“How can you help us?” The girl’s eyes were unwavering. The wind bit at our faces as we stood on the exposed farmland, home to a small refugee camp on the edge of Syria’s border. It would have been a beautiful setting; snow capped mountains with blue skies beyond them, but the tarpaulins flapped violently in the wind, and the cold pierced through to the bone.
We couldn’t help, not enough, and not for enough people.
There are currently over one million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, making up a quarter of the population. About half of them live in rented accommodation; the others live in little camps dotted around the countryside. These white tents blur past the bus window through the Bekaa Valley, often set up on rented farmland and in places where there is little work or infrastructure.
In December 2014, the United Nations (U.N.) issued its largest ever appeal for a single crisis. $8.4 billion is necessary to meet the needs of all those affected by the Syrian refugee crisis, both inside and outside Syria. Yet only 50% of this amount has materialized thus far, meaning Syrian refugees in Lebanon receive only around $13.50 per month, or less than half a dollar a day, for food assistance.
Security in some of the camps is a concern. Around the town of Arsal, close to the Syrian border, there has been sporadic violence. Members of ISIS and the Al Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al Nusra have been fighting the Lebanese army for over two years. Importantly however, while most of the other camps in Lebanon are impoverished, they are secure.
In the camp, Mohammed sat and drank sweet tea whilst trying to warm up by a small oil heater. He showed me pictures of him with over a hundred dead chickens, he grinned with pride: “This is the chicken for Shawarma!” – My appetite momentarily vanishing at the sight. The situations of people who live in the camps differ, some were lucky enough to find work in a local chicken farm. This gave them and their families enough money to be able to eat properly, although they could not afford to buy much else.
Others were less lucky. They had to rely on what aid agencies or local people could afford to give them. Another Syrian, Ahmad, had a small baby and couldn’t afford to buy milk for her. In his empty tent the child was crying in a cot in the corner, the sound pierced only by momentary silences that seemed to suck the air out of the room. The mother was not present; he didn’t offer an explanation.
Many of the people in this camp have been in Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict, others have only just arrived. Most of the Syrians we spoke to had left because of the Assad regime’s bombs.
Sitting in Mohammed’s little tent, hiding from the quiet frozen ground outside, it seemed a thousand miles away from the bombs and fighting we see on TV; in reality it was just over 10 miles. There wasn’t much talk of the conflict, although his father joked that Syria was now both an airport and a shooting range for the world’s military aircraft to practice on.
According to the Moscow Times, Russian strikes on Syria cost over $4 million a day, roughly $1.5 billion over the course of a year. To put this into perspective, it is about 2000 times the amount Russia contributed to UNHCR this year to help Syrian refugees in the region. The U.S. is spending over double on its military operations, at $9 million a day, which is still roughly 10 times what it spends on helping the victims of the conflict.
One of the women, Fatima, explained about her five year old son, Mohanad. He couldn’t sleep for more than a few minutes at night before waking up, shouting, and scratching his head in a scared fever. The bombs gave him this.
There has been a renewed effort to combat radical violent groups in the region. Yet amongst the talk of heroically fighting and defeating terrorism, there has not been enough support for the civilian refugees displaced by the conflict. Lebanon is a small and not particularly wealthy country; its own factionalized society is struggling to support the Syrians who have sought refuge there.
Without proper and meaningful help, the countries in the region who are hosting the Syrian refugees will become less stable. These little camps on the edge of the mountains are fertile ground for violent and extreme ideologies which feed on poverty. If governments want to both protect the welfare of refugees as well as guard against the spread of terrorism, they need to do more to help.
About the Author
Oliver Berthoud is a contributor for Global Public Policy Watch on Middle Eastern Issues. As an expert on the Middle East, he has spent a considerable amount of time in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Afghanistan. His academic speciality is in Minority Muslim Communities and he is a University of Exeter alumnus. He is an Arabic speaker and currently resides in Beirut, Lebanon.
Cover image by author.