In the space of two weeks, the storms Norma and Miriam swept through Lebanon, leaving behind five dead and more than 10 injured. Torrential rains, gusty winds and heavy snow hit the fields where the Syrian refugees live, worsening their already precarious living conditions. Many settlements were flooded, tents were torn apart by the wind, and dozens of families were displaced—once again—to temporary shelters.
Almost all those who fell victim to the bad weather were Syrian: on Wednesday, the Lebanese Civil Defense recovered the bodies of two siblings, an 8-year-old girl and a 21-year-old boy, who drowned in the Akbiye channel in the south of the country. Another 8-year-old girl suffered the same fate when she fell into a river in Minyeh, in the north.
On Tuesday, a 10-year-old boy died at Naameh after a boulder fell on the house where he lived with his family. They lived in a house with a metal roof, close to the factory where part of the family works—a similar situation to that of the tent settlements which have been put up between the plots of farmland where the Syrians are working as laborers, often in order to pay the rent for the land where they have set up their tents. These are all informal camps: Lebanon has never signed the International Convention on Refugees, so it is classifying Syrian refugees as displaced persons and has refused to set up official refugee camps in the country, in the fear that a recognized temporary presence would become a permanent one.
This situation of high vulnerability has turned the Syrians into low-cost labor in agriculture and in other sectors—factories, construction, cleaning—forcing them to compete against the poorest of the Lebanese. The labor exploitation also involves many Syrian minors (up to 70-80 percent of them), forced to leave school to help their impoverished families after years of staying in Lebanon. This is the so-called “lost generation” (more than half of the 630,000 school-age Syrian children are not receiving an education), which also includes many girls (one in three) who are being married off as teenagers in order to remove a burden from their large and poor families.
The last storm, Miriam, tore through the country on Wednesday, severely affecting the refugees living in camps or in non-residential structures. Around 34 percent of the Syrians present in Lebanon have been here since the beginning of the war in Syria eight years ago. The number of those registered by the UNHCR is 951,629, but it is estimated that the true number is over a million (with a local population of just four million, Lebanon is the country that has received the most refugees per capita), even as there has been a significant decrease in their number over the past three years.
According to Reuters, around 50,000 refugees have returned to Syria from Lebanon, but questions remain about how many of these returns—urged in July by Damascus and welcomed by a part of the Lebanese political spectrum—were actually voluntary and safe.
According to the UNHCR, the recent bad weather has directly affected 70,000 refugees, including nearly 40,000 minors, living in around 850 camps. The institutional procedures to provide assistance have been set in motion, but according to Ahmad—40 years old, from Hasake, a city on the border with Iraq—nothing has changed since he arrived in Lebanon five years ago: “Last year we also had problems with bad weather,” he says as he shows us the damage to his tent in camp 006, near Joub Jannine, a city in the west of the Beqaa Valley. The camp is home to around 540 refugees, including 300 children.
On Tuesday, there was a reprieve from the bad weather, and the fields of Joub Jannine came alive with activity. In the 020 camp, close to the Litani river, there are 300 Syrians, including over 150 children. When the sun came up after days of rain, the men went to work to reinforce the tents, while the women washed the carpets, blankets, clothes, crockery and everything that had come into contact with the water and mud during the days of the storm.
Hiba arrived in Lebanon from Aleppo six years ago, and lives together with around 20 family members, including several children, in a large tent in the center of the camp. “We were sleeping when the water started coming into the tent, it was falling down from the ceiling and sipping in from below,” she tells us. “We stayed for two days in a temporary shelter. Now, we need new mattresses and blankets, and gravel to cover the streets. The children got dirty with mud, and they got ill.”
Najah, from Raqqa, spent the night sitting on a chair. She has been living in camp 006 for almost five years with her husband, daughter and sister, who has four children. “The water broke through the roof of the tent, and we had no choice but to move the chairs to the place that was the least wet and spend the night sitting on them,” she says, holding her UNHCR card in her hands, which gives her the right to receive some aid.
Unfortunately, it looks like what aid is available may be steadily diminishing: last May, the UN sounded the alarm about a “critical gap” in the donations received for Syrian refugees in 2018: only 18-22 percent of the necessary funds had been collected.