Officially, 4.3 million Lebanese live in Lebanon, a country about half the size of Bavaria. For over 60 years, half a million Palestinians have also been living in camps in the country – and starting a few years ago, Syrian refugees also live here. There are no figures on exactly how many are here but there are thought to be another 500,000 on top of the 1.2 million officially registered Syrians. This means that around half of Lebanon’s population are refugees.
“It is unbelievable how this small country without a president is stemming these major problems”, says Volker Rath, our logistics expert in Lebanon. “This is a country where currently the only entry and exit point is Beirut airport, as it southern border with its archenemy Israel is closed and to the north and east, it shares a border with war-torn Syria.”
At the limits of endurance
Understandably, the consequences of this situation can be felt in many locations. The country’s logistics system is at absolute capacity. Garbage collection is no longer possible due to a lack of vehicles, water is in short supply, most of the electricity is being produced by private generators, and the capacity of health centers, hospitals and schools is nowhere near sufficient. There is also a particular lack of trained staff in the social sectors.
Meanwhile, wages have fallen considerably due to the high number of day-laborers. If a Syrian foreign worker earned $18 a day ten years ago, today he will earn just $7. This situation is not simply caused by the oversupply of unskilled labor, it is also due to the transport routes through Syria being cut off – the export of Lebanese goods via road is practically at a standstill.
Settlements scattered across the country
A large number of the Syrian refugees live in the Bekaa Valley, a plateau in the east of the country. Others have chosen to move to areas where that may at least find a badly paid job so that they can look after their families. One wish they all share is to return to their homes as quickly as possible.
There are also countless settlements scattered across the country, mostly on the edges of towns. “Up to 200 families can live in one settlement, with just five in another”, Volker Rath explains. “Some of these people live in unfinished buildings, others in tents or shacks. Some pay Lebanese landlords between $100 and $200 in rent, while others are housed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Certain settlements are visited by mobile clinics, others are not. Sometimes, charities distribute ration packs or hygiene kits, but not always. Some men, and unfortunately also children, have work, although most do not.”
Aid is not enough
As first glance, aid for Syrian refugees seems to be relatively well organized. Many health centers receive international financial assistance. The most urgent medical cases are usually covered by UNHCR health insurance and an officially-run education program for children takes places in the afternoons. The problem is that capacity of these services does not meet demand. Furthermore, there are just so many people that simply do not have enough money to pay for transportation to hospital or school. The country lacks a public transport system, but above all, people are under-informed or are unable to take advantage of the assistance available.
It is precisely this problem that our new project in Lebanon aims to address. We are working on making sure people are able to take advantage of the help that is on offer to them.
Our project in Lebanon
In the metropolitan area around Sidon, the fourth largest city in the country, there are huge numbers of settlements. The proportion of refugees in this southern region of Lebanon is over 50 percent. As many Syrians emigrated to the area decades ago because of the numerous fruit and vegetable plantations, when the war broke out in Syria, more and more chose to stay and brought their families to join them. The high proportion of people requiring assistance has flooded the job market with workers. As a result, the housing situation here is abysmal. There are shortages of everything.
Our first step was to identify settlements that were not receiving any or very little aid. “We will be there for these people, and not just administer”, Volker Rath says. “We organize transportation to medical centers, laboratories, sometimes to hospital. We are reaching out to these people and negotiate with doctors and administrators when surgery is needed that is not covered by UNHCR insurance. We prevent people from being cast aside and try to make this intolerable situation a little more tolerable.”
At the moment, we make around 1,000 doctors’ consultations a month possible in addition to the necessary auxiliary services, medical treatment and much-needed medicines for Syrians, Palestinians and socially-deprived Lebanese population. This is all achieved despite having only a few members of staff – our local team currently consists of three colleagues. Furthermore, we arrange for small repairs to be made in the settlements – most often on water pumps or waste disposal devices in order to improve hygiene and prevent diseases.
Particularly noteworthy about this country is the long-standing mutual religious tolerance and the quiet manner in which everybody tries to cope with the difficult situation as best as they can.
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