Middle East

Syrian refugees forgotten in Lebanon

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Media captionThe BBC's Jim Muir reports on the plight of Syrian refugees living in squalid conditions

Majid chose to arrive in the middle of a snowstorm on Wednesday this week.

His mother Iman, a refugee from Raqqa in north-east Syria, had to be rushed through the snow to a nearby hospital to give birth.

Cradling Majid in the hut the family are sharing with neighbours in a squalid squatter camp near the border with Syria, Iman explained two days later why they'd had to abandon their own nearby shack.

"Water came in through the roof and rose from the ground, soaking everything," she said. "We had to borrow everything from the neighbours, even blankets, as ours were all sodden."

Iman's husband Zakaria said it was only through the generosity of neighbours that he had managed to collect 300,000 Lebanese pounds (£122; $200) to pay the hospital fees for Majid's birth.

"I have no money at all," he said. "We have no bread, no sugar, no wood for the fire. We watch our children dying, and there's nothing we can do."

When Majid is a little older, he will become familiar with the conditions into which he has been born and where he will grow up - unless something changes.

'No trace of help'

Image caption As temperatures plunge, refugees crowd around a fire to warm themselves

Families live crowded in improvised shelters made from a frame of flimsy planks with plastic sheeting nailed to it to keep the weather out.

They sleep on the floor on cheap sponge mattresses under piles of thick artificial-fibre blankets.

As temperatures outside drop below freezing as the first harsh wave of winter weather strikes, they huddle round stoves in which the fuel is anything that will burn, including plastic boxes, old shoes and other items whose chemical content fills the room with acrid and probably toxic fumes.

If the plastic sheeting keeps the rain and snow out, it also keeps condensation in. Everything is damp, and moisture rises also from the ground.

There is no running water or sanitation. Toilets are a distance outside, and consist of a hole in the ground screened off by a booth of ragged blankets.

With snow on the ground and in the air, many of the children run between the shacks wearing light clothing suitable for summer days, their bare muddy feet clad in plastic sandals.

Like many of the several hundred similar improvised settlements scattered through the Beqaa Valley and other parts of Lebanon, this one - just off the main Beirut-Damascus highway - seems to have been bypassed by the aid community.

There is no trace here of any help from any of the big international relief organisations.

"All we've been given is some wood and plastic sheeting to make the shacks, and that was given by a charitable association," said Muhammad, who came from Raqqa a year ago.

Damning indictment

The fact that some of the refugee clusters have been overlooked stems partly from the Lebanese government's reluctance to allow the construction of big official camps as in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, which would make aid delivery much easier.

Lebanon is reluctant to take that road, because - 65 years after they were set up - Palestinian refugee camps are still here, a massively sensitive political issue for Lebanese.

Up at Shaat, a village in the far north of the Beqaa valley, another roadside squatter camp did receive an aid delivery.

A Lebanese army truck with a load of mattresses, blankets, wood and plastic sheeting backed in off the main road and began the distribution, as the names of intended recipients were ticked off on lists.

The materials were donated by the UNHCR and the IOM (the UN's International Office of Migration) - in an operation co-ordinated with the local municipality. It was the first time the army has played such a role.

"Basically this is an emergency," said Lisa Abu Khaled of the UNHCR.

"The storm meant that as many resources as possible had to be mobilised, and it's easier for the army to reach these places logistically and to transport the materials, so they assisted, of course in conjunction with the ministry of social affairs."

But the delivery of a necessarily limited quantity of help triggered angry protests from those who did not benefit, mixed with loud accusations that the only way to get on the lists was to bribe officials at the municipality.

It is hard to find refugees willing to say they are being well looked after and receiving an adequate amount of support, while those with complaints are numerous.

"For two months, I and my family of three children were given food rations," said Mamdouh, a refugee in Saadnayel in the central Beqaa.

"But then it suddenly stopped, and we were told we no longer qualified."

UNHCR officials admit that they and other UN agencies have had to cut back their distributions to 30% of recipients, already restricted to those in need of help to survive.

This is because the last international joint appeal for funds, in June, raised only 50% of the $1.7bn sought for Lebanon.

Another appeal is to be launched on Monday - to cover the period from January to June next year.

That will give donors a chance to make good on their pledges, many of which remained unfulfilled.

Following Amnesty International's damning indictment this week of European reluctance to share the burden of hosting Syrian refugees, it will also give those countries a chance to demonstrate more fully their commitment to the alternative policy of funding support for the refugees so they can stay in the region.

At the moment, that burden is falling heavily on Syria's neighbours: Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and most of all Lebanon, which is the smallest and most fragile, yet has taken in more than any other.

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