Tumultuous times in tent cities
As Syrians fled to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan, they could only be offered food and refuge from war. Three years since the crisis first emerged, foreign assistance is running out, donor fatigue is setting in, and host countries’ capacity to help is fast diminishing
There are no winners in a humanitarian tragedy — in Lebanon alone, there are 1,078,338 registered refugees from Syria. The country is already home to an estimated 500,000 Palestinian refugees who have been living there for over 50 years now. Then there are about 50,000 Iraqi refugees as well. With resources limited and already stretched, Lebanon is reeling from the Middle East’s refugee crisis.
“Refugees in Lebanon are only given $18 every month by the United Nations (UN) to cover their food, water, and bills expenses even though Lebanon is an expensive country. They have not been allowed to work either,” explains Manolo Ty, a German artist who decided to photograph the story of the refugee camps in Lebanon, between Zahle and the adjoining border.
Ty managed to visit two camps, along with a translator and a refugee in his former camp.
“It is worse than what we can imagine. I was in camps with around 50-100 tents. Each tent accommodates between five and 10 people. One of the things that I noticed was the way they had maintained their tents from inside. They had kept it tidy and somewhat decorated it with whatever little they had,” says Ty.
“Although the UN itself does not ask for rent, the landowners who own the land on which the refugee camps are situated, charge them. There is no proper planning of the camps and they seem to be scattered all over the place,” he narrates.
“I could see the UN logo sprayed on the tents, and believed that the organisation must be doing substantial work there. But when I spoke to the people, the story was quite different and heartbreaking: most of the tents were not even given to them by the UN but their logo is sprayed on them. People have to pay the rent for tents, while they have to organise food, water, and power on their own. They either buy water or arrange it from the grounds/fields nearby, which are very unhygienic and causing health problems,” he describes.
The absence of health facilities for refugees is indeed a concern in such situations. In recent times, the same factor has also been highlighted in Australian detention centres for refugees coming by boat.
In 2012, conflict in Syria gave birth to a refugee crisis that is changing the face of the Middle East and beyond. Millions took refuge in neighbouring countries but their hosts are now bursting at the seams. Is there an end in sight to the humanitarian catastrophe?
“I met a man named Achmed who has been living there since three years but has never seen a doctor. I photographed him and his recently injured big toe. Achmed injured his foot while repairing their tent building. There is no doctor to go to. He has no money for medicine. And he has not seen a doctor coming to their camp since he arrived three years ago,” says Ty.
Across in Jordan, the situation is equally daunting.
The biggest refugee camp in Jordan is Zaatari, constructed some 10 kilometres east of Mafraq city. The camp has evolved into a city of tents and mobile trailers in the middle of the desert. Thousands upon thousands of refugees reside there and the streets are literally comprised of hundreds and hundreds of tents.
Lebanon is in no position to sustain the refugees, and I fear that a civil war might erupt in Lebanon if the current Syrian crisis is not dealt with immediately.
“It’s quite crowded there and can get very hot and stuffy. It’s still not an ideal place to live but there really aren’t too many places where you could house an extraordinarily large number of refugees in a country as small as Jordan,” says Rachel Palmer, a graduate student in the Foreign Service programme at Georgetown University, Washington DC, who has been working on the ground with Syrian refugees, particularly in Jordan.
According to Palmer, the UN has been providing an array of services at the camp, including medical, sanitation, education, food vouchers, education for children in the camps, shelter, and safe spaces for women and girls.
“The UN operates as an enormous conglomerate of agencies that all play different roles. For example, the UNHCR handles registration of Syrians and provides them with tents and food. The WFP has an ongoing food voucher programme for Syrians, although the allotment has sadly decreased due to lack of funding,” she explains.
“The OCHA coordinates humanitarian efforts between the various stakeholders in Jordan and abroad. Then there are countless NGOs on the ground: Islamic Relief, Mercy Corps, Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, to name a few.”
Despite the support and amenities being offered, though, not all want to stay lodged in tent cities.
“One of the women I had met left the Zataari camp after pushing and pushing for a permit to go live in a community outside of the camp. Her six-year-old son had died of a preventable illness in the camp over the winter and she was adamant that remaining in Zataari would cause the deaths of the rest of her children,” she explains.
Ty echoes Palmer’s experience; he too did not find “a single person” at the camps who wanted to stay there.
“Even if the refugees could go back, the question remains whether they would go back. There is nothing left in their home towns, everything has been razed to the ground, and there is rubble everywhere. If they go back they would have to build everything from scratch. The adults are worried if their children will ever see a better life. If the situation worsens, then probably they will stay or travel to Europe in search of a better life,” he says.
But what has been the attitude of the Lebanese and Jordanian governments and people in dealing with these refugees?
For Ty, the situation in Lebanon is more urgent since the contradictions within are only sharpening fault lines in the country.
“There is a big political divide within the Lebanon government. They actually do not have time to think about the refugees. The government has already said that it cannot cope with the current Syria refugees, the number of which mounts up to more than one million,” he says.
“Lebanon has tensions with Israel, and Syria in the east, and it also has a vast area that makes up for deserts. They already have very limited resources for their own citizens, and the Lebanese government insists that the UN first provide aid to its citizens. Lebanon is in no position to sustain the refugees, and I fear that a civil war might erupt in Lebanon if the current Syrian crisis is not dealt with immediately,” he argues.
On the other hand, Palmer is more appreciative of Jordan’s efforts, even though there are certain problems and contradictions at play.
“The Jordanian government has been incredibly welcoming to Syrian refugees and has taken in close to 700,000 — a substantial number for a country as small as Jordan. The government has issued permission for Syrian children to attend Jordanian schools, separate from Jordanians however, since Syrian children are not familiar with the Jordanian curricula. The Jordanian government has also provided support to organisations that are providing relief to refugees,” she adds.
We were greeted by a husband and wife, who had bought a tent off some people in town by selling the gas heater provided by the UN. The family had several children, seven or eight I think, and all of them were huddled together, sleeping on the cold, hard ground with nothing but newspapers to keep them warm.
There is, however, an element of resentment among common Jordanians at play.
“One of the persisting problems with delivering aid work in Jordan is that some of the people in host communities have become quite belligerent and resentful of the Syrians,” explains Palmer. “They see the refugees as freeloaders - getting assistance from rich Western donors, while many Jordanians face unemployment and poverty without foreign assistance to address their needs. There’s a lack of understanding as to how humanitarian aid works and why rectifying the situation is urgent.”
Between the many humanitarian organisations working in Jordan, however, various survival kits are routinely distributed to residents of the Zataari camp.
“Kit distribution is typically handled by the UN’s implementing partners, such Mercy Corps and Save the Children. Kits vary from organisation to organisation. Most commonly, organisations provide families with hygiene products, including baby diapers, feminine products, wet wipes, dental products, soaps and shampoos,” describes Palmer.
“Some organisations provide medical kits with supplies like bandages, anti-bacterial lotion, and pain relievers. When I did assisted a local community-based organisation with hygiene kit distribution in Mafraq district, we did drop-offs at night so as to not cause jealousy and resentment in the host community,” she narrates.
It was on one of those trips out into the desert, on the outskirts of the town of Mafraq, that Palmer’s view about how she saw the refugee crisis completely altered.
“After driving in the dark for a seemingly endless amount of time, we pulled the SUV up to a ragged old Bedouin tent on a hill. Wild dogs were barking ferociously in relatively close proximity to the tent and the night was bitter cold,” she narrates.
“We were greeted by a husband and wife, who had bought a tent off some people in town by selling the gas heater provided by the UN. The family had several children, seven or eight I think, and all of them were huddled together sleeping on the cold, hard ground with nothing but newspapers to keep them warm,” recalls Palmer.
“This family was living alone, out in the desert in the middle of nowhere, because they were afraid they’d get deported back to Syria if they moved into town. The organisation members who I was assisting hopped out of the car and handed the family sleeping mats, blankets, pillows, and a new heating unit.
“The mother burst into tears and told us that the nights would get so cold in the desert that she thought her children would die. It hit me right then that there were hundreds, even thousands of refugees who were falling through the cracks and not receiving humanitarian assistance because they weren’t registered in the camps,” says Palmer.
But is international relief arriving?
“I was hearing from the official UN side that they are doing a great job. The media followed suit and told us that indeed the UN is helping a lot. But I did not see any of that,” asserts Ty. “For me, it seemed that UN organs are just working as a business to collect donations that never arrive.”
For Palmer, hope comes with the Jordanian people, who have stepped up to help out with the crisis.
“It’s hard because there are so many inhabitants in the camps and it is difficult to provide quality services. The problem is that the UN and NGOs are limited in their capacity to provide services because they are dependent on donor funding. There is massive donor fatigue right now — countries are tired of giving money to victims of a conflict to which they cannot see a foreseeable end — and so services for Syrians are limited,” she says.
“Many Jordanians I knew volunteered on weekends to help the Syrians — some ran art workshops to help children deal with trauma through art, others held fundraisers to raise money for relief, and even more worked on the border to help those flooding across Jordanian-Syrian lines,” describes Palmer.
“The people working in Zaatari are some of the most amazing, hard-working, and resilient people I’ve met. Yes, there are some people who express xenophobia, but there are so many more who have reached out to help those in need,” she says.
Indeed, it is in the stories of the refugees that we can piece together their trials and tribulations. As Palmer describes, the security situation in Jordan is very serious, much more than people realise, since there is a battle by proxy happening in the same camps where Syrians have sought refuge.
“There are spies from the militant groups and the Syrian government in Jordan, while there are also rumours that there are spies in the camps as well. Both sides are quick to accuse civilians of collaborating with the other side and have brutally attacked civilians both in Syria and abroad,” says Palmer.
“A couple people who were living in Zaatari had been featured in photographs taken in the camps. They went back to Syria and immediately disappeared. Internal reports from Syria have not been good and it is widely believed that those persons are now dead. Even here in Washington, DC, members of the Syrian Diaspora have requested that their faces not be shown in interviews when they discuss the conflict in Syria,” she says.
“Another woman that I met had in fact fled Homs after conditions deteriorated so horrifically that she was certain all her children would die if they remained there. This woman’s neighbour, after her son was tortured and murdered, burned the rest of her children on a portable gas heating unit — the kind used to heat a room in winter — because she decided they were better off dead than in the hands of Assad or the opposition forces,” Palmer narrates.
Are we any closer to a resolution of the humanitarian crisis?
“I think there will need to be some serious thinking about the future,” argues Palmer. “Humanitarian aid is intended to be temporary, as refugees are expected to eventually return home. I don’t think it’s clear what will happen in the future, particularly since so many Syrians will not be able to return home. It’s a huge challenge; what are these countries going to do about so many refugees who are unable to return home?”
“In the past, we have seen that the wars which took place elsewhere in the world and which the West was a part of, did not directly affect the West and Europe,” says Ty. “When the Soviet and then the American invasion took place in Afghanistan, Pakistan had to deal with the refugee crisis while the West remained alienated from the tragedy. But the current crisis has taught the West and Europe that they need to change, rethink and reshape their politics.”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 25th, 2015