THE crisis in Lebanon, where 1.2 million Syrian refugees are competing for limited resources with host communities, is a “ticking time bomb”, two aid workers gave warning this week.
The country, which is the size of Yorkshire, has the highest number of refugees per capita: a quarter of the population. Of these, 70 per cent live below the poverty line. Since the UN’s Syria regional-response plan is less than half-funded, and the influx costs the country a third of its GDP, communities are in crisis.
“It’s more than just tension: I think it is a ticking bomb,” the communications manager for World Vision in Lebanon, Patricia Mouamar, said on Tuesday. “It’s like the whole country of Greece moving into UK. . . If no funding is made available to us, it will explode at a certain time.”
The executive director of a Tearfund partner, Heart for Lebanon, Dr Camille Melki, told the same story: the Lebanese have been welcoming, despite memories of a 30-year occupation by Syria, but competition for jobs, homes, and scarce resources is threatening the country’s fragile cohesion. Wages for a day’s labour in a field had fallen by two-thirds, he said.
“If you couple that with a large uneducated community that grows weary and angry, you have a time bomb ticking for a whole major outburst in our country,” he said last week.
He, with the Lebanese people and their government, is conscious of recent history. Half of the 450,000 Palestinian refugees who remain in the country live in 12 camps that are plagued by poverty, overcrowding, and unemployment. “They were deprived of basic education, and health care, and job opportunities,” Dr Melki said. “Second and third-generation refugees were living in total despair, and we ended up with a terrible 19 years of civil war.”
Although a different approach has been taken to the Syrian crisis — the government has declined to establish camps — there is concern that history will repeat itself. In the Bekaa valley, there are as many Syrian refugees as there are Lebanese, and 40 per cent of them live in informal tented settlements where conditions are grim. There are also fears of infiltration by terrorists.
To understand the risky exodus to their continent, Ms Mouamar said, Europeans must face up to the dire conditions in such settlements. She recently met a 14-year-old girl who had been married a year earlier, and now had a three-day-old child with her 19-year-old husband.
Early marriage was not traditional in Syria, she said, but a “very negative coping mechanism”.
Another boy, Ali, whose father was too unwell to work, was reduced to selling napkins on the street.
Psychosocial support is crucial for such children, Ms Mouamar believes. As a child, she had to take shelter underground from rockets and bombs. Those memories had been triggered recently when she asked a young Syrian boy, Abdul Rahman, some questions, and he imitated the sound of bombs.
“I remember those sounds as if they were yesterday, and I am 35 now,” Ms Mouamar said. “How much I was scared, and smelled fear in my mother and father and siblings. These experiences they will not forget for the rest of their lives.”
Both Dr Melki and Ms Mouamar believe that, almost five years into the crisis, and with no end to the Syrian conflict in sight, education must become a priority. There are currently more Syrian school-aged children in Lebanon than Lebanese: about 400,000.
Last year, only about 20 per cent of these Syrian children were in school. Although there are signs of improvement, challenges remain. Thousands of children are going out to work or to beg, transportation to school is costly, and many children have missed years of schooling.
Heart for Lebanon is running three community centres with literacy programmes serving 100 Syrian refugees, helping them to catch up before being supported to enrol in private Christian schools. A small charity, founded in 2006 to support the victims of the Israel-Hezbollah war, it seeks out the most vulnerable, Dr Melki explained.
“We want to explore the dignity of individuals and families; so we spend a long time sitting here with the refugee population, and listening to their stories, and hearing their heartbreak.” They pray, when appropriate.
He is reluctant to endorse the resettlement of refugees to Europe, pointing out that “resettling people without a plan for integration can be problematic. . . I can understand why they are trying to come to Europe: they consider it a promised land; but I’m afraid they are going to get a reality check quickly. . . A better approach is to try to focus on how to provide services needed in host countries, and integrate them into a better future, and find a solution to the problem in Syria so they can return to their homeland.”
Ms Mouamar, who is in the UK to speak at the Party conferences, has a clear message. “We are talking about children who, one day, will go back and rebuild,” she said. “It is up to me, and you, and the UK, and host communities, and every person involved, to decide: what type of children are we leaving behind us? What kind of generation?”
Watch Ali's story here