Why Lebanon refuses to officially welcome Syrian refugees (VIDEO)

A man walks through the Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut, Lebanon.
Credit: Brock Stoneham

Editor's note: This is the last in a three-part series looking at one of 2013's most undercovered stories: the effect of Syria's war on its fragile neighbor Lebanon. More than a million struggling Syrian refugees have fled there, swelling the country's population by 25 percent. This humanitarian crisis threatens to overwhelm a country trying to maintain peace after its own civil conflict.

See the second installment, about Lebanon's healthcare system struggling to cope with the needs of refugees.

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SHATILA REFUGEE CAMP, Beirut, Lebanon — In the beginning, they came in twos and threes. The refugees brought only what they could carry and set up a small tent settlement on less than a square mile of land in a southern neighborhood of Beirut. The Lebanese government didn’t want them there, but relented at the United Nations’ urging. Still, it insisted that the refugees not build anything permanent, that they not lay down roots.

That was more than 60 years ago. Today, there are an estimated 20,000 men, women and children still living on that same square mile.

The Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila, established in the aftermath of the Arab Israeli war of 1948, stands as a living example of why the Lebanese government has so far refused to formally welcome refugees from neighboring Syria. It is also a warning, proof of what can happen to neglected refugees and the country that tries to ignore them.

Because the Lebanese government did not allow the original refugees to build outside the initial boundaries of the camp, they built up. What began as a tent city has become a concrete maze. Narrow, unlit passageways wind between buildings resembling crudely stacked concrete shacks, each level built ad-hoc as new arrivals moved in. Tangles of electrical wire crisscross between buildings, yet supply only intermittent power. Bathing water is salty. Drinking water must be bought. Sewage systems are unreliable.

And now Shatila must cope with another wave of refugees. Camp administrators believe the population may have doubled since the crisis in Syria began. Syrian Palestinians came to Shatila looking to find some measure of comfort in the shared experience of being Palestinian. What they found instead has shocked them.

“They’re people like us, I thought, but we have different natures, even if we’re both Palestinian,” said Rami, 23, a Syrian Palestinian who arrived in Shatila two months earlier. Fearing reprisals against his family in Syria, he asked that his last name not be used.

Rami now lives in a two-room concrete shack with seven other members of his family. His grandmother, who has trouble walking, spends most days sitting at the uneven doorway, watching the camp’s children play in the trash-covered street. He said cockroaches and mice scuttle across the floor day and night. The one, small window has been covered with a foggy plastic tarp. His family doesn’t have any blankets.

Worse than the cold inside his shack, he said, is the danger outside.

“You can get a gun as easily as you can get bread and sugar,” he said. Arguments are often resolved with either a pistol-whipping or a shooting.

Some cope by staying inside.

Manar, 24, who arrived at the camp with her husband two months ago, spends her days inside a one-room shack with her 14-month-old son as her only company. She is pregnant again.

She said she only leaves her mice-ridden shack to hang laundry.

“When you go outside, you’re Syrian, and you’re not really welcomed here,” she said. “And they say that they hate Syrians here and I’m afraid that if I go out, I will be harmed.”

She has trouble sleeping, because an easily moved piece of plywood makes up part of the wall between her home and the adjoining one.

Palestinians in Shatila sometimes resent the Syrian refugees, who can register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to receive food vouchers.

Yasser Dawoud, executive director of Developmental Action Without Borders, an aid organization that serves Palestinian refugees all over Lebanon, understands where some of the frustration comes from.

According to Dawoud, more than 60 percent of Palestinian refugees live below the poverty line, and they’re the ones who end up hosting new refugees, often by sharing an already cramped home with friends and relatives.

“You’re a poor family,” he said. “You’re getting nothing while that other family is getting support from the international community. Some people don’t complain about that, but others ask, ‘What about us? We’re unable to survive.’”

Dawoud believes that the problems facing Palestinian refugees here began in the 1950s when the UN’s response to Palestinian humanitarian emergencies became focused on easing the burdens of refugees through charity rather than on developing programs to get them out of poverty.

“It’s like you have a group of chickens. You are feeding them each morning and that’s it,” he said.

The Lebanese government forbids Palestinians from entering into as many as 20 professions, including law, engineering and medicine. The situation has led many young Palestinians in Lebanon to give up on education.

“They have lost the dream,” Dawoud said. “Why should I be an engineer? My neighbor is an engineer, and he’s working as a taxi driver. They are losing the motivation to go to school. Some of the children want just to go to the labor market, because they see it as a shortcut, but they don’t even have access to that.”

Many in Lebanon look at Shatila and see a growing number of refugees who refuse to leave, despite living in poverty. They see it as proof of why Lebanon must avoid welcoming new refugees.

Dawoud thinks the Lebanese government has taken the wrong lessons from Shatila.

When he considers the number of Syrians that have entered Lebanon and received so little support from the government, Dawoud worries that past mistakes are being repeated on a more epic scale. The discontent and resentment inside Shatila threaten to spread to the rest of Lebanon as one million new refugees struggle in abject poverty.

Supporting those new refugees will fall to the international community. Failing to do so, Dawoud said, would create a humanitarian crisis that dwarfs the scale of Shatila.

“With no support it’s very dangerous. It’s very, very dangerous. And it’s no fair to the refugees themselves, to give them access with nothing. It’s just come in, die, feel free.”

Ninette Kelley, representative for UNHCR in Lebanon, sees at least one important difference between Shatila and the new crisis.

“The difference between the Palestinian situation and the Syrian situation is the Syrians at least have a home that they can go home to. The question is when,” she said. “And that’s why a solution to Syria has to happen soon, because the whole region right now is really on the brink.”

This series was produced with the support of Focus on Syria.

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