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Time for camps

Lebanon needs to come to terms with its Syrian refugee crisis

by Joe Dyke

“If I want to go to prison I will go back to Bashar al-Assad. He is pretty good at it,” Abou Ibrahim jokes when asked about whether he would move to a refugee camp. The father of six fled Syria two years ago and has made the town of Saadnayel in Lebanon’s western Bekaa his temporary home. He rents the land on which his homemade wooden flat is built for $200 a month, which he pays for through sporadic manual work and, in bad months, selling his family’s United Nations food vouchers for cash. But he says he would rather continue to do so than move to a refugee camp, particularly if he were not allowed free movement in and out.

Since the Syrian crisis began in early 2011, policy makers, politicians and UN representatives in Lebanon have tried to avoid talking about camps. The term conjures up imagery of hovels, destitution and, in Lebanon, violence. But increasingly these same figures are coming to the conclusion, more through force than reason, that camps in some form or another are inevitable in Lebanon.

Related article: Interactive map of Syrians in Lebanon

Lebanon’s Syria response in crisis

Currently, there are over 650,000 Syrians either registered or awaiting registration with the United Nations in Lebanon, while the government estimates another 500,000 are in the country unregistered. This equates to over 20 percent of Lebanon’s official population, the largest refugee crisis per population size in the world. Until now, no formal camps have been opened; refugees are housed within the Lebanese system. Around 80 percent live in rented accommodation, while thousands of others are staying with friends or in abandoned buildings.

But since the start of the year, the rate of refugees has expanded so rapidly — in December 2012 there were just 129,000 registered — that the system is increasingly unable to cope. Across the country, around 280 informal camps, consisting of 20-50 tents in small areas, have popped up, often with little or no sanitation or protection against the brutal summer heat and bitterly cold winters. The shelter crisis is forcing many to rethink.

The chief convert so far is the UN itself. Joelle Eid, public information associate at the body’s refugee agency UNHCR, explains that while they still believe camps to be the “least feasible option” for housing Syrian refugees, the point has been reached when Lebanon can no longer assimilate them.

“At the beginning of the crisis, we were not advocating for camps [as they are] very expensive to uphold and maintain. We would rather see refugees live in as normal a setting as possible and we would rather invest money into local public services and schools to benefit generations to come,” she told Executive. “But as the crisis progresses and…rents are on the rise, refugees are at risk of being thrown out of their homes. We see the sprouting of these informal tented settlements,” she adds.

“So today, taking into consideration all [this], there should be another option on the table, including these other solutions”, i.e. camps.

Olivier Beuchard, country director of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Lebanon and chair of the Lebanese Humanitarian Forum INGO which seeks to lobby the UN and the government, is also convinced of the need for camps. Crucially, he believes the crisis will continue to worsen and thus the camps are necessary for medium-term planning.

Informal camps have sprung up across the Bekaa without official UN support


“We, as the INGO forum, do not believe that we are at the peak of the crisis [yet] … If tomorrow in Syria the regime falls, or the opposite, that the regime takes over the country like before, you might have a big wave of displacements,” he said. “And if you have a massive influx of 50,000 people coming in one or two days, then we are not ready to absorb them, accommodate them, and assist them in any manner. So then you need camps and transit sites.”

Camps are not merely the least worst option – there are some potential benefits. Currently, registration of refugees takes around three months in Lebanon, but for those in official refugee camps such as Zaatari in Jordan – which houses over 200,000 refugees and has thus become the country’s fourth largest city — the process takes only days, and subsequently support can be given almost immediately.

Similarly, Beuchard and other charity leaders Executive spoke with said it also made providing care easier as the refugees stay in one place. As such, for planning education, health, food distribution and other key services, camps can help get more for their money. Indeed in June, UNHCR launched a proposal calling for NGOs to submit bids for camp establishment and management. The results have not yet been released, but it is understood that a number of charities submitted plans.

Not so simple

But while the UN and international NGOs may be increasingly in favor of camps, it is not their decision to make: any final ruling would be made by the Lebanese government. This poses an obvious problem. Since the government of Najib Mikati fell in March, the new Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam has been unable to form a new cabinet. The former ministers remain in their posts in a temporary capacity, but whether they have the authority to introduce camps is unclear.

Moreover, the signals coming from the government are mixed. The Ministry of Social Affairs, under whose remit the refugee crisis has fallen, has been publicly supportive of camps but other parties in the government — most notably Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement — have remained opposed. 

One of the main hesitations, both for Lebanese and Syrians, is over security. Every Syrian Executive asked in the Bekaa stressed that they would not live in a camp if they did not have freedom to come and go as they liked. Forty-three-year-old Khaled highlighted the experiences of Zaatari camp in Jordan. Syrians are unable to leave the camp without permission, with protests about their conditions common. “I want freedom, not prison,” Khaled said. “The Syrians in Zaatari are treated like dirt.”

While for Syrians the experience of Zaatari serves as a warning about the lack of freedom, the Lebanese government takes a different kind of warning. There have been increasing reports of violence in the camp, with anti-Assad fighters rumored to be using the camp as a safe base, while prostitution and abuse are also on the rise. Ramzi Naaman, the lead coordinator of Lebanon’s Syria response plan, is among the key figures advising politicians on the crisis. He stresses that the security concerns over the Jordanian camp play a key role in the government’s hesitancy.

A refugee in Lebanon’s Bekaa region hangs out her family’s washing

“They [camps] can unfold into something very dangerous if not closely controlled,” Naaman told Executive. “The biggest indicator is Zaatari which is out of control, probably the most highly-populated spot in the world [and] extremely dangerous. I mean after 8:00 pm no one can move in the camp, no woman can go to the bathroom because she risks being raped,” he said.

Naaman’s comments, though perhaps exaggerating the reality, are indicative of the mentality of many government officials on the issue. Underlying this is the Lebanese experience with Palestinian camps, many of which remained populated with the families of refugees since they were expelled from their homeland in 1948. As there has been little meaningful progress for Palestinians in the intermittent years, the result has been that ‘temporary’ camps have remained for decades, with their semi-autonomous status making them hugely controversial with the Lebanese. Violence in the camps is common, and the Lebanese army fought a major war with alleged Islamist militants in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared in 2007.

DRC’s Beucher says that in negotiations with the government, the Palestinian camps have never been far from the table. “The government thinks that the camps will stay if they are put up tomorrow,” he says. “Something very temporary [such as] a shelter box is too luxurious for the government…so it’s very fine for the refugees, but it’s too fine [for the government] in terms of appearance, unfortunately,” he adds. “This is coming from the Palestinian precedent.”

A question of form

The Lebanese have long feared camps, but as they become increasingly unavoidable, the debate is turning to what form they should take, rather than whether they should exist at all. The first question is of size. Makram Malaeb, program manager at the Ministry of Social Affairs, calls for camps that “don’t exceed a capacity of 20,000 to 30,000 each.” This is largely echoed by DRC’s Beuchard — who thinks numerous camps of between 10,000 and 15,000 would be more suitable than the larger Zaatari model.

Then, there is the debate about location. All actors Executive spoke to agreed that the vast Bekaa region was the most likely to be chosen to host camps, but the specific locations will be controversial in a religiously diverse part of the country.

But perhaps the most contentious issue is around security and monitoring of the camps. Ziad Sayegh, an advisor to the Ministry of Labor, worked on the Palestinian file from 2005 to 2010. Speaking to Executive in late June, he stressed that in order to avoid a similar hostility with the Lebanese population, any Syrian refugee camps must be under the full control of the Lebanese government — with the army carrying out regular patrols unlike in the Palestinian camps. “[Do you think we] will have armed camps? How? The Lebanese army will supervise these camps. These camps [will be] protected by the Lebanese army and the internal security forces.”

Sayegh’s optimism in the capacity of the Lebanese army and the ISF to control the camps is perhaps misplaced. Both bodies are highly stretched trying to maintain control over numerous increasingly dangerous regions in the country, including the porous border with Syria. They are sometimes doing this without sufficient resources, with internal documents disclosed to Executive last year showing that the army is underfunded to the tune of $1.3 billion. The extent to which the Syrian refugee community will welcome these patrols is also disputed. The refugees Executive spoke to said they were concerned that the army was hostile toward them, with rumors of mistreatment common. Despite this, Malaeb agrees with Naaman that for the Lebanese to accept camps, security and movement controls will have to be implemented. “We have called for camps…with quite a bit of control mechanism within them,” he said. “[This would include] the influential presence of the security forces inside the camps, with the camp perimeter secured by the army and general security, and humanitarian relief coordinated by the ministry with the UNHCR, and other actors.” 

These stringent controls of movement that Malaeb appears to hint at may be the most logical way for Lebanon to avoid losing control of camps, but for many Syrians they would be anathematic. Trying to satisfy the refugees’ basic desires for dignity with the Lebanese hostility towards camps will be a tough ask. 

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the idea of refugee camps has been something of an elephant in the room. No longer can Lebanon continue to put off these tough decisions.

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Joe Dyke

Joe Dyke worked at Executive from 2012 until 2014, mostly as economics and politics editor. He later worked for The New Humanitarian, Agence France Presse (AFP) and is now head of investigations at the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars.

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