Space and the city: life for refugees and hosts in Lebanon and Jordan

Published on 3 May 2018

Dolf J.H. te Lintelo

Research Fellow and Cities Cluster Leader

Recent tragic events in Eastern Ghouta, Damascus have once more drawn the world’s attention to the seemingly endless atrocities committed on the Syrian population. Millions are displaced from their homes, staying elsewhere in the country. Furthermore, over 5 million Syrians have fled their country. Lebanon and Jordan host respectively 1 million and 0.65 million Syrians; a truly remarkable feat. A new report launched today investigates how their protracted displacement in urban areas affects the wellbeing of refugee and host groups.

An urban crisis

While, massive camps like Za’atari in Jordan offer potent images of the refugee crisis the large majority of Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon have found refuge in cities, small towns and their fringes. While some have to resort to the indignity of living in chicken coops, many are now living in urban informal settlements. Here they live side by side with poor Jordanians/Lebanese citizens, historic Palestinian refugees and other migrants, in a common quest for survival and rebuilding of lives.

These settlements are attractive because of relatively low housing costs, however, also typically have inadequate and unsafe buildings, water, and sanitation and electricity infrastructures, and are densely populated. For instance, in the historic, but now fully urbanised Baqa’a Palestinian ‘camp’ in Jordan, 115,000 people are estimated to live within an area of one square kilometer. Such densities are comparable the world’s most densely built up cities, such as Dhaka in Bangladesh.

The communities face a myriad of complex challenges, and overcrowding and substandard living conditions underpin and contribute to all of those. Cramped living conditions lead to poor psychological health, the occurrence of family conflict, domestic violence, and rebellious and badly behaved children. 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.

Moreover, as low-income housing is scarce, property rents have rapidly increased. This is now a key cause for worries and anxieties for both host and refugee communities, not least as forced evictions are reported to occur regularly: one in five Syrian households in Jordan reported having had to move more than three times since arriving.

Governing displacement: policies and laws

The Syrian refugee crisis has placed unprecedented pressure on the already inadequate urban basic infrastructures, essential services, on job markets and been taxing on social relations. Yet, so far, the strains are managed. It raises the questions: how do authorities seek to impose order, protect security and manage the refugee presence in urban areas, and what are the effects on the wellbeing of displaced people and host groups?

To answer this question, we need to look at the national policies and laws. In the absence of national refugee policies, Jordan and Lebanon have agreed memorandums of understanding with the UN High Commissioner of Refugees. These set out that the countries offer displaced people temporary protection, not asylum, or permanent refuge. Syrians hence are chiefly treated as ‘foreigners’, temporarily in the country, and not as a group in need of enduring protection. This has severely limited their access to work and imposed an obligation to regularly update their legal status in the country. In Lebanon in particular, these requirements and attendant costs have led to the impoverishment of most Syrians.

Municipalities in Lebanon and Jordan are at the forefront of managing the Syrian influx. Yet many of their activities are directed by central governments. In Jordan, municipalities are now exploring what powers they have gained under new decentralisation laws, within the context of an otherwise highly centralised polity. In Lebanon, municipal measures include night-time curfews for Syrians and forced closure of informal businesses run by and employing Syrians. Sporadic mayoral initiatives also seek to foster social cohesion – for instance, by organising joint football games comprising young hosts and refugees.

Host groups are torn between living up to cherished cultural values and norms, such as offering great hospitality, and their insecurities about making a living in tightening job markets; the threat of the Syrian conflict spilling over into their country; and having access to basic services. Conflicts occasionally break out, not only between hosts and Syrians, but also between groups within each community. It is clear that poor communities and individuals in these cities face very difficult choices in their efforts towards living well together. Somehow, hosts and Syrian refugees still make things work. Community groups can play an inspiring role, as shown by this video created in an inner-city area of Beirut.

Credit: Video, IDSLicence

Non-state actors filling a vacuum in the poorest urban areas

In Jordan and Lebanon, informal settlements are deemed illegal by municipal authorities and have suffered from limited investments and service provision. A range of non-state actors have filled the vacuum to devise highly localised governance arrangements. For instance in Sour (Tyre) or Greater Beirut, Palestinian unofficial ‘gatherings’; and official Palestinian camps are governed by the likes of Palestinian Committees and by the UN-Relief and Welfare Agency. Other informal settlements are governed by Hezbollah and Amal.

Similarly, peri-urban informal tented settlements on private land are idiosyncratically governed by their owners. Their territorial control is firm, but geographically limited. These non-state actors also devise distinct relations to city governments, utility companies, and other formal actors to shape who gets access to services such as water and electricity; who obtains building permits; and also to provide local security. While such urban informal institutions perform important functions for the inhabitants of areas under their control, their treatment of Syrian and minority host populations are not necessarily equitable.

One key consequence of all of this is that very different responses to refugees and patchworks of provisioning are emerging in and within these cities. These can and have created significant inequalities in wellbeing for both hosts and refugees, according to where and how they live. With this at the forefront of their mind, humanitarian agencies seeking to act on the ‘localisation agenda’ as set out by the World Humanitarian Summit 2016 must move beyond the current focus on municipal authorities, to take account of the role of local authorities in all their formal and informal shapes.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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