The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) most recently (UNHCR 2015a) estimated that the number of Syrian refugees has surpassed four million since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Most have fled to neighbouring countries Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, with over 500,000 (BBC 2015) then undertaking a precarious and dangerous journey to Europe.
Sharing a 375 kilometre border with, and historically close ties to Syria, Lebanon has hosted the highest number of Syrian refugees relative to its own population of four million people. According to MercyCorps, one in five people in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee (MercyCorps 2015), with Lebanon taking in 38% of all Syrian Refugees in the region. It is worth noting, however, that these statistics represent the number of refugees registered in their host countries. It is estimated that by the end of 2015, Syrian refugees will comprise over a third of the Lebanese population (Reuters 2014).
A Precarious Position
The UNHCR (2014: 37) considers all Syrians in Lebanon to be urban refugees due to the absence of refugee camps in the country. This paints an overly simplistic picture of the refugee housing situation in the country, however.
The Bekaa Valley
Indeed, while there are no official refugee camps run by the UNHCR in Lebanon, it must be noted that most refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley do live in small makeshift or unofficial camps, as suggested by first-hand field research conducted in the country. Some of these camps, often housing no more than 40 families, are ‘built’ on the agricultural land assets of local mosques in the Bekaa Valley. Local religious institutions and mosques, especially in border regions between Lebanon and Syria, have played a key role in housing refugees. This can be partly explained by the close relations between Lebanese and Syrian agricultural communities prior to the eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
Some Lebanese agricultural families in the Bekaa Valley have, for their part,been ‘renting’ agricultural lands to Syrian refugee families for $200 - $300 (£130 - £200) per tent per month, or in exchange for agricultural labour. This phenomenon has itself resulted in the formation of smaller and still more precarious camp settings for Syrian refugee families.
Due to the already high population density in and around Lebanon’s capital city Beirut - around 6,200 inhabitants per km2 in 2001 (Faour and Mhawej 2014) - the lack of space imposes an ever more precarious housing situation for the 317,000 registered Syrian refugees in Beirut (UNHCR 2015b).
The geographic sectarian division of Beirut plays a role in where Syrians take refuge, according to preliminary field research. Syrian Armenians from Aleppo, for example, mostly take refuge in Beirut’s Armenian quarter of Bourj Hammoud.
Lebanon’s de-facto involvement in the Syrian conflict, directly through Hizbullah’s military involvement and indirectly through the prevalence of cross-border family and clan networks, places a further premium on settlement space for non-minority Syrian refugees. These are primarily determined by the loyalties of both refugee families and host communities in Beirut.
Finally, the centralization of the Lebanese economy in and around Beirut, and the resulting subsistence and job opportunities around the city, further pushes Syrian refugee communities into precarious housing arrangements such as homelessness, the cramming of families in small rooms and in cars and vans (Batoota Films 2014).
Batoota Films. 2014. Abdul Rahmad - the Van Man. Days Away From Home. Beirut, Lebanon.
Available at: http://www.daysawayfromhome.com/photos.php?id=34&lang=en
BBC. 2015. Migrant Crisis: Migration To Europe Explained In Graphics. Web. Accessed: 4 Oct. 2015.
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34131911
Faour, G. and Mhawej, M. 2014. Mapping Urban Transitions in the Greater Beirut Area Using Different Space Platforms. Land 2014: 3 pp. 941 - 956.
MercyCorps. 2015. Quick Facts: What You Need to Know About the Syria Crisis. Web. Accessed: 04 Oct. 2015.
Reuters. 2014. Syria Refugees Set to Exceed a Third of Lebanon’s Population. Web. Accessed: 04 Oct. 2015.
20015a. Total Number Of Syrian Refugees Exceeds Four Million For First Time. Web. Accessed: 4 Oct. 2015.
Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/559d67d46.html
2015b. Syria Regional Refugee Reponse. Web. Accessed 04 Oct. 2015.
2014. 2014 Syria Regional Response Plan - Strategic Overview - Midyear Update. 2014. Web. Accessed: 4 Oct. 2015.