Beirut, Lebanon – About one in five people living in Lebanon are refugees from Syria’s civil war – giving Lebanon more refugees per capita than any other country in the world.
But this fact is not immediately obvious to the first-time visitor. Unlike the other neighbouring countries to which Syrians have fled – Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq – Lebanon has no formal refugee camps.
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Although beggars and street children are a common sight in parts of Beirut, it is only when you reach the tent-speckled plains of the Bekaa Valley or drive past muddy roadside encampments in northern Lebanon that the scale of the country’s refugee problem becomes apparent.
“In a picture-perfect world, we would not have 1.5 million Syrians present all around Lebanon, with most residing in the poorest areas, poverty with poverty,” said Hala al-Helou, Lebanon’s social affairs ministry spokesperson and an adviser on humanitarian and international affairs.
Helou, whose ministry has pushed for some sort of formal camp programme from the beginning, shook her head as she looked out of her office window at the snow-covered hills of Mount Lebanon.
“But the government position has not changed: no camps. And this does not look like it will change anytime soon.”
Despite a number of stricter new border measures aimed at regulating and restricting the influx of Syrian refugees escaping the civil war next door, elements within the Lebanese government have steadfastly refused to sign off on the creation of formal refugee camps.
Lebanon’s experience with Palestinian refugees, some 500,000 of whom have now lived in the country for more than 60 years after UN camps were first established for them in Lebanon, has left deep scars. Many believe that creating formal refugee camps for Syrians would encourage them to settle in Lebanon permanently.
Some opponents of formal refugee camps have also argued that this approach offers a more dignified and sustainable lifestyle for those displaced, and provides unique development opportunities for overwhelmed locals.
“Camps hinder opportunities for displaced communities to find solutions [to their problems]. They hinder self-reliance, because the people within are hampered by restrictions and their ability to access opportunities outside,” said Amanda Gray, an urban displacement policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee UK.
She pointed to recent two studies, one by Oxford University and one by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which suggested that refugees could be a boon if given the chance to fully participate in the host country’s economy and society.
The Oxford study examined the economic integration and behaviour of refugees in three sites in Uganda, and found that refugees exercised significant purchasing power, created jobs, and were a welcome source of labour. Refugees not living in camps tended to have a higher level of economic interaction with the host community, compared to those living in camps.
The IRC, in a report that assessed the impact of a winter cash assistance programme last year in Lebanon, estimated that for every $1 spent in cash assistance for a household, the country’s gross domestic product increased by $2.13, showing that aid can have a multiplier effect on a host country’s economy.
“Sometimes we focus on the cost of hosting refugees, and that can’t be discounted,” Gray told Al Jazeera. “But perhaps we should also look at … what financial effect they can bring.”
For the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a global agency that helps more than 11 million people worldwide, this shift in outlook was formalised last summer in its Policy on Alternatives to Camps, which argues that refugee camps should be a last resort.
“Yes, refugees [in Lebanon] are not living to the level we would like them to live. Yes, there are some tensions within communities,” Ninette Kelley, UNHCR representative in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera. “But some really exciting and innovative approaches have been taken … which have brought much needed services and infrastructure to hosting communities that, but for the refugee crisis, they would not have had. It’s not perfect, but we think it’s a blueprint for the future.”
Last year alone, Kelley explained, UN agencies in Lebanon spent more than $92m on support for host communities, from electricity generators to water reservoirs. In Lebanon, where infrastructure and public services were creaky even before the Syrian refugee crisis, these are welcome investments.
However, there are major downsides to the absence of formal refugee camps. The poorest Syrians have lacked adequate housing in the midst of winter, and are vulnerable to exploitation.
According to UNHCR, some 81 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon rent their accommodation, paying an average rent of $200 for what is often little more than a plot of land. More than 40 percent of refugees live in insecure and exposed places such as garages, unfinished buildings, and informal camps.
Some municipalities, some landlords do not want us to make any significant structural improvements there for fear that refugees will remain. While we can provide shelter kits to keep people warm and seal their tents off from the rain, wind and snow, these are temporary and short-term improvements.
“We are limited in what we can do, especially in the informal settlements,” Kelley said. “The circumstances in these settlements are very dire.”
“Some municipalities, some landlords do not want us to make any significant structural improvements there for fear that refugees will remain,” she added. “While we can provide shelter kits to keep people warm and seal their tents off from the rain, wind and snow, these are temporary and short-term improvements.”
And it is not just shelter that is problematic – the lack of formal camps also means that, with refugees dispersed over 1,750 different locations, vital aid and services do not always reach many of those living in more remote areas.
In a miserable cluster of wet, dirty tents in a field just off the main road in Akkar, Lebanon’s northern-most region and one of its most impoverished, Mohammad Salloum is busy ushering women and children into a mobile medical unit run by UNICEF and Relief International that has just arrived.
Most of the 50-60 residents have been living there for two years, and while they began to receive food vouchers a year ago, and some toiletries and clothes two months ago, this is the first time they have received free medical assistance.
“There is another camp nearby … so I went over to them asking them to tell aid agencies about us, so that they’d know we’re also in need,” said Salloum, the elected head of the camp, who hails from Homs.
“We feel cut off and abandoned. If I hadn’t spoken to the other camp, we wouldn’t have had any help.”
He looked out at the drizzle starting to come down, and tugged his coat around him.
“We would certainly rather be in an official camp … we’d be receiving aid more regularly [and] at least we wouldn’t have to pay for our tents. The landlord requests 150,000 Lebanese lira [$100] for each tent, and we have seven tents.”
“We work in agriculture fields, but there isn’t always work available. But when there is, we make 15,000 Lebanese lira per day [$10]. We’re trying to manage.”