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Easily evicted

Ousted from their homes in Syria, many refugees struggle to find adequate accommodations

by Jeremy Arbid

Lebanon’s already crumbling infrastructure has been further exasperated by the inflow of refugees into the country — UNHCR most recently tallied 1.1 million registered Syrians — and the lack of adequate, affordable housing is making refugees’ lives in Lebanon even more difficult. 

Most recently, the Lebanese government has restricted the entrance of new refugees into the country. “Lebanon is no longer officially receiving any Syrian refugees,” Minister of Social Affairs Rashid Derbas said in comments published in Al-Akhbar newspaper in mid October. But for refugees in Lebanon the list of challenges for daily survival grows. “Despite the growing numbers,” Human Rights Watch reported in early October, “the national government has not adopted a national policy for housing.”

Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol which would — among other things — provide the right to housing. Neither has it, at the policy level, met the bare minimum requirements to address this issue — the cabinet has not approved a proposal made by Derbas in September to organize camps for the refugees.

A recent study published by the UNHCR and UN HABITAT highlights a number of housing and property issues stemming from the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon. The report finds that 41 percent of Syrians in Lebanon cannot afford adequate shelter, resulting in living conditions with “poor quality shelter, overcrowding, and limited access to water, sanitation and urban services.”

Lack of affordable housing

Only “54,450 refugees received shelter assistance in 2012 (out of a total of 170,637 refugees), some 209,214 refugees received shelter assistance in 2013 (out of a total of an estimated 1 million refugees).” While the number of refugees receiving assistance has increased, the level of support has not improved in correlation to the increase in refugee numbers. Instead, international donors are focusing increasingly on supporting access to emergency shelter rather than finding long term housing solutions. Mona Fawaz, a consultant to the study, suggests that this might be because “donors are more likely to respond to the emergency distribution of hygiene kits than they are to a neighborhood upgrading initiative, even if the latter responds better to the big picture goals.”

For the vast majority of vulnerable Syrian refugees, the report notes, informal market channels are how they secure housing. While the report suggests such housing has some positive qualities including “responsiveness, flexibility and relative affordability,” more importantly it has severe shortcomings such as “poor housing quality, insecurity of tenure [and] negative environmental impact.” In many instances, refugee tenants fall victim to the predatory practices of landlords and realtors. Discussing possible solutions to mitigate these practices, Fawaz says, “The most important thing is to intervene on the market in a way that can create accountability (as a way to protect the tenants) but also provide incentives for the Lebanese families to stay so as to preserve a certain mixture [of neighborhood residents] rather than create de facto camps, as is happening.” 

Among many recommendations found within the report — such as that donors should increase support and funding for sanitation and waste collection, and municipalities and landowners coordinate housing options for refugees — it also alludes to the need to protect tenant rights by developing model lease agreements and an eviction monitoring program, all the while raising refugees’ awareness of how to maintain the limited rights they are afforded under Lebanese law.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has worked toward addressing this issue through a pilot project, which found that “using a written lease agreement is a feasible and valuable approach to increase the security of tenure for Syrian refugees,” according to an NRC statement.

 One of the most pertinent recommendations found in the report was that “incentives should be developed to encourage the Lebanese to build or rehabilitate additional low cost housing units [for] Syrian refugees.” Without national strategies to alleviate the stresses faced by the refugee communities, international donors will have a difficult time incentivizing the private sector to provide low cost housing. Doing so without active state participation is a key challenge, Fawaz contends. “The only actors who are serious among public agencies are the municipalities, as far as I could see, as they have the refugees in their face.”

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Jeremy Arbid

Jeremy is Executive's former economics and policy editor.

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