The Syrian Tented Settlements of Al-Minieh

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A Syrian-Kurdish children sitting on a bed at the Quru Gusik refugee camp, 20 kilometres east of the of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on 22 August 2013. (Photo: AFP -Safin Hamed)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Monday, August 26, 2013

In Lebanon, informal tented settlements housing Syrian refugees are on the rise. Al-Akhbar visits the settlement of al-Minieh in northern Lebanon where, despite the squalid conditions, refugees must pay private landowners disproportionate rents.

Tripoli, Lebanon – Drive north to Tripoli. Continue a few minutes further along the main highway until you reach the area of al-Minieh. Turn onto one of the uneven, rough roads branching off the highway. There, you will find yourself among disbursed farm fields, abandoned buildings, and the tented settlements erected by Syrian refugees.

Within the abandoned buildings, clothes and blankets dangle to create a sense of privacy and shade. Groups of women sit at the entrances, preparing food, cleaning clothes, or chatting with each other as the youngest of children remain idly by. Along the road, young men with wrinkled shirts and dusty pants quietly poise and watch the scene.

On the farm fields, rows of ten to twenty tents, made from a composition of wood, plastic, and burlap have been set up. Peeking in, one can see an entire life’s worth of possessions packed in a tiny space. Small satellite dishes lay on the ground of the settlements or hung above the tents, the wires connecting to cheap televisions.

It is a surreal neighborhood, an offspring of a shanty town and a camp site. The smell of human waste and sweat linger. Exhaustion and quiet dignity, underscored by a tinge of bitterness, is pervasive among the expressions of the human beings living there.

According to the UNHCR office in Beirut, over 46,000 Syrians are living in around 383 tented settlements. One of the key reasons is because rents in urban centers have become too high. Not long ago, these types of settlements used to be temporary shelters for hundreds of Syrian workers prior to the eruption of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. Now, they have become semi-permanent dwellings for former workers, their families, their friends, and a multitude of others escaping the calamity in Syria.

Most settlements are rented property, the “tenant” paying around $75 to $100 per month to landowners. Though more financially bearable, it is still a sizeable amount for people who barely work or must use their dwindling savings to not become homeless. The costs are also compounded since most Syrians do not know when they will return to their homes in Syria.

From Homs to al-Minieh

“The UNHCR isn’t helping. All we get is a coupon every month valued at 40,000 Lebanese Lira (LL) (around $27) per person. With this you can only buy a few foodstuffs,” said Yasser, 24, referring to the UN Refugee Agency. Yasser, who requested anonymity, is one of the young Syrian men living in a tented settlement in al-Minieh.

“We need a lot of services. The first important thing for those in tents is sanitation and water. The water is dirty. For our settlement at least, a majority are sick because of the water. We have issues about the heat in the tents from the harsh sun. People are getting really sick,” he told Al-Akhbar.

Yasser is from Baba Amr, Homs, where, before arriving in Lebanon over a year ago, he studied business at a university. Tall and paper-thin with a wisp of a beard and tired eyes, Yasser speaks with a casual, weary voice. When the uprising arrived and large swaths of young men were detained, he crossed the border alone to continue his education, but tuition was costly, and he could barely find work to cover the expenses.

His family followed him four months ago, and they have been living together since in one of the tented settlements in al-Minieh.

Currently, Yasser meets with local volunteers and international NGOs to get as much aid for his community as he possibly can. Already, he’s met with 15 UN implementing partners and local NGOs, all of which conducted the usual studies and assessments. None so far have achieved anything worthwhile.

“The UN just comes, takes notes, speaks to people and goes. It’s useless. It just doesn’t help us. The people only trust them because of the coupon and that’s it. Outside of that, there is no trust,” he said.

Too Much Money

According to statistics compiled by local activists in Tripoli, there are a total of 46 major settlements counted in the areas of al-Minieh, Nabi Youchaa, Markibta, Bhannine, and Rihaniyeh. A tented settlement can hold from 20 to 500 individuals, which is the case for the al-Minieh and Nabi Youchaa areas.

Tripoli and Akkar host the largest number of the 600,000 registered Syrian refugees (and counting) in the tiny Lebanese state. A growing chunk have begun seeking shelter in tented settlements.

“The situation is dire,” said Hassan*, a young Lebanese social worker involved in supporting Syrian refugees in Tripoli.

During the final weeks of July, Hassan drove Al-Akhbar to al-Minieh to show the state of affairs in the area. He was adamant that word gets out on the area’s brewing crisis.

Initially, Hassan was motivated by the early hopefulness of the Syrian uprising, believing that helping Syrian refugees in Lebanon was the simplest form of expressing solidarity. Today, he views his work as a matter of necessity to ward off increasing resentment between refugees and the surrounding Lebanese communities.

“The tension between the two communities is becoming worse. Tension over water, work, food, land, everything; even the oxygen,” he said.

“Money is being poured in but it is not getting to the refugees. The UN is trying, but they need stronger people who are not disconnected from those on the ground. And the Lebanese government…forget it!” he additionally quipped.

Hassan criticizes the UN’s financial mismanagement and chaotic forms of implementation. Because of these gaps and failures, Hassan, with a handful of other Lebanese, as well as nearly 50 volunteers and consultants, have formed the Lebanese Refugee Council (LRC) to produce locally-driven solutions to the flourishing problems.

As an example, Hassan noted that a prominent foreign NGO, Solidarités International, had built shoddy bathrooms for a handful of the tented settlements. The bathrooms are crude, feeble wooden structures covered by blue nylon, likely to collapse during the heavy rain that will begin in a few months time.

“It was just embarrassing. These are human beings. How can they [Solidarités International] just do that?” Hassan scoffed.

In response, the LRC are working with local young Lebanese engineers and architects in Tripoli to construct better bathrooms. To fund this project, and others, Hassan has been tirelessly filling out grant proposals to anyone that has money – from USAID to local Islamic charities.

Problems have further been compounded by Lebanese gangs who demand payments of $500 from the tented settlements. If unpaid, they threaten to burn the tents to the ground.

“We need to get these tented settlements in one place or to have a camp. They are scattered now and are very vulnerable to these things. It is the only way to protect them,” Hassan said.

Refugee Camp Is Last Resort

“In the ideal situation, we would like to provide everything but it is not possible,” Batoul Ahmed, senior public information and external relations assistant for UNHCR Tripoli, told Al-Akhbar during a brief phone conversation.

She acknowledged that the UNHCR has “no role per say” for the “informal tented settlements” – as defined by UNHCR – because they are built on private property, and thus there are legal procedures between “tenant” and “landlord” in which the international body cannot intervene.

However, the official argued that even with these obstacles, UNHCR and its implementing partners have conducted regularly visits to these communities as part of an overall assessment, mainly regarding health and security, which is expected to be completed by September.

According to Ahmed, the solution may involve reclassifying tented settlements from “informal” to “formal” in order for the body to have the jurisdiction to manage them. Even then, attempting to formalize tented settlements with the Lebanese Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Social Affairs is a difficult task. The discussions are ongoing. Building a “refugee camp” is the last thing anyone seems to want to do.

“In Lebanon, we don’t have [refugee] camps like elsewhere. Having a [refugee] camp is a last resort and it’s not a friendly environment because it is isolating. From the beginning, [local Lebanese communities] were hosting the refugees. This was great because it made the Syrians feel like they were living in a normal environment,” Ahmed said.

Establishing refugee camps is a very sensitive topic. Lebanon has not signed the Refugee and Stateless Convention, and historically the country has had a prickly experience with more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees residing in the country since the Zionist ethnic cleansing in the late 1940s.

In a recent report by the Beirut-based Executive, Joe Dyke examined how these fears are prevalent among Lebanese government officials. Notably, the feasibility of the Lebanese army governing these camps and apprehension over the camps’ permanency, looms large in the authorities’ minds.

“Consultations and coordination on the response to the refugee crisis in Lebanon occurs on a bi-weekly basis with the Ministry of Social Affairs. However, approval for the establishment of these formal sites has not been received yet,” Joelle Eid, public information associate for the UNHCR office in Beirut, wrote to Al-Akhbar in an email.

“Although informal tented settlements comprise a small proportion of the total refugee population (6 percent). It is very evident that these settlements are increasing in size and number on a daily basis,” she added.

While concerns by the Lebanese are somewhat understandable, the fears do seem misguided when speaking to Syrian refugees. For many, they do not want to stay once the conflict in Syria is over.

“I miss Homs. I want to return. Yesterday, I saw a video about Homs before the uprising. I cried,” Yasser insisted, an echo of similar sentiments expressed by countless Syrian refugees.

At the same time, the Syrian refugees need to have a decent, dignified life while they are forced to remain in Lebanon. It is a delicate balance, one that ultimately must be fashioned by Lebanese hands.

As Hassan argued in the drive back from al-Minieh, “The Lebanese need to make a solution and not rely on the UN or foreigners. If we do not do something, we are the ones to pay the price, not them.”

*A pseudonym

Comments

Dear Sir,

Your esteemed news paper published on August 26 2013 an article titled as: " The Syrian Tented Settlements of Al-Minieh".

In the article, the author refers LRCs team member , Hassan, as one of the people he met during his trip to Al-Minieh, North Lebanon. The author reported on how LRC had concerns regarding the work which Solidarity International is conducting. The way the article was written and the way the information was relayed is a bit confusing as it does not reflect the viewpoint of LRC and its Team.

It is of utmost importance for the LRC team to clarify that there is no intention to disregard the work done by Solidarity International or lessen its importance, in addition to that the LRC team wish to clarify that LRC does not work with Islamic charities nor any of LRCs projects are funded by any Islamic charities. LRC believes in the need and importance of every action and intervention done by each and every local and international organization to help aid the Syrian refugees. LRC equally believes in the importance of cooperation and coordination between these organizations and it continues to reach out and build on this coordination in order to provide better services to both refugees and host communities

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