Syrian refugees and Lebanese hosts suffering because of ‘illegal’ living

4 May 2018

Syrian refugees prevented legal residency by complex bureaucracy and prohibitive costs are struggling in poor, makeshift housing not officially recognised by the Lebanese authorities. This ‘illegal’ living is taking its toll on both Syrian refugees and the local Lebanese communities living alongside them, finds new research led by the Institute of Development Studies, ACTED Lebanon and IMPACT Initiatives.

As part of the research a local group of Syrian and Lebanese women living in inner-city Beirut, who had joined forces to help one another, produced a short film ‘All humans under one sky’ revealing their day to day realities and what they believe needs to change. Through a systematic literature review and face-to-face interviews, the study analysed how the ways in which refugees are hosted in cities of Lebanon and Jordan affects the wellbeing of refugee and host communities and found frustrations on both sides.

The Syrian civil war has led to over 5 million (UNHCR, 2018a) Syrians fleeing the country and with over one million Syrian refugees fleeing to Lebanon, Lebanon now hosts the highest concentration of refugees per head in the world.

Manaal, a Syrian refugee living in Beirut, who features in the short-film, says: “I arrived [in Lebanon] when the war started. I have been here for six years. There’s a problem especially after immigration with sponsorship [was introduced].  ...we don’t have a Lebanese sponsor and can’t afford $600 for the papers.

“If I want to go to Syria I can’t – it’s impossible to go back. I dream, think and work hard to leave this country because I can’t afford to live in this high cost of living country and the life circumstances I’m suffering from.”

With a ‘no refugee camp’ policy adopted by the Lebanese government, many refugees end up living in overcrowded and poorly resourced inner-city and urban fringe areas. These informal urban settlements have absorbed more and more people over time and are characterised by sprawling concrete structures, connected by makeshift electricity cables crisscrossing between narrow streets. High rents and forced evictions are common. As these settlements are deemed illegal by Lebanese authorities, essential utilities such electric are not provided. Instead, residents find ways to set these up without permission, though often in a hazardous and unreliable manner. 

The situation is having many negative impacts on relationships and wellbeing.

Hayat, a Lebanese community leader: “The war in Syria has changed a great deal here, the high rate [of refugees] has created a burden on the area. But this is not their fault and it is also not the Lebanese fault.  

“Over-population, more waste, more expensive rents, water is scarce, pressure, density. People are suffocating [under] the pressure.

“The Syrian women are showing that they are also benefiting the area. They are working just like the Lebanese to serve the area and this is an achievement that I’m proud of.”

Overcrowded housing limits privacy, dignity and affects people’s peace of mind, while the lack of safety outside, and the risk of arrest by security forces and the police due to one’s irregular legal status immobilises and keeps women and girls in particular confined to their homes, with many living in extreme social isolation.

Women and children also face some distinct challenges from difficulties obtaining legal status and evening curfews.  Without legal papers refugees are unable to register marriages and births - a situation that risks leaving thousands of children to grow up stateless and with an uncertain future.

Dr Dolf te Lintelo, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and lead researcher on the project, said: “Most people assume refugees are living in camps, but not in Lebanon. More aid and investment should be urgently directed towards improving the informal urban settlements where mixed communities (Syrian refugees, Palestinians and Lebanese communities) are trying their best under tremendously strained circumstances. As displacement is highly likely to endure, a move from humanitarian to developmental interventions is needed. Vitally needed is improvements to basic services so that everyone has access to water, sanitation, waste collection and electricity. These are likely to benefit both poor Lebanese as well as displaced groups.”

The research study recommends that more priority should be given by NGOs or humanitarian workers to help refugees navigate the often changing and complex ways to obtain legal documentation.  It also highlights that informal urban settlements include Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees and Lebanese people living in poverty all have needs for support and that this should be given more equitably, dependent on their need, rather than their nationality.  

It also recommends smaller actions that could be taken to help foster improved relations between different communities living together, such as improving or creating shared local spaces such as parks or play areas.  

All media enquiries should contact media@ids.ac.uk or call IDS communications on +44 (0)1273 915649 or +44 (0)7701 286 978.

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Notes to editors