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State of Collapse Photograph by Samya Kullab.

State of Collapse

Syrian refugees are straining Lebanon's overburdened infrastructure. Without increased international aid, the country faces more than a humanitarian crisis.

UMM YUSUF described the feet of the man whose name she could not recall. He had walked unshod from Syria into Lebanon and stopped at her house near the crossing to inquire about aid.

She offered him coffee and they spoke briefly about their embattled villages, their abandoned homes and their missing relatives. Then she noticed his feet, swollen to three times the normal size. He’d been incarcerated by the regime, he explained, and subject to daily lashes. She asked if she could take a picture of the contusion with her smartphone. He acquiesced, and then vanished into the nameless throng of arrivals.

Yusuf had fled the war over a year ago and managed to find shelter near the Masnaa border, serendipitously placed, or so it seemed, to direct the newly arrived Syrians to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) registration center. Everyone stops by her house, she boasts, and asks: Where should we go?

EFFORTS TO ANSWER THIS fateful question are at an impasse as the politically divided Lebanese caretaker government struggles to form a viable cabinet. Without a comprehensive strategy to manage them refugees go anywhere and everywhere shelter can be found. From substandard buildings to garages, to rooftops, to tented settlements in the country’s agricultural tracts, they are there, all 800,000 and counting.

Their presence is ubiquitous—equivalent to about 20 percent of the Lebanese population—and the problem is no longer humanitarian in scope. Its resolution has implications not only for the Syrians but also for their sometimes equally penurious Lebanese hosts. Three years into the intractable Syrian crisis, relief efforts primarily targeting stress-driven essentials have proven to be insufficient and Lebanon has so far met the need for a complementary development approach with austerity. 

A surge in demand for public services paired with foundering government revenues and delivery systems has come to define the refugee crisis here. In the same way physical stress can bring to light a single individual’s internal barriers, so do the Syrian refugees reveal the feebleness of Lebanon’s underlying infrastructure. The key to coping with the enormous refugee presence lies in decentralization measures to strengthen municipal capabilities. But Lebanon needs to form a government before it can re-allocate these administrative powers.

In the meantime, the crisis is reflected in the periodic flurry of statements issued by key ministers and politicians hyperbolically promising “chaos” and “instability” should the “refugee crisis from hell” that “continues to threaten the Lebanese entity” and “push the nation at the edge of the abyss” not be addressed by international donors.

Envoys, for their part, follow the dictates of ambassadorial tact with a common refrain commending the hospitality and generosity displayed by the Lebanese toward their neighbours, with the exception of perhaps E.U. Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst, who was quoted as saying the Syrian displacement was the worst since World War II.

THE AUTHORITATIVE pronouncements resonated with Nazem Saleh, the mayor of the West Bekaa municipality of El-Marj. One hot summer day, he observed the dark effluence rippling downstream toward the agricultural area’s main water basin. The West Bekaa is home to 40,000 refugees.

“It’s not a river,” Saleh lamented, “It’s a sewage pit.”

It’s the fetid details of the refugee crisis that are often underreported. Municipalities are responsible for waste collection and treatment, but suffer from a shortage of public funding and technical expertise. Solid waste has nearly doubled in certain areas, polluting ground water and spreading water-borne diseases.

Meanwhile, long waiting lines have become a new feature of Lebanon’s primary care facilities, as the demand for health services markedly increased last year. In December 2012, 40 percent of primary care visits were made by Syrian refugees.

The strain of accommodating so many refugees with so few resources elicited an rueful laugh from Saadeddeen Ibrahim Maita, the mayor of Bar Elias, in central Bekaa. Barely fifteen days in office when I met him, he summarized tersely: “We are on the brink of collapse.”

“IF YOU ARE SYRIAN, PLEASE RISE,” the headmaster said, prompting thirty tiny bodies to spring up from their seats. About twenty remained seated; small faces and jaded expressions slumped on the side of extended palms. The first grade class is one of two sections in the town of Taalabaya’s public elementary school. On a bad day (that is, when all the registered Syrian students show up) there is often only one teacher per seventy students.

The principal of the school offered his brusque assessment: “The Education Ministry has no idea what it’s doing.”

The country's public schools typically serve 300,000 school children. According to the latest UNHCR figures, there are 270,000 Syrian refugees of school-going age in Lebanon. 30,000 are currently enrolled in public school and the U.N. is aiming to enroll at least 50,000 in second shift programs. The remainder will have to make do with informal education, if any at all.
Apart from capacity, Syrian students lucky enough to enroll may have to navigate a tri-lingual curriculum—Lebanese classes are often taught in French, English and Arabic. Many Syrian children only speak Arabic. One teacher reported that her Syrian pupils had stared blankly at the foreign letters on the chalkboard and burst into tears.

In a tented gathering outside of Deir Zannoun, off the main road in Bar Elias, one refugee parent had gone school to school trying to enroll his eight-year-old. The little boy sat on a straw mat in his makeshift home, smiling mischievously, as his father explained why no one would take him: “No space.”

Like seats in classrooms, job opportunities here are scarce. Labour market conditions were dire before the refugees arrived; endemic high unemployment has coexisted with the prevalence of unskilled jobs since the civil war. With the arrival of the refugees, labour supply has spiked, mostly in the informal sector. Job opportunities for unskilled workers here are already scarce. Given the preponderance of unskilled youth among the refugee population the unemployment rate is expected to double and reach 20 percent, pushing 170,000 Lebanese below the poverty line.
The question that lingered in the air that afternoon was what would become of that eight-year-old boy should the war persist and he mature into a young man.

“MUST WE LET THEM ALL ENTER?” thundered a high-level security official. On average, one hundred and fifty Syrians are now turned away at the borders every day. Recovering his composure, he continued, “I’d like to remind you, Ms. Kullab, that over the course of three years we’ve let one million Syrians enter Lebanon.”

Now, Syrians are turned away because they either did not have proper identification documents or those they carry were damaged beyond recognition. The entry requirement had been waived at the start of the Syrian crisis and its stringent reapplication in July was considered by some to be an attempt, however trifling, to curb the flood of arrivals.

In some ways, Lebanon’s refugee problem is a crisis of numbers. They touch on every aspect of quotidian life, and with the fierce rationality inherent to arithmetic, divulge the fissures cleaving away at the underpinnings of society, from its schools, hospitals, and river basins to, of course, people's livelihoods.

That is not to say that the numbers can explain away everything, for there are decisive and unquantifiable features of the crisis that relate to Lebanon’s historical experience. The turbulent narrative of the Palestinian exodus—that, in 1975, effectively tipped the delicate Lebanese confessional balance and triggered the fifteen-year civil war—is one element that informs how the Lebanese interpret the Syrian presence.

It was this history that prompted Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour to declare that the country’s policies are rooted in the fact that Lebanon is not an asylum country.

THE BURDEN of hosting Syrian refugees is not one Lebanon can muster alone, this is clear. The onus now falls on the international community to help shoulder it. Frankly, there is no other option.
Simply financing relief efforts won’t be enough either. The roots of Lebanon’s infrastructure woes, now amplified by the refugee presence, run too deep to be assuaged by a humanitarian response. They require a developmental approach that takes the Syrian presence into account, at least for the time being.

However, this requires that Lebanon confront the specters of its past. Some Lebanese still raise their eyebrows suspiciously when the subject of “social cohesion” with the Syrians is broached, as the Arabic translation of the concept signifies “oneness” without the broader connotation implied.
But, in reality, most Syrians hope the war will end so they can go home.

HAJAR WAS under the impression that I was a U.N. worker when she introduced herself outside a local charity in the city of Akkar. She said she was from Ghouta, the site of a deadly chemical attack on August 21. Her husband had disappeared shortly after the attack and she had fled with her five girls, leaving behind her only son, who was stricken with gangrene. When she returned a few weeks later to retrieve him, she found him lying in a hospital bed.

She paused the story here, measuring her words.

His lower body had been amputated, she said. He had lost his legs, she said. And she had lost her sole breadwinner.

“I don’t know what to do, the girls can’t work,” she said, “Do you know where I can go?"