(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Syrians make easy scapegoats in Lebanon

    The Baalbek International Festival is in town. Under silvery bunting, telltale tourists drift around in shorts in the sleepy mid-afternoon heat.

    But it’s less of a lark for more than 130,000 Syrian refugees who live in the wider governorate of Baalbek-Hermel, in eastern Lebanon.

    Days before the first note was sung, the governor, Bashir Khodr, was reported to have tightened the existing curfew for Syrians, requiring them to stay inside between 6pm and 6am. He later denied the change, but in a sense it didn’t really matter – they would just face the usual 8pm to 6am restrictions instead.

    On opening night, 19-year-old Abdu, originally from Homs in Syria, decided to ignore the curfew and go down to Baalbek’s ancient ruins, where he found crowds and people eating ice cream.

    But he also found a man with endless questions: Was he Syrian? Why was he there? Didn't he know about the curfew?

    "It makes you feel like you’re… not welcome here,” Abdu told IRIN, referring to both his encounter and the curfew. “But I don’t see why I should be imprisoned in my house.”

    Why such antipathy?

    One month ago, on 27 June, multiple suicide attacks hit al-Qaa, a predominantly Christian village some 30 kilometres north of Baalbek. Five civilians were killed and several more injured.

    The authorities have made no connection between the attack and the more than one million registered Syrians in Lebanon, but that didn’t stop the finger of suspicion falling on them anyway.

    Lebanon’s army, intelligence agencies and security forces have detained several hundred Syrians. Refugees residing in mountainous, rural communities have experienced scattered reprisal attacks by civilians and even local police.

    Towns and villages up and down the country have meanwhile doubled down on existing curfews, imposing new restrictions on refugees’ freedom to move and ability to work.

    The reprisals

    It was only 24 hours after the al-Qaa incident when the first reprisal attack happened.

    High up in the mountains above Beirut sits Hrajel. The predominantly Maronite Christian village is one of the last settlements along the mountain road before it climbs up into the dusty brown peaks and drops down into the Bekaa Valley, home to around one third of the country’s registered Syrian refugees.

    Ahmad, a Syrian-Kurd originally from north Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood, was one of six Syrians badly beaten in the village that night.

    He lives in a shabby block of flats with other refugee families, separated from the rest of the village by a bumpy dirt road.

    “It was about 10.30pm. The electricity was cut (a regular occurrence in Lebanon) and some of the families were sleeping in the building,” he recalled.

    “Three or four cars came outside, and we heard shouting. They were using really bad words, and ordering the men to come down.”

    Ahmad said he and the others went downstairs, while their families looked on from the balconies above.

    “They made us kneel like this (he put his hands behind his back) and started beating each of us, in groups of three or four, with wrenches and knives.”

    Fathi, from Jisr al-Shughour in northern Syria, was also hurt that night. “We were humiliated in front of our wives and children, and the feelings of fear that we experienced back in Syria started to come back,” he told IRIN.

    Hrajel’s mayor, Tony Zugheib, said there had been “fighting” on the evening in question between locals and Syrians but that it was born of one refugee’s earlier refusal to produce identification. No arrests were made, but Zugheib said the perpetrators were given a warning.

    Ahmad believes the attack took place with the full knowledge of the authorities, but Zugheib insisted that his municipality treats Syrians “with the utmost humanity”.

    "We feel that our only duty is to keep the village secure and safe,” Zugheib said. "[But] of course we respect humanity and individual freedoms.”

    In the days that followed, Lebanon’s security services moved in on Syrian refugees across the country.

    According to a tally of arrests announced on the Lebanese army’s official Twitter account, at least 600 Syrian nationals were arrested in the first three days after al-Qaa. Raids and arrests have continued and the number has reportedly topped 700.

    In mid-July, several police officers in Amchit, about 40 kilometres up the coast from Beirut, were investigated (and released) after images appeared online showing up to 30 Syrian men kneeling over with their hands on their necks, uniformed men hovering over them.

    The incident prompted accusations of racism, and, later, condemnation from Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk.

    "Lately, there has been a rise in the abuses committed by members of the police in several municipalities concerning Syrian refugees," Machnouk said, warning that officers abusing their power would face “disciplinary measures”.

    Vicious cycle

    But for many Syrian refugees in Lebanon, increased raids, arrests and ID checks are simply confirmation of longstanding grievances.

    It is difficult and expensive to renew the residency papers that Lebanon has required since 2014, and invalid papers leave refugees vulnerable to arrest. Arrest leaves them open to fines or re-arrest. The circle continues. An estimated two thirds of Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack the proper papers.

    Related: Lebanese law forces Syrian refugees underground

    Seventeen-year-old Mustafa was at home in Baalbek when the army turned up a week ago.

    He rushed to the balcony and hid there, terrified, while the officers took away his father for not having valid papers.

    Although Mustafa’s father was released the same day, his family said they were told to get their papers in order in 20 days or face either re-arrest or deportation back to Syria.

    Mustafa’s father can’t find regular work or a Lebanese person willing to sponsor his visa, let alone afford the costs of renewing residency papers. The family is stuck.  

    “We still have two weeks left, but the documents require a lot of money… so we haven’t done anything,” Mustafa said. “I’ve been here for about four years, and I haven’t been able to renew my documents for the last two.”

    Makeshift refugee homes in Lebanon's Beka'a Valley. (Nov 2012)

    Makeshift refugee homes in Lebanon's Beka'a Valley. (Nov 2012)
    Issam Abdallah/IRIN
    Lebanon has no formal Syrian refugee camps, but plenty of informal settlements like this one in the Bekaa Valley

    Lisa Abu Khaled, spokeswoman for the UN’s agency for refugees, UNHCR, told IRIN that most of those detained in the past month had been released a day or two later and that threats of deportation weren’t yet being enforced.

    “No Syrian refugee who was arrested for not having legal residency has been forced to return to Syria,” she said.

    But not all of those arrested have been released.

    George Ghali, programmes manager at ALEF, a Lebanese NGO that monitors arbitrary detention, told IRIN that more than 400 individuals are still locked up.

    The authorities are reluctant to discuss the matter. The Internal Security Forces, the army, and the General Security intelligence agency all declined to comment.

    Monitoring the situation has been difficult, said Ghali. “We have no information on charges or indictments being issued… and actually we doubt that until now anyone has been before a court.”

    Because many of the raids were conducted by the army or the intelligence services, “there's a problem with accessing legal aid or even knowing [refugees'] whereabouts”, he added.

    Jobs and security

    Lebanon is a country of only four million, so the addition of another million-plus Syrian refugees has been the subject of much debate since the war in its neighbour began more than five years ago.

    There are concerns that the economy can’t cope with the influx, and some blame Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s high unemployment and widespread poverty

    In Hrajel, where the first reprisal attack happened, mayor Zugheib said his village had been generous to Syrians, to the point that half the population is now made up of foreigners. But there has been real pressure on waste management services, schools and the local economy.

    “There is competition for jobs,” he said, adding that his municipality needs support “in the same way that displaced people get it from [aid] organisations”.

    Another Hrajel local told IRIN that Syrians take on informal work at lower wages, shutting out Lebanese from many already low-paying jobs.

    There are also fears that militant Islamists are amongst the refugees, fuelled by the occasional arrests of suspected extremists and seizures of weapons from inside informal Syrian camps.

    For the first few years of the Syrian war, the eastern border with Lebanon was a fairly fluid way for those fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad to transport weapons and fighters.

    For Assad, against Assad

    There’s politics at play here too.

    Lebanon’s two major political camps are broadly divided on Assad. One side, which includes Machnouk, the interior minister who spoke out against the crackdown, is opposed. The other, which includes Hezbollah (itself fighting inside Syria), has stood with the regime. Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil, a member of this bloc, has become something of a poster-boy for what critics see as a particularly politicised, pernicious form of anti-Syrian incitement.

    The day before al-Qaa, Bassil called for mayors from his Free Patriotic Movement party to clear out the “existence” of Syrian refugees from their towns and villages.

    “The existence of camps and gatherings of Syrian refugees in the hearts of our towns is unacceptable,” Bassil said.

    The day after the suicide attacks, his party lauded its leader for having “voiced responsible remarks and (for) anticipating the threats”.

    Beirut protest against xenophia.jpg

    Protestors hold a banner
    Hasan Shaaban/IRIN
    Protestors take a stand against racism and xenophobia at a Beirut protest

    This type of language doesn’t sit well with some Lebanese.

    On 18 July, activists organised a silent march from the Ministry of Foreign of Affairs to the Interior Ministry, a couple of miles’ walk through central Beirut, in protest against racism, xenophobia, and punitive regulations against Syrian refugees. At least 200 people joined.

    Gilbert Doumit, who helped organise the march, condemned the “racist discourse” spreading through Lebanese society that blames Syrian refugees “for the crisis that Lebanon is suffering from, whether economically, socially, or in terms of security”.

    “The narrative of politicians is that Syrian refugees are responsible, so we, as a group of Lebanese citizens, are saying: ‘No, actually it’s the policymakers who are the reason behind the problem’.”

    More of the same?

    While activists decry a crackdown, Maja Janmyr, researcher at the University of Bergen and the American University in Beirut, argues that al-Qaa has not led to a significant expansion in restrictions.

    "Curfews have more or less been in place for years," she told IRIN. 

    They began gaining ground in 2014, mostly after intense clashes between the Lebanese Army and Islamist militants in Arsal, close to the Syrian border.

    At the time, Human Rights Watch reported that more than 45 local municipalities had imposed the restrictions, and pointed out that they appeared to be illegal under Lebanese law (not to mention international human rights law).

    Janmyr argues that what has changed since al-Qaa is renewed enforcement of the rules.

    “A defining feature of Lebanon’s approach to Syrians since 2014 has… been to create rules and regulations such as curfews, tacitly allow for their widespread violations, and then occasionally enforce them,” she explained.

    This means that the picture differs around the country. Syrians in urban, Sunni neighbourhoods of Baalbek, for example, say they can go outside at night after curfew. But in pro-Hezbollah areas of the city, the situation is quite different.

    This jives with what Umm Mohamed, a middle-aged refugee from Homs, has seen, living now in Baalbek.

    “Laws in Lebanon are not really that well enforced in general anyway, so people still come and go easily. Because the Lebanese and Syrians look alike, it’s only really when people speak that they recognise them as Syrians,” Umm Mohamed told IRIN.

    “If someone gets arrested, then sure there’ll have problems,” she said. “But people still go out.”

    However, in isolated, rural settlements or communities like Hrajel, refugees appear to self-police themselves more.

    “We finish work at 4 or 5pm, buy everything we need and then just stay at home,” explained Ahmad. “Bread, cigarettes, water, everything. We can’t go out after 8pm.”

    Abdu, who defied the curfew in Baalbek, remains frustrated but stubborn.

    “Every time I get home, I get the same thing from my mother: ‘Why are you going out late [after curfew]? This isn’t your country. You have to respect their laws.'”

    “But I’m not afraid and I don’t care about these rules,” he said, with a hint of a smile. “Syrian people are dying and I just feel like I should live my life.”

    Names of Syrian refugees in Baalbek were changed to protect their identities.

    With additional reporting by Layal Hamze and Hiba Hussein

    (TOP PHOTO: A Beirut protest against racism. One sign reads: "We are all refugees, we are all residents, and we all stand in solidarity against racism." Hasan Shaaban/IRIN)

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    Syrians make easy scapegoats in Lebanon
  • Eye spy: biometric aid system trials in Jordan

    There is only one supermarket at Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp. It’s a cavernous space, packed with crowds and stacked with tins and boxes. Sabha, a mother of six who came here from Aleppo four months ago, browses the tinned pulses, eggs, rice and fresh vegetables that line the shelves and sits on her stacked rations for the month as she queues to buy them.

    When she pays, however, Sabha doesn’t take out her purse. She simply looks into a small black machine, and buys her groceries using only her eyes.

    Sabha is using a new iris scanning system that’s just been rolled out in Azraq, a camp that houses some 30,000 Syrian refugees in the Jordanian desert.

    The machine takes a detailed reading of her eye, matches it against hundreds of thousands of records, and deducts her grocery bill from her monthly World Food Programme allowance. This is relatively groundbreaking technology, and it’s now the standard means of distributing food aid in Azraq.

    “It’s a first not just for refugees, but for the whole shopping and retail industry,” Shada Moghraby, WFP’s spokeswoman in Jordan, told IRIN. Soon the scanners will be in Zaatari, Jordan’s largest camp for Syrians, and it’s hoped they’ll appear in urban supermarkets too, as the 85 percent of Syrian refugees who live in Jordan’s cities already use iris scanners to withdraw monetary assistance from cashpoints.

    But not all refugees are convinced of the technology’s value – Sabha says it actually makes her shopping more of a slog – and privacy advocates are concerned too.

    “The fact is that it is so powerful,” says Eric Töpfer of the German Institute for Human Rights. “If [the data] doesn’t stop [at aid use] and it’s shared more liberally and used with less control or without controls… then it can do harm.”

    New technology, new problems

    Sabha’s shopping is made possible by a biometric data network that’s now a normal part of life for the more than 600,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan.

    Iris scans, taken when refugees register in the country, are stored in a database kept by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and used to verify individuals as they seek assistance from UNHCR and, more recently, other UN agencies like WFP.

    The system has significant benefits over the cards it’s replacing. Cutting down on paperwork by connecting recipients direct to the allowances they receive, it’s a more secure method of delivery that ensures allowances are only used by the people they’re intended for.

    Moghraby says that feedback from refugees in Azraq camp has generally been positive, with particular advantages for the elderly.

    “It eliminates hassle and waiting time and can’t… get lost in the way cards can,” she says.

    At the supermarket, however, the refugees themselves don’t seem convinced at all.

    Sabha says that the eye-scanning system has made her life more, not less difficult. “I’m pregnant, and I’m frightened for my unborn child,” she explains, gesturing at the chaos of the supermarket.

    Because she’s named as the head of household responsible for the money only she can access the monthly WFP allowance with her eyes.

    “I’d rather my son go and get the food for me, but he can’t because of the iris scanner. My sister is in the same situation. She has six kids. They’re young, but she has to take them to the supermarket when she goes to pick up food.”

    rf247764_pr_0224.jpg

    Supermarket
    Ivor Prickett/UNHCR
    Azraq has only one supermarket

    Her grievance becomes a common theme among the other shoppers: many say they prefer the older cards, which allowed them more freedom to cooperate with friends and ask family members to run errands on their behalf. The fact that Azraq’s single supermarket takes significant time and effort to get to only makes the situation tougher.

    Responding to the criticisms, Moghraby says that people experiencing problems with the eye scanning system can request not to use it, or to transfer the account to a family member’s iris.

    But the shopping refugees didn’t seem to be aware of this option. Moghraby also points out that the transfer of vouchers from person to person is one of the things the system seeks to avoid.

    When the pluses are the minuses

    This is not the only way in which a benefit of biometrics can become a drawback.

    Iris scanning technology’s greatest selling point is that it allows refugees to firmly establish their identity without carrying documents, and thus securely access services and aid. But this is also what makes the possibility of abuses or errors particularly dangerous.

    Eric Töpfer, a researcher at the German Institute for Human Rights, is worried that unauthorised actors might be able to access refugees’ information, or that databases may be authorised for new purposes such as counterterrorism or tracking immigration.

    “Given the increasing desire of security agencies to cross-match existing databases to prevent ‘foreign fighters’ travelling around the world, I see the risk that the massive data pool being built up by the UNHCR will attract the interest of these actors,” Töpfer explains.

    Indeed, the head of Germany’s domestic  intelligence agency has said the so-called Islamic State was sending fighters disguised as refugees to Europe, so it’s easy to imagine that European intelligence agencies would like to get their hands on such a cache of data.

    “Once the data of refugees is let out of Pandora's box and circulates within the intelligence community I doubt that affected refugees will ever be able to reclaim control, which might in the long-term pose serious risks if the data falls into the wrong hands,” he says.

    Volker Schimmel, a senior field coordinator at UNHCR in Amman, played a key role in developing the iris scanning system and has thought carefully about these risks.

    Schimmel has the unusual air of a chess player, perpetually considering multiple philosophical, technical and political dimensions of a humanitarian puzzle, and, like Töpfer, he knows the near certainty of a match offered by biometric testing is both a benefit and a risk.

    “The real practical scenarios as to how this could be misused have neither been developed nor tested, thankfully,” he tells IRIN. “But the risks are anything from identity theft, on one hand, to manipulating what we see as the whole identity of an individual, to use that information, to filter out more people that you then target easily.

    “The possibility of either manipulating identity or using it to target, particularly for harmful actions, will always be there in some shape or form,” says Schimmel.

    He believes however, that the UNHCR have a strong strategy when it comes to sharing personal information and states unequivocally that refugees biometric data is not shared with governments.

    Related

    Eyes Wide Shut: The challenges of humanitarian biometrics

    Schimmel acknowledges that no means of encryption is certifiably unbreakable, but like Moghraby at WFP he’s confident that refugees’ data is reasonably secure. The key to security, he explains, is a data encryption system that means no biometric information is transferred between agencies. When a refugee looks into the scanner at the checkout, the image that’s taken is condensed down and encrypted before being sent through the infrastructure, then decrypted to be compared with the database records on the other side. The image itself, Schimmel stresses, is neither sent nor stored on the camera itself.

    Only UNHCR possess the second half of the encryption key that’s needed to see an individual’s record, Schimmel says, adding that even the company that makes the system can’t see them.

    Information is decrypted using the UNHCR cipher, and it’s the results of that - and not the biometric data itself - that is communicated with other agencies like the WFP.

    Heavy responsibility

    In Azraq, and outside, few of the refugees IRIN speaks to confess to being anxious about the security of biometric testing. A few say they are worried it will affect the health of their eyes.

    But also they don’t have the luxury to refuse the technology: registration and accessing aid depends on it. A population as vulnerable as refugees fleeing a war zone have little choice over whether they are able to accept or refuse biometric registration.

    That leaves humanitarian agencies with a heavy responsibility when it comes to measuring up the costs and benefits.

    At the International Committee of the Red Cross, Information Manager Charlotte Curtet tells IRIN that biometric systems haven’t been adopted. They’re looking into the technology to make sure it doesn’t betray key humanitarian principles and cases no harm – she calls these “absolute criteria”.

    The ICRC is balancing the immediate practical considerations of refugees like those in Azraq, the bigger organisational impacts, and the security risks that biometric data necessarily implies.

    Curtet says that refugees must be fully informed about what will happen to their information, and that it must never be used beyond that point.

    “It’s just as when we’re handing over our information to a doctor we wouldn’t expect to see it somewhere else,” Curtet tells IRIN. “We shouldn’t collect something with one purpose, and then allow it to be used in a different way, or even to be negligent about how it’s used.”

    Aid agencies are cautiously optimistic about the future use of biometric data – a new briefing paper from the UN's aid coordination body, OCHA, stresses the importance of "responsible" data use, and protecting vulnerable populations from potential harms. Although legal restrictions so far limit its use in Turkey, the UN hopes to expand iris scanning for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, especially for access to health care. That means moving forward slowly. 

    “We're fine now but I think if this catches on, and becomes something that more and more users want, we have to be careful,” Schimmel says. “So it’s important to keep up the debates, to keep up the discussions, the criticisms… that gives us the confidence that we’re doing the due diligence and that it’s good enough” 

     

    Eye spy: biometric aid system trials in Jordan
    But refugees find it restrictive and aid agencies have security concerns
  • What’s it like to be a young Palestinian refugee in Lebanon today?

    Of all the countries Palestinians settled in when they fled or were forced from what is now Israel nearly 70 years ago, Lebanon remains the most hostile to providing basic rights to the decades-old community and its thousands of descendants. As a result, they are systematically marginalised and disenfranchised.

    An influx of Syrian refugees and growing tensions between armed groups in some of the country's 12 official camps has made life increasingly difficult for Palestinians in Lebanon. Three-quarters of camp inhabitants live below the poverty line, scraping by on less than $6 a day - and that was before the Syrian crisis.

    So what does all this mean for young people growing up in this environment? How does it feel to be a 20-year-old young man from Nahr al-Bared looking for a job? What's it like to be a 19-year-old woman in Ain al-Hilweh who hears gun battles every day? How does a 25-year-old from Bourj al-Barajneh cope with the impossibility of the working restrictions?

    To find out, come and spend a week with Mohammad, Sara and Ali. Immerse yourself in their world though WhatsApp chats, videos, photos and handwritten notes. Click here to see for yourself what life is really like for young Palestinian refugees in Lebanon today.

     

     

    Spend a week with Sara, Ali and Mohammad
    What’s it like to be a young Palestinian refugee in Lebanon today?
  • No way out: How Syrians are struggling to find an exit

    Over the last five years, close to 4.8 million Syrians have fled the conflict in their country by crossing into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But as the war drags on, neighbours are sealing their borders. Forced from their homes by airstrikes and fighting on multiple fronts, the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers now have no legal escape route.

    Earlier this week, EU leaders reached a hard-won deal with Turkey aimed at ending a migration crisis that has been building since last year, and that in recent weeks has seen tens of thousands of migrants and refugees stranded in Greece. But the agreement turns a blind eye to the fact that even larger numbers of asylum seekers are stranded back in Syria, unable to reach safety.

    Syrians hoping to apply for asylum in Europe first have to physically get there. EU member states closed their embassies in Syria at the start of the conflict, and even embassies and consulates in neighbouring countries have been reluctant to process visa and asylum applications.

    When Syria’s war erupted in March 2011, it was initially relatively easy for most refugees to leave the country. Those without the means to fly poured out in waves of tens of thousands across land borders into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But one by one, these exits have been restricted or closed off entirely.

    Jordan closed its borders to the vast majority of Syrians in September 2014, but many are still arriving there. The numbers stranded at crossing points near Rukban and Hadalat have been growing steadily since January and have now reached more than 37,000.

    Lebanon was a popular way station. It had always been easy to cross the Lebanese border, and from there Syrian refugees with the money could either fly or seek passage by boat to Turkey – seen as the best gateway for illegal migration to Europe due to its proximity to Greece and the fact you didn’t need a visa to get there.

    But Lebanon ended its open-door policy for Syrians in January 2015 when it introduced new regulations requiring them to apply for difficult-to-obtain visas or a Lebanese sponsor before being admitted. And then in January 2016, the Turkish government began to require visas for Syrians arriving by land or sea, effectively cutting off Lebanon as a route to Europe.

    Other options are bleak. The heavily militarised and UN-patrolled border with Israel leads to the contested Golan Heights. Asylum seekers cannot cross. Iraq, particularly the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, saw an influx of Syrian refugees in 2013. The borders are now mostly closed to asylum seekers. Egypt, the other main aerial route out, closed its doors to Syrians without visas in July 2013.

    As “No Entry” signs were erected elsewhere, the perilous overland option through Syria’s northern border to Turkey became increasingly popular.

    North Aleppo Province: Syrians try to cross the Turkish border illegally

    Lindsey Snell/IRIN
    Syrians at an illegal crossing point in northern Aleppo Province talk about their attempts to cross into Turkey

    But Turkey, long the most generous host country in terms of the sheer numbers of Syrians it has taken in, closed its last two official border crossing points to almost all asylum seekers in March 2015. And in recent months, it has implemented further border controls aimed at not just cracking down on smugglers of goods and people, but also at preventing Kurdish fighters and militants from so-called Islamic State crossing its border with Syria.

    Now, the only remaining paths out – for those who can afford it – involve difficult and dangerous illegal crossings overland into Turkey, usually with the help of people smugglers.

    Running the gauntlet

    Their house destroyed by shelling, Ahmad, a 26-year-old taxi driver from Aleppo, and his wife Amani, paid smugglers $650 in total for two attempts to get them and their two children out of Aleppo and into Turkey using one such route, skirting the northeastern edge of Syria’s Latakia Province before crossing illegally into the Turkish border town of Yayladaği.

    “We never thought about leaving Aleppo,” Ahmad told IRIN. “But when the regime and the Russian-led offensive started escalating, we realised that staying would mean simply… dying.”

    It didn’t take them long to get rid of their few remaining possessions. They used money sent by Amani’s mother, who works as a cleaner in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, to pay a smuggler $400 and then travelled by bus to an informal camp in Latakia. They waited there until nightfall and then set off on foot through the wooded, hilly terrain preferred by smugglers because of the cover it provides from Turkish border guards.

    “My children were very scared because of some shooting in the distance and, as they lost their shoes in the mud, I abandoned all my bags and helped them face the hard road ahead,” recalled Ahmad.

    They made it as far as Guvecci – a small border village inside Turkey – before they were surrounded by Turkish police and taken to a military base with hundreds of other Syrians. Women and children were kept in one room, men in another. There was “no food, no water and not even a blanket to warm ourselves with,” said Ahmad.

    “A man was bleeding after being shot by the police and no one helped him,” the young Syrian added.

    The following morning, despite everything they’d been through, they were sent back to Syria.

    ahmadfamily.jpg

    Eleonora Vio/IRIN
    Ahmad and Amani with their two children and Amani's mother, Umm Abdu, at her home in Gaziantep

    The family refused to give up. The second time, they paid their smugglers a lot less, $250, but things didn’t go smoothly. Ahmad described the whole experience as “like an action movie”.

    The large group they joined was split in two before they started walking. One group was shot at and intercepted by Turkish police, but Ahmad and Amani’s contingent reached Guvecci, where they were handed over to a Turkish smuggler and taken to Yayladaği, then Hatay, and finally to Gaziantep, where they were reunited with Amani’s mother.

    Turkish crackdown

    Advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, have been warning about the lack of legal routes out of Syria for several months.

    “Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have essentially sealed their borders with Syria, leaving civilians who can pay with no choice but to use smugglers to escape, and forcing those who can’t to stay put and risk their lives under increasingly hostile skies, including in extremely dangerous border areas near Turkey,” Gerry Simpson, a senior refugee researcher with HRW, told IRIN.

    Ege Seçkin, an analyst with the IHS think tank, said the Turkish government had reportedly authorised border guards to open fire on people attempting to cross the border last March.

    “The government’s rationale for that is very clear – they don’t want Kurdish militants to be going back and forth in the context of an insurgency inside Turkey,” he said, adding that the crackdown, which includes trenches and fences along some sections of the border, had made the work of smugglers much riskier. As a result, they’ve started demanding higher fees than many Syrians can afford.

    Noting that the border smuggling trade had dropped dramatically since late 2015, Seckin told IRIN: “You can cross, but it comes at a cost, and it is very risky.”

    Last month, Amnesty International reported that Syrian hospitals in Azaz, a border town northwest of Aleppo, were treating an average of two people a day who had been shot attempting to cross into Turkey. In one case, a 10-year-old was shot in the head.

    “We are all hearing the reports about shooting incidents [at the border],” said Metin Çorabatır, president of the Research Centre on Asylum and Migration, a Turkish think tank. The officials explain it is clashes between security forces and smugglers, but the point is that really there is no mechanism of verifying the situation. The UN doesn’t have any presence on the border area.”

    The Turkish government did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment, but Turkey’s official line is that its border remains open to those fleeing violence in Syria. In early February, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “If they reached our door and have no other choice, if necessary, we have to and will let our brothers in.”

    In practice, it has admitted only a fraction of the more than 85,000 Syrians displaced from their homes during the month of February, prior to a fragile “cessation of hostilities”. The largest displacement took place in Aleppo, where Russian airstrikes and advances by pro-regime ground forces sent tens of thousands of residents to the Turkish border. Approximately 70,000 people are now staying at eight camps in the Azaz area, near the Bab al-Salameh crossing.

    Turkey said it had allowed 10,000 of them to cross, but Amnesty International contests this claim and NGO sources working on the border told IRIN that only critical medical cases had been allowed in.

    “The majority came to the border because it is safe and they hoped to cross to Turkey,” said Sharvan Ibesh of Syrian NGO Bihar, which has a presence near the border. “The majority of people in north Aleppo had many relatives who had crossed into Turkey already, so they imagined if they crossed the border, they could [reunite with their] relatives. But unfortunately this didn’t happen.”

    Long-term displacement

    Conditions at the camps, which doubled in population during February, are now cramped, with three or four families sharing the same tent in freezing conditions and a lack of adequate medical facilities.

    “We believe people have the right to seek refuge and safety, however we don’t see them being allowed into Turkey,” Filip Lozinski, who is managing the Norwegian Refugee Council’s aid response in northwest Syria, told IRIN. “Now we’re preparing for being able to provide necessary [ongoing] services in these camps because it looks like there’s not going to be any short-term solution.”

    In early February, Turkey temporarily opened the border near Yayladaği to allow ethnic Turkmen to flee Syrian regime advances in Latakia. More than 7,000 crossed the border before it was closed again.

    “If you are neither a Turkmen nor a severely injured person, your only chance to leave Syria is crossing into Turkey illegally,” said Umm Abdu, Ahmad’s mother-in-law.

    Turkey has registered 2.7 million Syrians as living in the country under its temporary protection (the government does not recognise them as refugees). But many Syrians don’t register with the authorities and this week’s EU deal could see tens of thousands more refugees forced back to Turkey from Greece.

    Lebanon demanded that UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, stop new registrations of Syrian refugees in May 2015, but at last count it was hosting more than 1.1 million. A further 637,000 are registered in Jordan.

    Rights groups and aid agencies acknowledge that neighbouring countries have borne the brunt of the spill-over from Syria’s protracted civil war, but insist those trying to flee the conflict must have a safe way out.

    “Access to safety is paramount and all countries must share responsibility,” UNHCR spokesman Andreas Needham told IRIN.

    “Countries in the region and beyond must continue to allow access to asylum for people fleeing Syria, and not forcibly return those who are desperately seeking safety.”

    But with the EU poised to begin returning refugees to Turkey and no sign of any legal routes out of Syria emerging, civilians fleeing the war are increasingly trapped.

    Related stories:

    Lebanese law forces Syrian refugees underground

    Jordan cracks (down) under refugee pressure

    A timeline of Syria’s closing borders

    The long way round

    Border restrictions narrow the options
    No way out: How Syrians are struggling to find an exit
    Additional reporting by Kristy Siegfried, IRIN Migration Editor, and Annie Slemrod, IRIN Middle East Editor
  • IRIN's Top Picks: Landmines, mental health and making do in Lebanon

    Welcome to IRIN's reading list. Every week our global network of specialist correspondents share their top picks of recent must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises. We also highlight key upcoming conferences, book releases and policy debates. 

    Five to read

    Landmines: two steps forward…

    Landmine use had been dropping steadily over the last decade, and so had casualty numbers. Until 2014, that is. The annual Landmine Monitor report, published by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, shows the first rise in nine years in casualty figures worldwide, alongside an increase in landmine use by non-state actors. In a “disturbing step backwards”, 10 countries recorded anti-personnel or victim-activated IED (improvised explosive device) use by rebel groups including, for the first time, Yemen and Ukraine. The casualty spike – up 11 percent to 3,678 from 3,308 in 2013 – was mostly driven by a sharp increase in victim-activated IEDs in Afghanistan. And it’s certainly not all bad news. The long-term trend remains downward, and anti-landmine treaties seem to be working: the use of landmines by governments remains low, with confirmed new use in 2014-15 restricted to Myanmar, North Korea and Syria – none of them signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty. 

    Yemen: the forgotten conflict

    While the eyes of global political leaders remain firmly trained on the patch of land currently occupied by self-styled Islamic State, the news from another part of the region grows increasingly bleak. The latest Humanitarian Needs Overview for Yemen from OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination arm, finds that 82 percent of the population – more than 21 million people – are in need of assistance ranging from food and clean water to basic healthcare. Some 32,000 casualties have been recorded since March, and OHCHR, the UN human rights monitor, reports an average of 43 violations every day. Internal displacement figures are now at 2.3 million. And, as these needs increase, basic services are collapsing. The Yemen appeal, meanwhile, remains just 49 percent funded. 

    Lessons from Ebola

    Last week, Sierra Leoneans danced with joy as the country was declared Ebola-free after nearly two years of devastation. But this week, two months after neighbouring Liberia’s own similar celebrations, a teenager there died of the virus, underlining that the outbreak in West Africa is still not over. This makes the recommendations of a panel convened by the Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine even more timely: reform the World Health Organization so it can cope with pandemics; invest in core capacity to handle outbreaks at the national level, especially in poorer countries; and invest in the necessary research and development – including vaccines. The report, which highlighted the problem affected countries had in detecting and reporting cases as well as the WHO’s failure to sound the alarm early enough, concluded that the poor international response caused “needless suffering and death.”

    Making victims better participants in justice

    When the now much-criticised International Criminal Court was founded, part of what was supposed to make it different was the way it involved victims. Instead of treating them as mere trial witnesses, they were to have a say in multiple aspects of court process, including decisions to open investigations and admit cases. They would also have their own special bit of the court – the Victims Participation and Reparations Section – through which to engage. Nearly 15 years on, a study of more than 600 of the thousands of “victim participants” by the Human Rights Center at the Berkeley School of Law in California has found that this lofty idea hasn’t quite worked out as planned. Incorporating the views of multiple victims has proved unworkable, and both defence and prosecution teams have questioned whether their involvement has actually made it harder to have a fair hearing. Most victims want convictions and reparations and are disappointed with any other outcome, despite having insufficient knowledge of the court process to participate meaningfully. Some also fear their participation will not go unnoticed at home and they will face reprisals. Berkeley’s recommendations? Invest in support to victim participants. Manage their expectations better. Speed up trials.

    The mental health of aid workers

    Anyone wondering if Steve Dennis, the aid worker who won his case for damages against the Norwegian Refugee Council this week, was an isolated case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the industry could do worse than take a look at the results of a Guardian survey published this week, which found that 79 percent of respondents had experienced mental health issues. The survey was self-selecting and hardly representative – 75 percent of respondents were women and most were international NGO staff – but the figures are nonetheless striking: fully 93 percent felt their struggles were directly related to their work. And contributors also spoke widely of a “culture of secrecy” within the industry. Respondents said they were reluctant to speak out for fear of their careers being damaged, or that they would be considered a “bad” humanitarian. The focus, says The Guardian, is particularly on the aftercare and support provided for those working in what is unquestionably an inherently risky profession – a point reinforced by the Dennis case, in which the court heard evidence that mismanagement of incidents by aid agencies can increase the impact on those concerned.

    Coming up:

    United Nations conference on climate change

    It’s all about Paris next week, but this time in a good way. The 21st Conference of the Parties (governments taking action on climate change) kicks off in the City of Light with the hope being that 12 days later the world will have agreed a new international climate change treaty, specifically around carbon emissions. No fewer than 147 heads of state will attend, joining more than 40,000 others, ranging from bright-eyed volunteers to the UK’s Prince Charles. Unusually – and controversially for France, where demonstrations are a national pastime – the authorities have banned marches and demonstrations in the wake of the recent bombings, so expect tightened security and more behind-closed-doors events than usual.

    See IRIN’s take on what’s at stake: COP21: A turning point?

    One to listen to:

    From Syria to Yorkshire

    We have heard and read much over the last few months about the struggle of refugees, especially those from Syria, to reach Europe. But we hear less about what happens when they arrive. This week, the BBC went to Bradford in the north of England to meet those settling into their new homes, and find out how the struggle doesn’t just end with a successful asylum claim. Among them is Nadia, for whom a new shopping centre in Bradford brings back painful memories of the mall her property company built in Damascus; and Aham, who fled Syria two years ago and works in a falafel shop as the first step to funding his dream of a medical degree. All are grateful for their new chance and for all the support, but they miss their homes horribly and are struggling to adapt. It’s a poignant portrait of a group of people trying to fit in with new lives they didn’t want or choose. 

    One from IRIN:

    How Syrians get by in Lebanon

    A common over-simplification in the current debate around refugees is that once Syrians make it to Lebanon their struggles are behind them: they are safe in a stable country. But as IRIN discovered this week, the reality for the vast majority is that life is still far from easy. Everything is stretched: World Food Programme rations have been cut and cut again, and 90 percent of Syrians are in debt as they struggle to make ends meet. IRIN spoke to six families about how they get by. From making a stew last for days to eating wild plants and running up debts at the pharmacist for everyday medication, their stories sketch the daily humiliations and stresses of life on the margins. 

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  • Aid to Syrians: how far does it go?

    Struggling to find work and receiving little aid, many of Lebanon's 1.1 million Syrian refugees are barely getting by. An estimated 90 percent are in debt and nearly all have to make sacrifices.

    Some 603,000 refugees in Lebanon receive $21 in electronic vouchers each month from the World Food Programme. No more than five members of a family are eligible for this payment, which was temporarily reduced in July from $30 to $13.50 a month thanks to funding shortages.

    Other aid organisations provide limited cash assistance. The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, gives the 17,561 "most severely vulnerable refugees" $175 per month. Palestinian refugees from Syria also receive some help from UNRWA, the UN's agency for Palestine refugees. Various other groups provide other kinds of support, but it amounts to very little.

    Future WFP assistance in Lebanon is not a sure thing beyond the end of this year. Dina al-Kassaby, WFP spokeswoman for Lebanon, told IRIN that "without predictable funding, WFP may not be able to provide regular food assistance to the most vulnerable Syrian refugees beyond the next two months."

    Here's how six families make do:

    food lebanon

    Samya Kallab/IRIN

     

    Abdul Hamid

    From: Idlib
    Residence in Lebanon: Ansarieh, Tyre District
    Family size: 11
    Monthly aid: $105
    Family income: $350 on a good month
    Expenses: $650

    There are three men in the family, so we were lucky. But, because of my heart condition, I can’t work, and my son-in-law... broke his leg, so he can’t work. There is one person left to support the family. My son works in construction, for around $30 to $35 a day. But the work is never steady and at most he might work 10 days in a month. We expect to make less in the winter because there isn’t much construction going on. There really is no way to cover our expenses. We have no choice but to go into debt. I have a big family; there are many mouths to feed. Our food budget alone every month is $100-$150. So we are in debt to the grocer. My wife buys grains, because they last, and vegetables, because they are cheap and she says they are healthy. She uses eggplant and potatoes for dishes that would normally have meat. I haven’t tasted meat in years. But the butcher, he’s a nice man, he gives us the bones for free. So my wife makes a big stew with tomatoes that lasts us at least four days.

    samira_1.jpg

    Samya Kullab/IRIN

    Samira

    From: Idlib
    Residence in Lebanon: Ansarieh, Tyre District
    Family size: 7
    Monthly aid: $105
    Family income: $250
    Expenses: $500

    Everyone in the family has high blood pressure, and we need medicine all the time. But it's not covered by the UN and I’ve tried to find organisations that can help us, but I don’t know where to go. I have a $3,000 debt with the pharmacist. It’s a terrible feeling: the feeling you owe someone for something so important for your survival. My sister Akram has a disability, but we can’t afford a wheelchair for her, so she has no choice but to crawl on her hands. We don’t make difficult decisions with our money, we make difficult sacrifices... I can’t tell you if we’ve found ways to make our money last. We’re just in debt, like everyone. Lebanon is so expensive. When we got here we had some savings, very little.

    matar_3.jpg

    Samya Kullab/IRIN

    matar_7.jpg

    Samya Kullab/IRIN

    Matar

    From: Aleppo
    Residence in Lebanon: Bisserieh, Sidon District
    Family size: 5
    Monthly aid: $105
    Monthly family income: $250
    Expenses: $300

    The trick is to make things last. We buy lots of vegetables, and grains. My wife makes a big vegetable burghul dish. It's delicious. We eat it almost every day. It lasts for almost a week. Every week we make a grocery list: green vegetables, eggplant, potatoes, rice, burghul, lentils, za’atar, oil, garlic and onions. In a month, that will cost us around $150. Apart from that, we pay the monthly utility fees: $50. Our landlord has agreed to let an aid organisation subsidise our rent for the year, but after next year we will have to pay $300 a month, and I don’t know how we are going to make that work. You see, I’m always thinking about money. I count the eggs, think about how much they are costing us. Before I buy a pack of cigarettes, I have to think about it. Thank god no one in the family is sick. I dread the winter because our room gets so cold, and buying a heater is, again, expensive. I don’t know. I don’t know how we’re going to make it work.

    bayan.jpg

    Samya Kullab/IRIN

    bayan_4.jpg

    Samya Kullab/IRIN

    Bayan

    From: Homs
    Residence in Lebanon: Bisserieh, Sidon District
    Family size: 3
    Monthly aid: $63
    Family income: $0
    Expenses: $200

    My husband disappeared in Syria three years ago. He left and never came back. So when I fled our home I left with Abu Shadi, my husband’s brother, and their family. They take care of me and my two little children, and all our expenses. The men in the family work in construction. And I help where I can. We buy vegetables, mostly. I found these growing under a tree. It’s a wild plant that we can use for cooking. The best part is that it’s free.

    fauzia_2.jpg

    Samya Kullab/IRIN

    fauzia_3.jpg

    Samya Kullab/IRIN

    Fawzia

    From: Hama
    Residence in Lebanon: Bisserieh, Sidon District
    Family size: 5
    Monthly aid: $105
    Family income: $300
    Expenses: $500

    I have to buy diapers for my eight-year old daughter. She has a disability. I think the doctor said it was [caused] by meningitis. We can’t afford the medicine or treatment it would take to treat her. She has tantrums, and she always wants me by her side... When we make the budget, I have to include her diapers. I get 15 disposable diapers for LL 20,000 ($13). Apart from the utilities and food, [the diapers] are one of our major expenses.

    najwa_2.jpg

    Samya Kullab/IRIN

    Najwa

    From: Yarmouk
    Family size: 5
    Residence in Lebanon: Shatila refugee camp, Beirut suburbs
    Monthly aid: $130
    Family income: $500
    Expenses: $600

    Every month, we make a plan. The plan is very important. I’m a lot luckier than most Palestinians from Syria in this camp, I’m better off because I have a job, and I can provide for my three girls. So, on the first of the month I pay $300 for rent, then $35 for utilities. That’s half the money gone already. Then I have to pay $200 for our loans. You see, my husband is in Germany. We got a Lebanese man to take out a $5,000 loan for us, and while we wait for my husband’s asylum request, the Lebanese man we borrowed from comes once every month to collect his installment, which I have to pay. I still need assistance from UNRWA, even though I’m working. Whatever is left over, I use for food. If my daughter gets sick, it will be a disaster. Healthcare in this country is so expensive. We never buy clothes. The last time I bought my daughters clothing was two... [years] ago, but they never complain. My children are wonderful. They are the best in the world... Oh and my cigarettes, I have to buy cigarettes.

  • Lebanese law forces Syrian refugees underground

    Ibrahim waited outside the legal clinic with his most valuable belongings – Syrian ID, passport, a document proving his status as a UN-registered refugee and a notarised pledge promising not to work in Lebanon – all in a crumpled shopping bag.

    The 47-year-old father of five from Aleppo meets all the requirements for a residency permit in Lebanon, but when he last applied he was told his promise to stay jobless wasn’t believable and he therefore needed a Lebanese citizen to vouch for him.

    So he did what most others do. He became illegal.

    A complicated set of laws has made obtaining legal residency in Lebanon so difficult that an estimated two-thirds of the country’s Syrian refugees now lack the proper papers, putting them at constant risk of arrest.

    Ibrahim chanced it to seek out legal advice, crossing Lebanese army checkpoints on his way through the eastern Bekaa Valley, but found little respite. “The lawyer said there was nothing to be done: either find a sponsor or lay low,” he told IRIN, still clutching the shopping bag.

    New refugees, new law

    Since the war in their country began four years ago, Syrians have been pouring across the border into Lebanon, and those registered with the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, number around 1.2 million.

    With the influx came concerns that the Lebanese economy couldn’t absorb the burden of the newcomers, who some also see as a threat to the country’s fragile security situation.

    In June 2014, in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees and keep tabs on their whereabouts, Lebanon prohibited Syrian refugees from re-entering the country if they visited home. Then, in January of this year, the government introduced a new set of entry and exit regulations for their Syrian neighbours.

    Syrians who are registered with the UNHCR can now prolong their legal stay in Lebanon for a year, but only if they pledge not to work. Non-refugee Syrians require a Lebanese sponsor if they want to remain in the country.

    See: Stranded Syrians at ‘serious risk’ of losing refugee status in Lebanon

    But refugees and aid workers report that some officials from General Security, the government office that handles residency, are not applying the law as it is written. The problem is particularly acute in the Bekaa Valley, where refugees are highly concentrated and are regularly being asked for a local guarantor.

    This was Ibrahim’s experience. “They told me I can only renew if I find a sponsor,” he said. But this is no easy task, as he has found. “It has to be someone I trust and not someone who will try to exploit my family.”

    The Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs the Bekaa Valley legal clinic Ibrahim turned to, has been keeping tabs on the growing problem. “Most of the refugees I see are illegal, I believe, as a direct result of the law,” said Patricia Safi, a lawyer who provides legal assistance to refugees. 

     

     

    UNHCR spokeswoman Dana Sleiman said the agency was familiar with complaints about the law’s application.

    “Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR have reported varying practices by the authorities,” she told IRIN.

    A General Security source in Beirut told IRIN that there might be case-specific reasons why refugees in the Bekaa Valley were being told to find a guarantor. “The General Security officer might have reason to believe [a refugee] is working when he says he won't,” the source said.

    Renewal costs

    Safi said many refugees she sees never even attempt to renew their residency because they can’t afford it.

    The application requires a $200 fee, plus the notarised “no work” pledge and letters from landlords and a mukhtar – a local government official – informing the government where a refugee lives. This can add up to $600, Safi said, and the average Syrian refugee in Lebanon makes $250 per month. The NRC estimates that 35 percent of refugees don’t approach the government because they can’t scrape together the cash.

    “Residency renewal requirements are prohibitive for Syrian refugees,” agreed UNHCR’s Sleiman, adding that 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon fall under the poverty line.

    “Money has been an issue for a long time,” said Hala al-Helou, an official at the social affairs ministry, which handles refugee matters. But the government has no plans to scrap the fee. Instead, Helou said they’re looking to donors who might help front the money for refugees.

    Unintended outcomes

    Erratic application of the residency laws has made it so difficult for Syrian refugees to stay legally that they have had a perverse effect: the government wanted to keep tabs on refugees, but now they’ve just gone underground.

    Safi said the best advice she can offer refugees is “not to move around a lot.”

    “We’re in a situation where refugees can’t work, they can’t go back, they can’t leave their homes, [but] eventually they need to eat,” she said.

    George Gali, a researcher with the human rights monitoring group ALEF (Act for Human Rights) was of the same mind.

    "Lebanon is actually making its security situation worse because they are pushing more refugees off the grid by imposing strict conditions for residency," he said.

     

    "Refugees can't work, they can't go back, they can't leave their homes, but eventually they need to eat."

     

    Those who do manage to sign the pledge not to work are pushed “into a dire economic situation,” he added.

    Yusra and Safa, sisters-in-law from Hama in Syria who arrived in Lebanon three years ago with their families, are a classic case of what the law has wrought. They’re signed up with UNHCR but haven’t bothered approaching the government about residency. Everyone they know told them that without a sponsor it would be hopeless, and their attempts to find one have failed.

    Their husbands, Ziad and Ahmed, risk detention every day they go to work as day labourers.

    They wait on the sidewalk for someone to come by offering work, each bringing home LL 10,000-20,000 ($7-14) a day if they get a gig.

    Sometimes the truck comes almost daily. Sometimes no one comes for a week. “I’m afraid when they leave every morning,” said Safa. “What if they don’t come back? What will I do then?”

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  • Rent to tent and back again

    Readying a fundraiser for an Aleppo hospital, a London boutique owner expressed her concern about the Syrian refugees who’ve fled to neighbouring countries: “They’re living in camps over there, aren’t they?” 

    Not quite. Just ask Ismail Yousif, a 51-year-old native of Hasaka, in northeastern Syria. After fleeing to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq in 2013, he and his family sought shelter in a refugee camp. But there wasn’t space, and sewage now seeps across the floor of his cheap rented quarters.

    “Nobody cares whether we starve or die,” he told IRIN.

    The image of Syrian refugees in dusty refugee camps is a favourite cliché of politicians and media alike. “[N]early four million Syrians languish in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan,” an article in The Independent lamented. Politicians too refer to refugees “languishing” “in the camps,” and donors boast about their contribution to running them, even in places where they don't exist.

    The reality for the vast majority of Syrian refugees is closer to Yousif’s. According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, of the four million Syrians who’ve fled their country’s four-year war, well over 3.5 million people are in the cities, towns and villages of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The Syrian refugee crisis affects those host communities too.

    ‘Not that different from life in the camps’

    Until recently, the majority of Syrian refugees in Kurdistan lived in urban areas and paid rent. Almost all the humanitarian assistance, however, is focused on the camps. 

    At the start of this year, the region found itself in dire financial straights. The so-called Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS) became Kurdistan’s next-door neighbours and investment stuttered, driving up unemployment. Baghdad also withheld Erbil’s budgetary allocation, a reprimand for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s independent oil exportation, leaving government salaries unpaid for months on end.

    There was particular pressure on the low-end housing sector, which was struggling to deal with Iraq’s own IS-triggered internal displacement crisis without having to make room too for refugees from abroad.

    Unable to afford housing on their own, many Syrians in Iraq have been pushed from rent to tent. In 2013, there were an estimated 38,500 Syrians living in three camps – one in Kurdistan and two in central Iraq. Now there are some 94,000 in 10 camps. Of all the countries in the region with a significant population of Syrian refugees, Iraq now has the largest proportion living in camps, although that’s still only 38 percent.

    When Yousif, his wife Habiba and their three teenage sons first arrived in Kurdistan in February 2013, their first step was to rent a home. A builder by trade, chronic back problems meant Yousif couldn't work, so his sons cut their education short and entered Erbil’s construction industry. When the financial crisis hit at the beginning of 2015, the shopping mall they were helping to build was mothballed and their income disappeared overnight.

    Even their smallest revenue source dried up. “My 14-year-old son worked in a car wash for a very tiny wage because he was under the legal age,” Yousif told IRIN. For a 12-hour day, he earned about $7. “He lost his job because the car wash closed, too.”

    The family relocated to a nearby refugee camp in April 2015, but it was so overcrowded that after a few weeks of miserable conditions they gave up. Yousif was told no other camp could take them in. They were left with no choice but to find somewhere to rent yet again, even though they couldn’t afford it.

    Their current rental property has broken doors and windows. “The bathrooms are very old and the sewage system is not working properly,” said Yousif.

    Desperate for shelter, refugees like Yousif often overpay for decrepit buildings. “They’re paying much more than they should be charged for the quality of their homes,” Amelia Rule, a shelter adviser with CARE International, told IRIN. Many end up in overcrowded and unsanitary apartment blocks, garages, or construction sites, with eviction a constant concern.

    “I rented this place because it was the cheapest. I am just worried about winter, because it will be very cold,” explained Yousif. Winter temperatures in Kurdistan dip below zero degrees Celsius. “We have electricity five hours a day and the fuel for heating is expensive ($1 per litre). So it’s not that different from life in the camps.”

    The obvious distinction is that a camp is free; the rental costs them $400 per month.

    Tensions

    In Kurdistan, UNHCR reports that there is “no fund available to support non-camp refugee families.” Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have also seen their rental subsidies drop or disappear, in part because of underfunding. The UN said it needed $4.5 billion to support Syrian refugees in 2015 – it has received only $2.2 billion.

    The failure to help refugees like Yousif remain in rented homes is a false economy, some experts argue. “The reason support within communities is so cheap is that we do not need to create and maintain communal services, such as schools and clinics,” explained Tom Corsellis, executive director of Shelter Centre, which provides expertise and help to humanitarian organisations tackling settlement and reconstruction. In camps, humanitarian organisations have to provide all these expensive services.

    But, Corsellis added, humanitarian support is lacking to boost some of the communal services that refugees and host communities share, like plumbing and electricity infrastructure.

     

    In Lebanon, the government has not authorised a single formal refugee camp for Syrians – their history with Palestinian refugees makes this a fraught political issue – and 85 percent of refugees there live in rented accommodation and unfinished buildings.

    Their contribution to the Lebanese economy in rent alone is an estimated $36 million per month. But according to a report by CARE International, the “strain on Lebanese infrastructure and services is having a destabilising effect.”

    In the Lebanese city of Tripoli, aid actually aggravated tensions between poor Lebanese residents and Syrians. “Syrian refugees who received cash for rent at relatively high rates were the most highly desired tenants,” said the report, “with landlords often selecting these families over potential Lebanese tenants.”

    “The challenge is that a lot of funding is directed towards Syrian refugees only, making it difficult to programme for a whole neighbourhood that is affected,” said CARE’s Rule.

    With cash grants to refugees unsustainable, agencies like CARE and the Norwegian Refugee Council are prioritising urban improvement. Updating plumbing, fixing windows and doors, and renovating run-down streets can persuade landlords to offer free or reduced cost accommodation to refugees. Crucially, this investment in infrastructure benefits Lebanese communities too.

    Rule acknowledges that this tactic might raise some eyebrows. “We’re bridging into the development realm, so there is a need for more flexibility in the funding.” But if European donors want to see the refugee crisis contained in the Middle East, they may have to look outside camps and invest in the infrastructure of host countries.

    Returning to war?

    Today, cuts to aid are even pushing people back towards the war in Syria.

    “We’ve seen a major increase in the number of Syrian refugees returning to Syria,” Cate Osborn, a protection and advocacy adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Jordan, told IRIN. It hit a peak of 340 daily returnees in September; almost 4,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan headed back during August.

    “Those people are telling NRC staff that the inability to meet basic needs are significant [factors],” explained Osborn, citing cuts from the World Food Programme in particular: 229,000 urban refugees lost their food aid in September, leaving less money for rent. “They see that there are no longer any sustainable options to stay in Jordan,” Osborn added.

    This phenomenon extends outside Jordan. A reported 94,000 Syrian refugees left Turkey for Syria in the past year. Some return to sell assets and property, raising cash for a journey to Europe. Yousif’s house in Hasaka was once valued at $40,000. But last month he sold it for only $6,000, just enough to smuggle his eldest son into Germany.

    Yousif has no plans to return to Syria, calling it a battlefield in the “third world war.” Having considered his options, poor plumbing might be as goods as it gets.

    Additional reporting by Hisham M.D. Arafat in Erbil

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