Lebanon worries that housing will make Syrian refugees stay

December 11, 2014
Originally published in: NYTimes
Written by Norimitsu Onishi

With formal refugee camps not allowed in Lebanon, organizations like Concern need to find other shelter options for Syrian refugees.

WADI KHALED, Lebanon — The modest shelter housing some Syrian refugees here, a few hundred yards south of the border with Syria, hardly looks objectionable. Made of plywood walls on a concrete foundation of some 250 square feet, with one door, two windows and a corrugated zinc roof, the squat structure is called a “box shelter.”

But Lebanon has banned box shelters, regarding them as a threat to this already fragile nation. In the eyes of the Lebanese, the box shelters, made by the Danish Refugee Council, look too permanent and could encourage the Syrians to stay.

“The fear of permanence is very embedded in the Lebanese political psyche,” said Makram Malaeb, a manager in the Syrian refugee crisis unit at the Ministry of Social Affairs. “We had Palestinian refugees who were supposed to stay here for a month in 1948, and now they are a population of 500,000. And we went through a 15-year civil war where the Palestinians were a large player.”

Of the many factors complicating the world’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis, none are perhaps more peculiar to the Middle East than Lebanon’s deep-seated fear of permanence. The Lebanese have so far rejected the establishment of any refugee camp, citing their long, troubled history with Palestinian camps on their soil. Acutely aware of the history of refugee housing — flimsy tents that metamorphosed over decades into concrete multistory dwellings — the Lebanese view even the most modest of new shelters for Syrians with suspicion.

Designs by other aid groups have also been rejected, including one by Ikea, the Swedish retailer of assemble-it-yourself furniture. Theirs may have been tweaked with soft walls, less sturdy flooring and frames capable of quick dismantling, but they still gave off the whiff of permanence.

“Does the government want us to sleep in tents?” asked Ahmed al-Hussein, 18, a refugee who now lives in a box shelter.

As the Syrian neighbor most vulnerable to being drawn into the war there, Lebanon has adopted a seemingly contradictory attitude toward the influx of Syrians. It has been the most welcoming, accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees, who along with the many Syrians already living in Lebanon now make up a quarter of the country’s population. And yet, fearing that they will stay and disrupt the country’s delicate balance among Sunnis, Shiites and Christians, Lebanon has tried to minimize their presence.

The refugees, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, are now believed to rival Lebanese Christians in numbers, and to have helped make Sunnis the nation’s dominant religious group.

Those fears have forced the refugees to try to squeeze into pre-existing buildings and blend into the landscape. Those with means rent apartments. But hundreds of thousands are living in garages and occupying the nooks and crannies of buildings under construction. Abandoned buildings, including universities and shopping malls, have been taken over in their entirety by refugees.

With the arrival of winter, the politics of shelters has left legions of Syrians particularly vulnerable, though relief organizations have been scrambling to deliver blankets, heating fuel and other items. A severe winter storm was expected to sweep across northern and central Lebanon by midweek, bringing heavy snow and fierce winds to areas with the poorest refugees.

The Danish Refugee Council began building the box shelters more than a year ago. Mindful of Lebanon’s sensitivities, it struck deals with homeowners who accepted the construction of the shelters as an addition to their property; the shelters would belong to the homeowners after the refugees left.

But as the number of refugees swelled this year, so did the shelters, eventually totaling 160. The number was small, given the total number of refugees, but it was enough to unsettle the government.

“They were concerned that we were building more and more of the box shelters,” said Imad Aoun, a spokesman for the council. “So we stopped a couple of months ago.”

The government ordered the aid groups to stop building new shelters, though existing ones were grandfathered.

Faisa Abdullah, a Lebanese homeowner who had two box shelters planted in her back yard, said the decision should be left to individual landlords.

“Where will the Syrians go?” she said. Expressing the widespread pessimism over a resolution to the war in the near future, she added, “Will they be able to go back to Syria before the next 10 years?”

The government, Mr. Malaeb of the Social Affairs Ministry said, was worried that besides creating the impression of permanence, the box shelters might have a negative impact on the poor areas where the refugees are concentrated.

“This will create resentment among poor Lebanese who see the Syrians getting these semi-bungalows installed,” he said.

With the box shelters running into trouble, others came forward with more temporary-looking options.

The Norwegian Refugee Council designed a softcover shelter held together by metal frames over a concrete foundation. If the base proved objectionable, the shelter could be erected over one made of plastic and gravel.

The government nixed it either way.

“Our understanding is that they didn’t wish any perception of permanence,” said Roger Dean, the organization’s shelter program manager. “We were never quite sure what the sticking point was, whether it was the fact that it had a rigid metal frame or the fact that it was usually to be cemented into the ground.”

The United Nations refugee agency asked the government if it could test a modular shelter designed by Ikea that was lightweight and could be assembled in four hours. Even more important, it had a life span of five years.

“The refugees could erect them and put them down and take them home,” said Ninette Kelley, the refugee agency’s representative in Lebanon. “Even that wasn’t acceptable because it had the appearance of permanence. It’s almost a visceral reaction to anything that could suggest the ongoing nature of the presence of refugees in Lebanon.”

Some aid groups are navigating the politics of shelters by focusing on buildings that are already part of the landscape.

The Norwegian Refugee Council found that Lebanon was dotted with countless half-finished buildings — a legacy of the rebuilding that followed its long civil war but was interrupted by an economic slump in recent years. It has added doors, windows, basic kitchens and bathrooms to 7,000 such buildings, investing about $1,500 per refugee family, Mr. Dean said. In return, the landlords allow refugees to live rent-free in the buildings for one year.

In one upgraded house near the southern city of Tyr, the owner, Ahmed al-Nasrallah, said he had yet to decide whether to allow the refugees to stay beyond the one-year contract.

“If the Norwegians fix my house more, I might consider it,” he said.

In the northern province of Akkar, Concern Worldwide, an Irish organization whose shelter prototype also failed to receive Lebanon’s endorsement, has been transforming large chicken coops into multifamily dwellings. Concern upgrades the coops and pays the owners $500 a month over a three-year contract.

“Chicken farms-to-homes might sound bad,” said John Kilkenny, Concern’s country director, standing on the roof of a building that was being turned into a residence for 24 Syrian families. “But it’s simply a reflection of where we are with the government.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 11, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Lebanon Worries That Housing Will Make Syrian Refugees Stay. 

Find the original article here