Lebanon struggles with massive influx of Syrians as winter and sub-zero temperatures approach

30 October 2013

Since the Syrian conflict began over 6 million people have been forced to flee their homes. 2.2 million of them are refugees, living in neighbouring countries that include Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.

At least 800,000 are now in Lebanon, placing enormous pressure on the infrastructure and resources of a country that at 4.4 million people is similar in size to Ireland.

With winter and sub-zero temperatures fast approaching, those challenges will soon be magnified says Senior Field Coordinator Maeve Murphy who began her UN career as an International United Nations Volunteer (UNV) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, just ten years ago.


How will winter affect refugees in Lebanon?

Last January when I arrived one of the most profound memories I have is seeing all the children coming to be registered who did not have proper clothing or footwear to deal with the freezing temperatures. They were often just wearing flip-flops with no socks and it was heart-breaking to witness them being exposed to the cold.

Knowing that people have the extra burden of trying to keep warm and dry, it is a huge challenge for the International community to cater for all needs, with the funding challenges that we face.

We are working hard to improve the conditions of the tented settlements, providing additional wood and plastic sheeting. In addition living conditions in tented settlements are harsher, requiring us to provide fuel and stoves. Our current challenge is to scale up our programme to provide these much needed supplies to all those in need before the onset of the rain and snow.

Photo: Syrian refugee children in front of a collective centre in the city of Arsal. © UNHCR/S.Malkawi


What are the biggest challenges facing UNHCR in Lebanon?

The challenges are enormous, mostly due to the very high number of refugees we are trying to support. Lebanon is a small and very beautiful country, with a similar population to Ireland (about 4-4.5 million) and there are currently over three quarters of a million Syrians who have arrived here to avail of their hospitality. 

Many locations are facing challenges providing water, sufficient waste management support and electricity to this rapidly expanding population. We must truly acknowledge and appreciate the role of Lebanese Municipalities who have played a major role in providing the necessary services. We are now trying to strengthen the support to these generous communities to deal with the additional needs that the expanded population requires.


How have the Lebanese responded to the influx of Syrians?

Lebanese, from the outset, opened their homes and villages to those arriving and there is currently no town or village that is not hosting refugees, in some cases there are more refugees than host community members. Some 36,000 Syrian refugees are still being hosted by Lebanese families, who mostly did not know their guests before arriving.

To provide an example, one of the first times I went to visit a host family I was introduced to an amazing old lady who is currently hosting over 5 families in her home. This has meant that her son has not been able to marry, as there is no longer enough room to accommodate his future wife! The lady suffers from very poor health however her warmth and welcome for the Syrians is so obvious and she is very forthright about telling her son he just needs to be patient! Her attitude really made me question my own welcome and whether, if I was in her situation, I would open my house to accommodate people I did not know beforehand. The generosity of this lady is similar to many others who saw people in need and provided them with a roof over their heads and a place at their table and in many instances they became part of their family. We anticipate that the number of refugees will increase to over one million by the end of the year, so basically one in five people in Lebanon will be a Syrian refugee.

Photo: Members of a Syrian refugee family give details to a UNHCR staff member during their registration in northern Lebanon. © UNHCR/S.Malkawi


Has the influx of Syrians to Lebanon led to housing shortages?


Certainly, finding suitable housing for all those who are in need is a difficult task. We continually explore every shelter possibility; rehabilitating homes/apartments, renovation of basements/ garages, providing wooden bungalows and supporting those living in tented settlements. However the numbers arriving mean that it is simply not possible to keep up with the demands. Increasing rent prices have resulted in more people choosing the cheaper option of moving into tented settlements, however often they do not have the finances to make their tents weather resistant.

In Lebanon we have more than 370 spontaneous tented settlements, all of which need latrines and water to be provided to them, in addition to provision of weatherproofing of the tents.



Could you describe what the situation is like for Syrian children in Lebanon?

It is a major challenge dealing with the needs of children. In the Bekaa, the area I cover in Eastern Lebanon, we have over 75,000 children who should be going to school this September. This compares to the Lebanese school going population here, of only 30,000 who go to public schools 

We can therefore only aim to support half of the refugee children to go to school, and even then, this is a huge challenge for all agencies. However, we are endeavouring to explore all of the options to achieve this. However the real concern is for those who we cannot include and for those children who will not have the chance to go to school and what will happen them in the future. The worry is that they will be destined to work in the fields from an early age and their childhood will be lost as a result of the Syrian crisis.  Every day when we go to the settlements there are children, with beautiful smiles who, for many reasons, have no chance to go to school. During the summer months I witnessed many of these young children, some no more than seven, who were working in the fields collecting potatoes and other vegetables.  The real fear is that these children have lost their childhood, something which can never be replaced. 

With the current funding situation, - we are only 27 per cent funded – we are currently obliged to make heart-breaking choices and focusing our assistance on the most vulnerable families. But the question that we continually have to ask is ‘who is not vulnerable in this situation?' Away from your country, your family, having gone through inexplicable horrors before reaching safety in Lebanon who is not vulnerable? This is perhaps the greatest challenge for us.

Photo: Students at the school in Arsal © UNHCR/G.Beals


You worked in Darfur previously, how does this conflict compare with that post?

Every operation I have worked in leaves its own mark and it is very difficult to compare one to another. What made an impression initially about Lebanon was the welcome afforded to the refugees that was extended from the community. However, now the greatest impression is one of concern as we are facing winter and knowing that people have the extra burden of trying to keep warm and dry and that it is a huge challenge for the International community to cater for all needs, with the funding challenges that we face. The fact that the population is more dispersed here and that they are not all in camps means that we need to work with so many actors (Municipalities, NGOs, civil society, security authorities) to try to understand the situation in each location. Although we always encourage the integration of the refugees in the local communities and we always try not to set up camps, when possible, having the refugees scattered all over the country makes the response in Lebanon far more challenging and complex than Darfur.

Photo: Maeve listening to the problems of displaced people in West Darfur © UNHCR/K.McKinsey


Why, in your view, is Ireland's financial support to UNHCR so important?

Ireland's financial support is very important and Ireland is one of the top 15 donors of un-earmarked funding to UNHCR. This is key to supporting areas of intervention which otherwise may not be funded. Ireland has provided funding to UNHCR and other organisations in many different countries responding to the Syrian crisis and this is very much appreciated and Ireland is acknowledged as a great supporter of UNHCR.  Ireland has recently increased the amount committed and, as the funding situation for the Syria crisis continues to be very challenging, the fact that Ireland has contributed significant amounts of money, in what are very challenging times, makes me very proud to be Irish. It makes you feel that, despite our difficulties, we are continuing to prioritise what little we have to help those who are most in need. 


What do you miss most about Ireland?

There are many things I miss about home, but the most important things are my family and friends and of course also my mum’s cooking! I however feel fortunate that I can go home and benefit from seeing everyone which is not something that refugees from Syria can look forward to anytime soon, unfortunately.


By Alana Ryan



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