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As Lebanese economic crisis worsens, Syrian refugees left with few options

For the past decade, Syria has been engaged in a bitter civil war with no end in sight. The conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee their home country, seeking refuge in towns across the border. On the ten year anniversary of the country's civil war, Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen speaks with Syrian refugees living in Lebanon about their increasingly precarious situation.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This week marked a decade of conflict in Syria that began after soldiers fired on "Arab Spring" protesters, killing dozens and sparking a bloody civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and has destroyed cities and cultural sites.

    The conflict has also displaced more than half of the country's residents and according to the U.N. High Commissioner for refugees. Two-thirds of those are women and children.

    Special correspondent Leila Molana-Allen reports from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, along the Syrian border, where many refugees have lived in temporary shelters for year.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    On the 14th March 2011, Lebanon's Bekaa Valley was a very different place. Saadnayel was all fruit trees and rolling green fields then; not the white U.N. tents now such a distinguishing feature of the horizon. Maria Assi, whose charity Beyond rushed to help, was here as dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of women and children began to tumble over the high mountains that mark Lebanon's border with Syria. Residents welcomed them, giving them temporary shelter in homes, schools, mosques, even half-finished construction sites.

    Tell me about those early first few days?

  • Maria Assi:

    You know for us it was like, maybe one month, maybe two months, maybe three. What we thought the maximum may be, like, 50,000, something like that. It wasn't, like, clear that they will stay for 10 years.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    But as Syria's protests and the resulting government crackdown raged on, morphing into a bloody civil war, stay they did. And many more would come.

    Umm Omar's family was one of the first to arrive.

  • Umm Omar:

    When we came here we rented a house from the locals and we stayed with them. We thought we'd be here for a day or two, a week or two, a month, and then we'd go back.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Hoping to limit the refugee presence here, Lebanon's government never allowed formal camps to be built. Despite having lived in them for years, refugees who live in tents aren't allowed to build anything permanent.

    In 2019, the government decided tents breaking the rules must be torn down, and started with the border town of Arsal.

  • Umm Omar:

    We saw the army coming with its trucks. It demolished our neighbor's house. We were afraid so we emptied out of our house and let them do whatever they want.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    So all this she's telling me this used to be a stone wall up to the top and they were forced to knock it all the way down. Now all of this is just wood and tarpaulin. It's plastic and she says it's very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer.

    The Lebanese government wants the refugees to go back to Syria, and thousands have. But NGOs have serious concerns over the conditions they'll find there. Some return to find they no longer have houses, their former villages decimated. Others report arbitrary arrests by the state, or forced military conscription.

    After their tents were knocked down, some here decided to go back; but Umm Omar had already tried that a few years before after things became too tough in Lebanon. She went back to Qamishli with her daughters for two years, but it was even tougher there. There was no work, and her husband couldn't go back with them because he feared being forced into the army. Eventually they snuck back into Lebanon via a smuggling route.

    Despite the instability they face, Syrians have become a part of these communities. They live here, and they die here too. This small, unofficial graveyard in the tribal village of Faour holds the bodies of some 1,000 Syrians. Many of the graves here, paid for by the local Lebanese residents, are just a couple of feet long, holding the bodies of children who died of cold and lack of food in those early, chaotic days of the exodus.

    The UN estimates that more than 6.5 million Syrians have fled the country since the conflict began. More than a million came here to Lebanon, and no one knows exactly how many are still here. Many of them have been living here for nearly a decade, but with little chance they'll get more rights or citizenship, they face a choice between the dangerous journey back home, or staying here, living in limbo.

    We're just two miles from the border, but for the Syrians buried here, this is the closest they'll ever get to going home.

    No one has an exact figure, because in 2015, the Lebanese government told the UN to stop registering refugees. At that point, there were 1.2 million but the government feared if the number went any higher it would spark public uproar and create a volatile political situation in a country of only 4 million Lebanese.

    The UN struck a deal; they would stop registering refugees, but could still give them services. But life without that vital document is difficult. They don't have the right to be here, and can't apply for it. Every time they go out, they risk being stopped at one of Lebanon's many checkpoints and arrested. And until recently, it was almost impossible to apply for asylum in another country without being registered.

    They kept coming anyway. While there are now 865,000 registered still living in Lebanon, the government estimates the real number is 1.5 million.

    And even those who are registered are struggling. In every settlement we went to we met refugees who told us their UN benefits had recently been cut.

    This is Mounira's family's registration certificate. They registered seven years ago, and they were getting help. It registers her, her husband, and her four sons, but she says that help stopped.

  • Mounira:

    We don't even have enough for food. The UN no longer gives us food, how are we going to live? There's no allowance, the tent costs money, the generator does, electricity does, everything does.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The UN says it simply cannot afford to support the vast number of people living here.

  • Lisa Abou Khaled:

    We currently are only able to reach about 52% with food and monthly cash assistance. We assess whether there are now other refugees who are more in need, which is very difficult to explain to refugees, and we understand the frustration.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The problem is, as Lebanon's economy continues its slow-motion collapse, and food prices have tripled, nearly all refugees living in Lebanon are now in desperate need. Ninety percent now live in extreme poverty. The vast majority of refugees I've met over the years say Lebanese civilians have been welcoming and generous to them. But with more than half of Lebanon's own population now living in poverty too, they fear that generosity may be reaching its limit.

    As tensions between Syrian refugees and their Lebanese hosts escalate, their fragile way of life here is in danger. More than 300 refugees used to live in this small camp on the highway near Tripoli. After dark one night last December, they suddenly heard gunfire. Within minutes, the entire camp was in flames, set alight by angry locals after a fight with Syrians from the camp.

    The families fled with what they could carry. They lived, but lost everything else. Now all that's left are the scattered, charred remains of daily life; an apron and pieces of a glass jar here, a baby's bib there.

    The refugees here were mostly from the same area and had created a semblance of home. Now that community is shattered, its residents scattered. Raed and his wife and children now rent a sparse room nearby.

  • Raed al Abed:

    The children are in such terror that at night they don't sleep. In Syria where there's so much war and yet we weren't as terrified as that. When the camp was burnt our whole future was destroyed.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    This was Raed's home. This was their bathroom, their kitchen, their bedroom. And it's small, but they were happy here, he says.

    Just as they lost their homes, they were also losing their livelihoods. As day-labor dries up because of the economic crisis and COVID-19 restrictions, they're earning next to nothing. Syrian refugees live on about 300,000 Lira per month on average now, half the minimum wage and now worth less than $30. The refugees here told us they're surviving on little more than potatoes.

    The refugee crisis once dominated international headlines, but the longer they've been here and the more intractable the conflict has become, the less attention they've received. The UN says the situation is so bad they've seen a huge increase in calls from refugees contemplating suicide.

  • Lisa Abou Khaled:

    I think people think that refugees are the most vulnerable when they first flee their country. The vast majority were not prepared to live years, you know, a number of years in exile. And now they feel like they're stuck. So, not just their resources are being depleted, but their resilience is depleted.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    All the refugees we spoke to said they felt trapped and hopeless. Their situation is more precarious now than it has ever been.

  • Umm Omar:

    There's no safety at the moment, even for the Lebanese there's no security, so what is it like for us living in a country that isn't our own?

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Umm Omar can see Syria from the small plastic window of the makeshift tent she had to rebuild with her bare hands. But it's not home anymore. And neither is here. As far as she's concerned, she no longer has one.

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