It started with a trickle, a few thousand families moving across a badly demarcated border. In the summer of 2011, there were 5,000 refugees in Lebanon. Most had moved in with family members, some were staying in mosques or abandoned schools. That their stay would be temporary was unquestionable at the time. But it was not to be.
At al-Ibna school in Wadi Khaled, where 85 people were living, the sign outside had the word “refugees” scribbled out with a key and replaced with “visitors”.
Now Lebanon is hosting over a million refugees. By the end of the year, the UN expects the number to hit 1.6 million. That means Lebanon’s population of four million will have swelled by almost 40 per cent. Three years after the start of the conflict, there are more than nine million people; almost half of Syria’s population, on the move. More than 2.5 million Syrians have streamed across Syria’s borders into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. The UN predicts that if the conflict continues, Syrians will become the largest refugee population in the world.
A map of Lebanon that uses red dots to indicate where Syrian refugees have settled down is a sea of red. And Lebanon’s infrastructure was already straining to supply water and electricity before the tidal wave of refugees hit. Official camps are still banned; the myriad of tents along the roads are referred to as informal tented settlements. The refugees often live in cramped conditions, with up to a dozen people sharing a single room or tent. Medical concerns are rife. The first suspected case of polio among refugees in Lebanon was detected this week.
Many new arrivals have been displaced multiple times within Syria before deciding to leave. “We were displaced four times before we came here,” says Abu Uday, a soldier who defected and moved his family to Lebanon last month. Every time they would move, the bombing would follow them. The family of five now live in a brightly coloured container, part of a new informal settlement in the no-man’s-land between Syria and Lebanon, outside of Arsal. That border town has tripled in size because of the refugees and is full. “I don’t know who is right anymore, the regime or the rebels,” his wife says .
Throughout the region, Syrians are streaming across the border. In Jordan, Zaatari camp with its 100,000 inhabitants is the second-largest refugee camp in the world and the kingdom’s de facto fourth-biggest city. “It’s a temporary city,” says its “mayor”, UNHCR’s Kilian Kleinschmidt, of the sprawling construction in the desert. But how temporary, nobody knows. The camp started out as just tents; now longer-term residents live in containers and people have even built gardens with fountains. The main shopping street is called the Champs-Élysées ; there are over 2,500 shops in the camp, including cafés, wedding-dress rental shops and even a nightclub.
Although Jordan has curtailed its borders, more refugees keep coming. Azraq camp, which will able to accommodate 130,000 people, will open on 30 April. The site, situated in the middle of the desert 60 miles east of Amman, has newly paved roads, a police station, two schools and a hospital and families will live in containers. The UN has called the opening “timely” as 600 Syrians are entering Jordan daily. The country is already hosting almost 585,000 refugees; 80 per cent live outside of the camps, mostly in urban areas throughout the country. In Iraq, which is experiencing its own uptick in violence, there are 225,000 Syrian refugees. Turkey, where the government has taken sole responsibility for the camps, has more than 630,000.
Most refugees settle in an urban environment. The work that is available to them is mostly of the manual, badly paid kind. Professionals often find themselves barred from practising their profession. For example, the medical syndicate in Lebanon has closed ranks and charges an admission fee of over £200,000 to Syrians.
As the conflict continues and their savings run out, a growing number of refugees are forced to rely on aid for their survival.
But the regional Syria appeal, which at over £2.5bn is the largest in UN history, has only been funded 14 per cent for 2014. UNHCR has had to cut off a third of its beneficiaries in Lebanon over the past year, at least in part due to funding constraints.
Yet over the past three years, refugees from across the country have been united in one thing. Their dream is to return to Syria, no matter how little remains of the life they used to lead there.