When Zaharith left the fighting of Damascus for the safety of Lebanon, she did not expect to find herself in jail. But the young Syrian is living in an abandoned prison in Souawiri, a town in the Bekaa valley. Damp walls stretch up to a tiny barred window and heavy locks dangle from the iron door which seals the cell she shares with five other families.
Zaharith is one of over 1m refugees who have fled Syria. With fighting intensifying the flow shows no sign of abating. Lebanon has accepted the largest number. The Lebanese government now estimates that there are 1m Syrians in the country, which has a population of 4m, including workers and refugees who have not registered.
Initially most were taken in by local families, many poor themselves, but that capacity has reached its limit. Two thirds of Syrian refugees are now renting houses and apartments, sending prices soaring. Many are running out of money and are forced to settle for the bare minimum. “Some people live in garages, or chicken coops or cow stalls that have been sealed off and are paying rent for that,” says Ninette Kelly, UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon.
The prison residents are luckier than most; the municipality does not charge rent. The families have erected a makeshift wall to divide the cell. The living room this has created is filled with the smell of faeces; an adjoining makeshift room tacked on to the cell functions as bathroom and kitchen.
This prison, though grim, is not the worst option for Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon. Almost 10% now live in tented settlements dotted across the country. Such settlements officially do not exist; the Lebanese government is still resisting the establishment of refugee camps. The last flood of refugees, the Palestinians, came in 1948 and have never left.
UNHCR is anxious to set up temporary sites for Syrian refugees, but the local population, as well as the government, is reluctant. The UN is also struggling to register fleeing Syrians, partly because of the sheer numbers but also because they have been unable to set up centres where they can do so. People in Beirut now have to wait almost three months to register. Over a third of the 377,00-odd Syrian refugees in Lebanon that the UN knows of are still waiting to do so. Many more have not registered, out of fear, because they do not need to or because they do not know that they can.
Money too is in short supply. Just over 30% of the $1.5 billion pledged at a donor conference in Kuwait in January has materialised. “We cannot meet the basic needs of those here today, let alone those that come tomorrow,” says Ms Kelly.
But still they come. A taxi from Damascus pulls up outside the prison carrying five people and blankets, pans, plastic bags full of clothes and a gas cylinder. “Here it is better,” explained 12-year-old Mahmoud, “because there is no shelling.”
Source: The Economist