Diplomatic strides have averted a US-led military strike on Syria, but as the conflict rages, one particular neighbour is paying a heavy price. Chloe Corbin talks to Nouha Ghosn, President of WILPF Lebanon, about the extent of Syria’s refugee crisis and how it is burdening an already unstable nation.

Syrian refugees standing and talking in shanty camps in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley. Credits: Bidna Capoeira

Syrian refugees in shanty camps in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley. Credits: Bidna Capoeira

Syria’s “lost” refugees

Desperate to flee the senseless violence that has claimed so many innocent victims, thousands of Syrians are taking the decision to leave their country each day. The vast majority of these refugees head to Lebanon. The numbers are staggering – and have increased amid threats of US-led strikes and reports of August’s chemical attack.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are already 720,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with 5,000 crossing the border each day. However, as Nouha Ghosn, President of WILPF Lebanon, explains, this huge number tells only half the story. ‘Many Syrian refugees refrain from registering for security reasons. They might be with or against the insurgents and are too afraid to release their identity’. Consequently, it is impossible to know exactly how many are in need of aid and support.

Space, sanitation and security

The situation is desperate for these ‘lost’ or ‘unidentified’ refugees, as they do not automatically receive aid and support from the Lebanese government or NGOs. “They are the most miserable”, says Ghosn, “families are living under bridges, under trees, in parks and literally on the streets and sidewalks. They survive on anything a passer-by offers them.”

Before the crisis began, the vast majority of Syrians had access to health-care and education. Now as displaced refugees, Syrians struggle to secure basic necessities such as access to clean water and sanitation facilities. According to a recent report released by WILPF’s partner organization in Lebanon, ABAAD and Oxfam, the combination of contaminated water and limited health-care has created an impending health crisis for Syrian refugees.

Pockets of Bekaa valley in Lebanon have transformed into sprawling informal camps of Syrian refugees. Just this past April, Doctors without Borders reported nearly 90 cases of diarrhoea among Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley. While aid agencies once granted vouchers to refugees for a supply of drinking water, these too have stopped as demand in Lebanon for clean, safe water rises for both Lebanese and Syrians alike.

The lives of thousands of Lebanese families have also been drastically changed by the Syrian crisis. The inundation of homeless and desperate refugees has exacerbated living conditions in Lebanon. The situation is dire. Overcrowding, increased food prices, and an intense feeling of insecurity are all pushing Lebanon to the brink. Ghosn says the impact of Syrian refugees on Lebanon began, ‘when wealthy families fled to Lebanon with their money. They either bought, or rented houses, thereby disrupting the supply-demand balance and raising prices sky high.’ The influx has resulted in ‘one-third of the population in cities and villages being strangers’, leaving Lebanese families feeling insecure and like strangers in their own country.

A homeless mother with four children sitting underneath a tree in Beirut, Lebanon.

Syrian refugee family from the town of Idlib now living on the streets in Lebanon. Nouha Ghosn interviewed them for their story. Photo Credits: Nouha Ghosn

Not only are Syrian refugees deprived of many basic rights, Save the Children attests that only 25 percent of Syrian refugee children attend school. Many obstacles such as lack of space, language barriers, and mobility issues bar Syrian children from their right to education.

The Lebanese Ministry of Education instructed schools in 2012 to enroll all Syrian students and to waive all fees, but there just simply isn’t enough room. Although there have been some initiatives from outside the UN to support education including Jusoor refugees education program and Brown’s call for $500m for Syrian children schooling, Ghosn says, ‘class numbers have rocketed as new students are accepted in public schools, burdening classes and having a negative impact on classroom performance’.

In addition to crowding and strained resources, many Syrian children fail to attend school because their parents are either reluctant or simply unable to send them. Parents often keep girls at home Interview of Homeless Syrian Refugee Familybecause the schools are mixed or because they fear the sexual harassment many women encounter on the street. Destitution has also forced many families to send their children, often boys, to work.The rapid influx of Syrians looking to find work has also put pressure on local businesses, as owners ‘replace local workers with Syrian refugees who accept lower wages, putting thousands out of work’. The growing demand of food and living necessities, has also forced ‘prices to soar, making it difficult for families to survive on the same amount as before.’

In an effort to acquire either money or resources, there are reports of prostitution among Syrian children and women in both the refugee camps and in the surrounding Lebanese communities. Often the victims are expected to perform sexual acts in exchange for basic necessities such as food and water, a phenomenon called “survival sex.” Roberta Russo, the UN’s Refugee Agency spokeswoman in Lebanon, confirmed that the UN was aware that such acts have and do occur. “A handful of cases of survival sex were reported since the beginning of 2013. UNHCR is not sure of the exact extent of the problem because survival sex is highly under-reported.

Regional instability and the way forward

Of Syria’s five immediate neighbours, Lebanon is often seen as the most vulnerable. The caretaker government in Lebanon awaits the formation of a new cabinet, resulting in political instability. The conflict in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis are testing Lebanon’s shaky foundations both economically and politically.

However, despite being divided along political lines between those who support President Assad and those who oppose him, Ghosn says most people in Lebanon believe Assad has to be uprooted in order for there to be lasting peace.

She says, ‘most people here do not want any military attack, nor do they see taking hold of chemical weapons as being the answer. They believe a political solution has to be forced.’ With memories of US intervention in Iraq still raw, and stories of Syria’s violent conflict commonplace, it is understandable that Lebanon favours diplomacy above force.

For now, the immediate basic needs of the Syrian people must be met. The largest refugee cluster in Lebanon has serious health and educational inadequacies including a lack of running, clean water and sanitary facilities. Even with the UN launching a “Back to Learning” campaign, which is designed to provide Syrian children with informal education, more needs to be done. Generations of Syrians are losing years of education. Lebanon must receive adequate international backing in order to continue supporting Syria’s refugee crisis without neglecting the needs of its people.

Filling the wide funding gaps

Ghosn explains that ‘aid has decreased as refugee numbers have grown. Countries have not fulfilled their promises, leaving the Lebanese government paralyzed. A shortage of funds has also forced the UN refugee agency to cut their food aid.’ This has left thousands of women and children without sufficient food and shelter. The UN estimates 70% of Syria’s refugees are women and children.

Ghosn says it is vital we ‘encourage the international community to donate more funds’. She says, ‘Lebanon was not prepared for the number of refugees and neither was the international community’. But with donor countries delivering less than one-third of their pledged funds, and refugee numbers growing daily, pressure to stem the aid crisis in Lebanon is becoming increasingly urgent.

However, Ghosn says there have been encouraging gestures in recent weeks. ‘The European Union has allocated €58 million to refugees through UN agencies, and some to the Lebanese government to provide water and sanitation to the refugees. Also, countries such as Sweden and Cyprus are welcoming refugees, and Germany has agreed to accept 5,000 Syrians for a stay of up to two years. The World Bank is also preparing an assessment ahead of an international support group meeting on Lebanon later this month.’

The international community must pull together its resources in order to end this humanitarian crisis.