter in the homes of local people.
Lebanon has received nearly 800,000 refugees – 703,000 identified by UNHCR, and at least 92,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria. The population spike has distorted local markets. The price of rent has multiplied, and the cost of food and other basic items has skyrocketed. At the same time, refugees – desperate for income – have been willing to accept wages far below the usual standard, driving down the cost of labour.
Local people complain that they don’t receive any help, and that they have given what little they have to the refugees, only to watch their own circumstances get worse. NRC – the leading shelter provider in Lebanon – has designed programmes with the concerns of the host communities in mind.
NRC rehabilitates the unfinished houses of Lebanese homeowners, making them safe and fit to house refugee families. Local homeowners get the benefit of the refurbishment, and refugees get a free place to live for at least one year.
Now, two and a half years into the conflict, with refugee numbers mounting, two new challenges are facing refugees and the agencies that help them.
First, refugees that have been renting accommodations are quickly running out of savings. Some Syrians that I spoke with yesterday told me that they have run out of money, and face eviction. They have nowhere else to go.Space is also a huge challenge. Homes and apartments are full.
Hundreds of small, informal tented settlements are popping up all over the country to accommodate Syrian families unable to find other accommodation. Refugees I met with in the Bekaa valley told me about the difficult conditions in these improvised settlement, where health problems are being triggered by a lack of clean water and poor sanitary conditions.
On top of the economic hardships, the refugees have also brought the politics of the conflict with them, and they are increasingly being blamed for mounting insecurity. Sectarian violence and the threat of cross-border violence are becoming more frequent and more intense. Cross border shelling in refugee hosting areas in Wadi Khaled has been happening from the time that refugees first started arriving.
In Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley, and increasingly in Beirut, incidents linked to the violence in Syria – such as the bombings yesterday in Tripoli, and last week in Beirut – are becoming more frequent and more sustained. More and more, local people see refugees as a nuisance and a threat.
The challenge of receiving new refugees in Lebanon is getting greater by the day. If a large number of new arrivals were to arrive in Lebanon – as it did last week in Iraq – the humanitarian community would be utterly unprepared. It is important that we develop pragmatic plans to cope with large numbers of new refugee arrivals, in case the need arises.
There is also a need to be clear and transparent with refugees and local people about the work and plans of the humanitarian community. This will reduce the rumours and misperceptions about the criteria used to distribute assistance, defuse tensions between those receiving aid and those who are not, and reinforce the impartial position of humanitarian agencies.
Finally, it is very important that host communities begin to see tangible benefits to hosting refugees. International development support should be made available to help improve host country infrastructure and services. More humanitarian funding should be made available to support vulnerable members of the host community, alongside their refugee neighbours. Smart, transparent, well-coordinated humanitarian and development assistance, can go a long way towards diffusing the frustrations that are exacerbating conflict in Lebanon.
Follow Jan on twitter at @NRC_Egeland, and follow his field mission at #SGsDiary.