Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Stories of Greed and Neglect

A refugee family sits in a school room in the town of Marj in the Bekaa valley. (Photo: Alia Haju)

By: Usama al-Qadiri

Published Thursday, July 26, 2012

Profiteers are thriving on the state’s inactivity, doing their utmost to bleed dry the thousands of new daily arrivals seeking shelter, sustenance, and medical treatment.

The flow of refugees from Syria into Lebanon continues through the main Masnaa border crossing, though numbers are down from last Thursday’s peak. Officials say an average of 10-12,000 people have been transiting daily in both directions, the vast majority into Lebanon.

The queues at the crossing reinforce the statement. Most of the incoming travellers are families, and barely any young adult males can be seen among them. The poor families seek accommodation in schools, or in the homes of Lebanese relatives or fellow Syrians living in Lebanon. The better-off try to find apartments or hotel-rooms to rent, at prices that have become extortionate. Rich or poor, all have fled their homes in fear, all need a safe refuge to afford them a temporary semblance of normal life, and all look forward to being able to return home.

■ Photo Blog: Syrian Refugees: Escaping Damascus by Alia Haju

That day came sooner than expected for Suhair, who fled to Lebanon with her family from Damascus, but decided to return after spending only two nights abroad. She was among the few people at the crossing travelling in the opposite direction, into Syria.

“I’d rather die in my own country than be humiliated in yours,” she said, explaining that she could not afford to keep her family in Lebanon because landlords and hoteliers were exploiting the influx of Syrians to demand astronomical rents.

“We came here fearing death, and fearing the shelling, which has been merciless,” she said. “But the way apartment owners took advantage of us was even worse. Isn’t it a sin? They wanted three thousand dollars a month for the rent of an apartment. Shame on them.”

The Masnaa crossing is crowded with representatives from the local and international media, but there is no sign of any official Lebanese effort to provide assistance or relief to the refugees, or of any relevant state agency.

In the absence of the state, the Future Movement has a large tent pitched near the crossing, behind a portrait of Rafik al-Hariri and a banner proclaiming “Patience; The Hour of Victory is Nigh.” But the activists stationed along the road have little success in luring travellers into the shade of their tent with its crates of cold bottled water. An official explains that Syrians are frightened to enter. “The regime and its people consider the Future Movement to be an enemy, so anyone who comes near it is considered a traitor. Syrian citizens need to keep open their line of retreat.”

In contrast, a coalition of charities supervised by local clerics of the Azhar al-Bekaa Association has too many aid applicants to cope with.

The group’s coordinator, Sheikh Ayman Sharqiyeh, told Al-Akhbar that the number of Syrian refugees arriving has been growing by the day, and that they could not keep pace “between providing relief, and registering people.” He explained that checks had to made because many people living in Lebanon tried to take advantage of the situation by pretending to have fled from Syria and then applying for assistance.

Sharqiyeh accused the state of “abandoning its humanitarian duty” to provide shelter, food, and medical treatment to the refugees, and said this “deliberate neglect” had enabled profiteers to cash in on the crisis, notably landlords with rooms apartments to rent.

He said there was virtually no accommodation left for the refugees in the area. “You can hardly find an apartment, even in half-completed buildings, that is not occupied by a Syrian refugee family in the western or central Bekaa,” he said.

He said it was vital for the Higher Relief Council (HRC) to do more to alleviate the situation. “No unofficial group or society, with their limited capacities, can take the place of the Lebanese state,” he said.

Action by the state was the top demand made by the Mufti of Zahleh and the Bekaa, Khalil al-Mays, in a speech at the association’s annual iftar. But he also berated Lebanon’s political parties for taking self-interested or vindictive approaches to the refugee crisis, urging them to keep politics out of a humanitarian issue that requires concerted attention and action.

Meanwhile back at the border gate, refugees faced another potential problem. Some 45 Syrian or Palestinian families with infants or young children fleeing Syria had been held up because their paperwork was not in order – such as children not having been recorded in their parents’ documentation, or not having been registered with UNRWA. Most were eventually allowed in after checks were made.

“The children arrived in batches,” explained a source at General Security. “Most were Palestinians, and did not have passports or driving licences, so it took time to fully confirm their identities.” A decision was subsequently taken by the director-general of General Security. “So 19 of them were allowed in to start with, and the others will be allowed later after we have all the data.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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