Inside the Lebanese Camps Where Syrian Refugees Are Struggling to Eke Out a Living

While Europe debates the stream of refugees crossing its borders, the situation for the more than 1 million Syrians living in Lebanon is growing increasing dire.

by Sulome Anderson
16 September 2015, 6:00am

Refugees in a tannery just outside Saida, Lebanon. All photos by the author

The stench of the tannery in which 12 Syrian refugee families are living is almost impossible to fathom.

The abandoned structure is located in a dusty field just outside of Saida, Lebanon. Partially decomposed animal skins decorate the ground in reeking heaps. The air is thick with decay and the stinging chemicals used to tan the hide into leather. It's a place most people would avoid spending even ten minutes inside, but human beings are eating, sleeping and breathing there every day. Dozens of thin, grimy-faced children scamper about the two-story building, playing among the rotting furs and machinery. They all cough frequently – deep hacking noises better suited to heavy cigarette smokers than kids.

At ten years old, it's already clear that Rima is going to be a beauty. She has fine, delicate features, thick brown eyelashes, and an elegance that belies her soiled pink Minnie Mouse T-shirt. Her eyes are bright with tears as she recounts how her family woke around 2 AM Monday to the camp they had just moved into being bulldozed – while they were still inside.

"We were so frightened," she tells me. "They demolished the building right on top of us, while we were sleeping. The kids started crying and screaming. I hurt my hand, it was covered in blood. The cops took all the men away, they said our daddies would be right back but my brother ran away. We were crying and the police were taking pictures of us with their phones and laughing at us. When I fell down, one of them laughed at me and called me a dog."

While European countries are just now beginning to register the scale of the migrant crisis created by horrific Syrian civil war, Lebanon has been struggling to cope since the beginning of the conflict. The country's already-fragile economy is straining under the weight of these people, and the government seems to be growing resentful of their presence.

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There are currently over 1.1 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations living in Lebanon, and the number of unregistered refugees is estimated to be much higher; one village in Lebanon is reported to be housing more refugees than are living in the entire United States. While refugees could previously enter Lebanon with relative ease, laws instituted earlier this year now require Syrians to obtain visas upon entering the country. Those who already live here must have their residency renewed every six months, and in order to do so, they have to provide documents including a signed pledge not to work and a rental agreement with their landlord – as well as a $200 (£130) fee.

Meanwhile, anti-Syrian violence in Lebanon has been documented with increasing frequency in recent years. Residents of towns near the informal camps that have cropped up across the country have been known to torch the tents of their new neighbours. Reports of Syrian women being raped or sold into forced marriages with Lebanese men stretch back years. In 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing many cases of abuse and mistreatment of refugees, sometimes by Lebanese security forces.

Rima and her family were thrilled to hear that a man named Fadi Chamieh, who runs a local NGO called the Humanitarian Association Collaboration, had found them some land on which he was erecting a caravan-style camp made of bricks, plastic containers, and corrugated metal. So they left the tannery, moved into the new structures, unpacked, and settled in for the night. Then they were awakened by the roar of bulldozers leveling the buildings. The family claims that the camp was being demolished by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF).

One of the refugee women took a video of the mayhem, documenting another woman fainting as her children shriek and cling to her while their shelters are destroyed.

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"I wasn't going to let them take this from us too, our homes and our pride," the woman who took the video says, triumph in her voice. "They've taken everything else, but I wanted the world to see them this time."

"In general, Lebanon is like a big prison for the Syrians. It's not a safe haven for them." —Nabil Halabi

According to Nabil Halabi, executive director of the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (LIFE), an NGO that documents human rights abuses, there's no coherent Lebanese policy for Syrian refugees.

"One of the new laws prohibits Syrians from working in Lebanon, but they have to pay money for the papers in order to stay," Halabi says. "Where are they going to get the money from? So some of them turn to crime, because they have no other choice. Then the Lebanese say, 'Look, they're all criminals.'

"Many people are giving land and helping them as well," he adds. "Not all the Lebanese treat the Syrians badly... but in general, Lebanon is like a big prison for the Syrians. It's not a safe haven for them."

Security forces often raid the camps under the pretense of preventing terrorists from infiltrating the settlements, which are usually on privately-owned land since the Lebanese government has prohibited the construction of official refugee encampments. But at a small camp in the Barelias village of the Bekaa Valley, a young man snorts at the idea that there could be terrorists there.

"They say they're looking for guns and terrorists," he chuckles. "I've been trying to find enough money to buy a pack of cigarettes for two days. How am I supposed to buy a gun?"

An elderly man explains why his children took the enormous risk of being illegally smuggled aboard a boat from Lebanon to Europe. His small tent smells of sweat and grease, but he has a straight-backed dignity at odds with the squalor surrounding him.

"My children went to Europe Sunday morning by boat," the man says. "They stayed 90 hours trying to get from here to Cyprus. They almost died in the sea two or three times, but that would have been better than the misery they were facing here... The Lebanese people treat us as though we're less than zero. They don't think we are human beings. The army and police stop us at checkpoints and if we don't have IDs, they beat us. One of them threatened to kill me."

Asked about the spate of media attention for the refugee crisis in Europe, the old man gives a bitter laugh. "The Europeans woke up very late. We've been suffering and dying for years, and they only notice now? But better late than never...all I hope for right now is that the Lebanese government leaves us alone and changes these new rules and laws. It costs so much money to get a residency or even to be able to live here legally. I have no money, I can barely feed myself. How can I pay them?"

A woman a few tents down points to another young woman in a hijab. "That girl was six months pregnant until the soldiers came into the camp and beat her so badly she lost the baby," she whispers. "She'll never talk about it though. They scared her so badly. But we all saw it."

At the tannery in Saida, another elderly man is shouting about how their homes were bulldozed while they slept. "They came, destroyed our camp, humiliated us in front of everyone," he thunders. "I can't stand it anymore. They think we're terrorists. We're not terrorists! We're not daesh [the Islamic State]! Do you see daesh here? These are women and children. We're not asking for anything from them. Not a thing. We just want to be left alone. They wouldn't treat dogs like this. And we're not allowed to say a word."

Kamal Kozbar, the Saida municipal council member responsible for refugee affairs, visited the demolished camp that night after being called to the scene. "I went there when they demolished the camp and then I went to the place they are living now and I cried for one hour," he tells me. "I wouldn't allow my dog to live in a place like that."

"All the Syrians in Lebanon are trying to find a way out... These people are desperate." —Kamal Kozbar

Kozbar says the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is especially dire, given the fragility of the host country and the number of migrants.

"It's a disaster," he sighs. "All the Syrians in Lebanon are trying to find a way out. The illegal way for to escape is what you're seeing on TV every day, like the boats. These people are desperate. The price they pay for leaving this country illegally is their lives, but they feel as though they have nothing to lose so they take the chance. The Lebanese government is treating the Syrians not as refugees, but as an unwanted burden that they would like to be rid of. So the government becomes a part of their misery."

In a statement to reporters in May 2014, Minister of Social Affairs Rashid Derbas announced the advent of the new refugee policies. "Lebanon surpassed its capabilities in light of an absence of real aid to support host communities," Derbas told reporters at the Rafik Hariri International Airport. "In Lebanon, I don't think that the situation can go on the way it is. In the past, the policy was to neglect and ignore because they thought the number was a couple of thousand. But today, we have a couple of million and they could be here for years."

"[The international community] is treating Lebanon as a warehouse... but this warehouse also has limits," said Derbas.

At the Humanitarian Association Collaboration office in Saida, Chamieh looks pained. "The conditions [at the tannery] are terrible," he says. "We decided to try and replace these families' homes on the land of a man who donated it to us. After we accomplished the project, the ISF attacked them at night and destroyed the camp on top of their heads. The ISF's excuse was that the buildings were illegal. But the land was private so they had no right to level it. We talked to the police chief in the area and he said the ISF was worried about having camps in the Saida area. It was just discrimination – they're afraid that Syrians will steal or commit crimes."

Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, declines to comment on the Saida case because his group has yet to investigate it. But he details the dire housing situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

"There have been cases in the Bekaa in which the army has dismantled informal camps, often on the excuse that they were too close to army barracks or could potentially be used by armed extremists," Houry says. "There are also certain municipalities that have asked for informal camps to be removed for public health and security reasons...There are no state-provided, official camps for refugees, so they're finding whatever they can, often in horrible conditions including tanneries and abandoned factories completely unsuitable for living...there have been tensions with landowners or municipalities, and from a public health perspective, it's a mess. There's a lack of any policy for refugee housing, and these camps are often violently dispersed without provisional alternatives."

Asked for comment on the incident in Saida, Colonel Joseph Moussallem, spokesperson for the ISF, says security forces were not formally involved in the demolition.

"[Fadi Chamieh] tried to build structures illegally," Moussellam says in one phone conversation. "He tried to rent these structures out for commercial purposes. It wasn't for humanitarian purposes."

In a second phone call, Colonel Moussallem tells me, "The owner of this land didn't know that [Chamieh] was going to rent the land to Syrians, but there were many complaints by people in the area and he was worried that Syrians were going to be living there.

"The court gave him three days from Sunday to demolish the land and the Syrians hadn't moved in there yet," Moussallem continues. "He decided to demolish the building on his own. No one knew the Syrians were there. And we didn't demolish the building. We don't have the money to do things like that."

When it is pointed out that court is not open on Sunday and every single witness maintained they were rousted by ISF officers, Moussallem is indignant.

"They don't know who is ISF and who isn't," he insists. "They wouldn't be able to tell. If anything bad happens in Lebanon, it's the ISF's fault. The ISF might have seen that there was a commotion and come to investigate the situation. But the landlord made the decision on his own... There are criminals among these people [the Syrians], and people in the town were frightened that they would be near them...We didn't see the Syrians. No one knew they were there. All we knew was that there was an illegal building and it was being demolished."

Of course, Mohamad al Bekai, the landowner, has a different version of events.

"I gave them [Humanitarian Association Collaboration] my permission to use my land to house refugees on the condition that they would obtain permission from the municipality," he tells me. "They told me they had a verbal agreement from the municipality...I wasn't there when they destroyed the camps."

As she cries in the tannery, Rima remembers what happened in Syria, before the casual indignity of their situation in Lebanon.

"My sister had just been born when the war started," she says. "We used to put her under the bed to protect her from the bombing. The snipers would shoot at our house. Then we came to Lebanon for safety, but my brother became sick and died, and since the day my brother died, my father is sick. He has heart problems.

"When we walk down the street here, they insult and disrespect us," she says in the weary voice of a grown woman. "We pray every day and read the Quran so there is peace and we can go back to Syria. In Syria, we used to play and have nice clothes. Here, we have nothing."

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