A tent near the Lebanese town of Zahle, winter 2015. Source: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations
In early January, Lebanon’s refugee camps were devastated by a winter storm named “Norma.” Though Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been forced to cope with difficult winter conditions in the past, this winter has been particularly difficult. On January 6th, nearly half a meter of water covered the entirety of many refugee camps in Bekaa valley. More than 600 refugee families have since been forced to evacuate due to the flooding, and the UNHCR estimates that more than 22,000 Syrian refugees in total were affected by the storm. The situation remains precarious; the UN estimates that 70,000 refugees are at risk of being endangered by weather, 40,000 of whom are children. As winter weather continues to bear down on Lebanon’s refugee camps, residents are increasingly at risk.
The storm claimed one victim, a girl who was swept into a river as floodwaters spread. She was one of 15 Syrian IDP and refugee children who have died in the past month due to the lack of medical care and adequate shelter. Fourteen children have died in IDP camps recently, in Rukban camp near the Jordanian border and in a camp near Hajjin in northeast Syria. Similar to the situation in Lebanon, the weather has exacerbated already difficult conditions.
Lebanon is home to more than one million Syrian refugees, most of whom live in informal settlements. The winter weather has not singlehandedly caused the recent humanitarian crisis; rather, Lebanon’s policies toward refugees have set the conditions for the current situation. Lebanon has refused the UN’s request to set up permanent camps, instead limiting the materials with which Syrian refugees can construct shelters to materials considered “temporary,” primarily tarpaulin tents or sheets of corrugated iron supported by wooden frames. Through another policy designed to prevent Syrian refugees from making Lebanon a permanent home, the Lebanese government limits Syrians from working except under agriculture or construction permits. Nearly 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in poverty, with more than half of the population making less than $3 per day.
In addition to limiting UNHCR’s operations, including barring UNHCR from registering new refugees beginning in 2015, Lebanon has also banned international NGOs from experimenting with better housing options. For example, when the Danish Refugee Council designed box shelters with concrete floors, they were prohibited from building because Lebanon considered the feature to be “too permanent.” Similarly, the Swedish furniture company IKEA funded the design of shelters for refugees that were initially tested in Lebanon, but locals also protested the perceived permanence of those structures. The Lebanese government cannot claim that they simply do not have the resources to support stable housing for its refugee population, as international organizations have attempted to address the crisis. Rather, the government is actively preventing construction of safer housing for Syrian refugees.
SJAC calls on the international community to pressure Lebanon to alleviate the suffering of Syrian refugees by allowing the construction of stable housing and by supporting cleanup efforts to mitigate further harm from recent storms. The government has already recognized that they must, at the very least, take minor steps to appear to be mitigating the effects of the storm. Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri announced last week that he had directed the government to clear four storm drains near Beirut and repair severely damaged roads near the city. However, these actions are insufficient to alleviate the plight of Syrian refugees. Increased pressure by the international community on Lebanon could result in the government taking more meaningful steps to improve living conditions for Syrian refugees, primarily allowing the use of more permanent construction materials to improve housing conditions and making serious efforts to facilitate cleanup after the floodwaters recede.
More broadly, Lebanon must adhere to its obligations under international law to protect refugees. Though Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, Lebanon is obligated to respect the principle of non-refoulement, a principle that states that refugees cannot be returned to their home countries against their will. Non-refoulement is an obligation that human rights organizations, including SJAC, have called on Lebanon to respect in the past. Additionally, Lebanon should cease its attempts to pressure Syrian refugees to return; in the absence of safe conditions and reliable assurances from the Syrian government, return is currently not an option for most Syrian refugees. The safe return of refugees will require a comprehensive peace agreement, including transitional justice mechanisms. Until that time, Lebanon and other host countries must uphold their obligations to protect refugee communities.