Inside Syrian refugee camps
Just hours after marching in London in solidarity with the refugees making their way across Europe, I found myself on a plane to Beirut to see how the crisis was manifesting in the Middle East.
Officially there are just over 1.2 million refugees in Lebanon, but the popular belief is that the huge number of unregistered refugees, mostly from Syria but also from Iraq and Palestine puts the number at 2 million. This is in a country which has a population of only 4.4 million many of which are living in poverty.
Our strategic partner War Child Holland has a long history of working in the Lebanon and we have been working with them in the in the region (Gaza) and they invited me to see their work here and how we might be able to work together. They have extensive psychosocial support and child protection projects which seek to provide child protection through the facilitation of safe places in which to play and recover from the trauma of displacement and the difficulties of growing up in conflict.
The spaces allow them to provide children with structured support and ‘life skills’ which allows them to talk about abuse and violence and how it can be resolved and avoided. The innovative programme which is run through local partners that are best placed to deal directly with the refugee beneficiaries also works with parents to promote community-based child protection strategies and to help families to regain some of their dignity and self-esteem that they have seen ripped from them by the conflict in Syria.
Over the next three days I’m taken to various refugee settlements in and around Tripoli and Beirut. At each site I see groups of children of different ages: one group discussing personal hygiene, another group learning English, another are drawing pictures to express their own goals for the future.
It is explained to me that most of the children in the groups are Syrian but there are also plenty of Lebanese children from host communities as well as Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. In one centre I ask if there are problems with the children playing and interacting with each other. The group facilitator sighs as she explains:
“Two years ago, the situation was different, people were sympathetic and welcomed the Syrians. They are good people, but they were living in poverty themselves and now the increasing number of refugees is creating problems and there is a lot of tension between groups.
“Children from different criminal/political fractions come to our centres with knives and other weapons and we have to convince them to hand them over. We speak to them about violence and after a few sessions we are able to integrate them with the other children.”
Hunger and malnutrition is also becoming a serious problem here. Even registered refugees have seen their food rations cut from $27 per refugee per month to $13.50 per month. This is further limited by a five person family limit, which means that a family with 10 people will receive no more than a family of five.
Only refugees that are registered are allowed to work in the Lebanon, but families need to be able to supplement these rations and find cash in hand work. At one of the sites I meet with a young lady working with a partner of War Child, running support groups for adolescent girls. She told me:
“Parents have to leave home to find work to be able to feed their families. They often have to travel away from the city leaving young children in charge of siblings in overpopulated and unsafe areas. Children are often forced to work themselves as street sellers, butchers, porters….”
I am shown another site where 10 wooden sheds have been set up on a small piece of land. I’m told that just over a 100 people are living in the settlement. In the sheds children are learning about the importance of personal hygiene from a trained facilitator. The facilitator was educated in Syria and now wants these children to continue their education so trains them inside her family home.
Another lady comes in from the outside, with a baby in her arms. She’s worried about her children’s safety as she and her husband work during the day and children are left on their own in the middle of a built up urban area. The baby must have been born in a refugee camp; this is presumably one of the hundreds of children that are born as unregistered refugees caught in a legal limbo where they cannot be registered in any country.
Despite, hearing a seemingly endless number of tragic stories, the projects that War Child and other organisations are implementing here do seem to be having a real impact on the children they support. The children are badly dressed and unwashed, but whilst they are in the safe places they are smiling, safe and seemingly happy. I asked them what they like about these group sessions: “It’s nice to have a place to come and play. Here we get to play inside rather than being outside all the time with nothing to do”. Another child says: “I’m learning to write my name and I am learning about conflict and peace between people,” she goes quiet and continues, “we think that peace is better than conflict. We hope to go back to Syria.”
Sadly, most refugee adults no longer share this hope. I asked a group of ladies in the refugee settlement of Saba and Satilla, whether they think many more people are likely to try to make the trip to Europe?
“Of course they are trying to go to Europe,” they reply. “We speak to them and they tell us if we go back to Syria we die, if we stay here we might as well be dead, the only options for us to go to Europe.”
Most of those leaving Lebanon pay people smugglers between $7-8,000 to travel to Libya and then across to Europe by boat. Getting this together takes time, and everyone is aware of the dangers of the boat crossing, but with nothing to lose, more and more people are willing to take this risk.
With 2 million refugees just in Lebanon alone, another million in Turkey and another million in Jordan, if more is not done to improve the conditions for these desperate people, the refugee crisis in Europe will continue to become more and more critical. We will see more refugees sleeping out in the open as they camp on European borders, we will see more groups of refugees walking for miles along rail tracks carrying all their worldly possessions on their back and we will see more bodies washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean.
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