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Why we must act on the crisis the world seems to have forgotten

March 16, 2020
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#Syria, #women's rights, #asylum seekers
by:Peadar O'Cearnaigh
As we approach the ninth anniversary of the war in Syria its repercussions are still being felt. Millions of Syrian people have died or have been forced to leave their homes.

Lebanon has taken in the greatest number of refugees per capita. An estimated 1.5 million. A large number of these still live in deplorable conditions. They lack basic sanitation and daily survival is a struggle as they also face hostility from the local community. And while the support they receive from NGOs is welcome, it merely serves to keep the absolute worst at bay. We must all get involved.


One of these refugees is a woman called ‘Fatme’ (not her real name). Accompanied by her family, Fatme was among the thousands who live in northern Lebanon. They have lived here in what is known locally as an Informal Tented Settlement (ITS) since 2014. And for the time being at least they aren’t going anywhere. They cannot return to Syria where their lives would be at risk and moving elsewhere has not proven possible just yet.

Fatme’s dream is to move to another country where both she and her family can feel safe, get a proper education and live once again with dignity.

She lives with her mother, sister, brother and his five children and they are all highly dependent on her. Because Fatme’s brother lost his arm in the war in Syria he finds it difficult to find a job and to provide for his family. Her mother suffered a heart stroke and her sister has a mental disability. This puts even greater pressure on Fatme because she is the only one who can get reliable work. And that work is both harsh and poorly paid.

She works in agriculture near their ITS in large plastic greenhouses where they grow vegetables. It’s tough back-breaking work performed in either sweltering or freezing conditions. But it’s the only work she can get given her family circumstances and the poor treatment and legal estimated of most Syrian refugees in Lebanon. She earns just a day which is typically $3 less than men.

With this small amount of money, she pays all family bills. Additionally, her children’s schooling, transportation and the rent of $60 per month must come out of her wages. This is taking its toll and simply cannot go on. In future she’ll need to get a loan from the landlord to make ends meet.

Living conditions

Their ITS, like all ITSs, is makeshift. Refugees build them on the land where they work with the agreement of the landowner. Their huts are made from pieces of plastic and wood. It’s then divided into a few small dimly lit rooms with almost no ventilation, sanitation or insulation. It becomes extremely hot in summer and cold in winter. There is little or no real protection from the elements and they are liable to flooding during the heavy rains.

There is little or no proper sanitation and the law does not allow them to build permanent structures. Typically, they don’t have any washing or toilet facilities inside so they have to do so in the open air. It’s a humiliating experience.

Local reaction

And this is the second ITS Fatme and her family have lived in. Deplorable as these conditions are, it’s not the worst thing they have faced. Because they were forced to leave the previous one following threats and attacks by the local community. And while they live in harmony with the current local community, they still live in fear. Fear that their girls may be attacked or verbally abused by local men. Fatme says the ‘threat of sexual harassment is always there’. They hope to move to a new country. And when asked where they’d like to move to, they say: “anywhere but Lebanon or Syria”.

Fatme also wants to help her family and brother who needs medical treatment. This treatment would be best got outside of Lebanon. She wants to help get a good education for his children also. Fatme’s mother says:

“I’m not afraid to go back to Syria, but I want my children to leave Lebanon and travel to a European country so my grandchildren can get a proper education.”

Government protests in Lebanon

And their lot has also been made even more difficult following recent anti-government protests in Lebanon. In November 2019 a consortium of four NGOs collected data regarding the impact of the political situation on the most vulnerable and on the inter-community relations. This assessment showed: “The deteriorating economic conditions have led already vulnerable households in the community to depend on harmful coping mechanisms, including further restriction of movement, reduction of food consumption and food diversity, limited use of medicine, and increased debts, further heightening protection concerns.

The risk of child labor, child marriage, domestic violence, and harassments in the public places were identified as the direct impacts on women and girls. In addition, the risk of survival sex and further exploitation was noted in relation to their increased economic vulnerabilities.

In case of the difference between Syrians and Lebanese, security and safety concerns were mostly relevant to Syrians, in particular relation to the increasing intercommunal tension, possibility of evictions, and fear of arrest and/or deportation due to the delayed renewal of their residency documents caused by increased transportations costs and the unpredictability of relevant services. In case of Lebanese, most of their vulnerabilities were related to ongoing economic hardships.”

Help is possible

Fatme and her family got help from a local NGO, Concern Worldwide. Initially it helped them move into a rehabilitated warehouse where they stayed for 2 months. It also helped with the rent, built external latrines with a septic tank that is safe and accessible for other ITS residents also. This support shows what can be done and it also shows that not everybody has forgotten this crisis.

What’s needed is for a lot more people and organisations to show this level of support. Most importantly governments need to get involved. Then maybe Fatme, her family and others will be allowed live a life free from fear and with the dignity that we all equally deserve.

Article written by:
Peadar O’Cearnaigh
Embed from Getty Images
Lebanon has taken in the greatest number of refugees per capita. An estimated 1.5 million.
Embed from Getty Images
The refugees cannot return to Syria where their lives would be at risk and moving elsewhere has not proven possible just yet.
Embed from Getty Images
Most importantly governments need to get involved in helping these refugees.
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