Syrian refugee region welcome wears thin

Syrian refugees at a makeshift refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

Images of bedraggled Syrian migrants, many of them small children, trekking thousands of miles with little more than the clothes on their backs, have shocked many Europeans, but for Najwa, a refugee in Lebanon, their plight is enviable.

“I wish I was with them,” the mother of three said. “This is our one chance — it’s life or death. If I didn’t believe (my family) was leaving too, I would be thinking about killing myself.”

Najwa, who asked her full name not be used, is one of some 4m refugees who have fled from Syria to neighbouring countries, mainly Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. When the conflict started, refugees like her were happy to stay because it would be easy to return home when the war ended.

But five years on, the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad has descended into a multi-sided war with no end in sight. Humanitarian aid is drying up, making it even harder for refugees to stay in countries like Lebanon, where they face hunger, rising resentment from their hosts and a generation of children growing up without an education.

All of this makes Europe an increasingly attractive draw, even for those who have until now found a safe haven in the Middle East — although for the vast majority, who have sunk into poverty after five years of war, such a journey is impossible.

Najwa considers herself lucky: she is repaying a $5,000 loan from friends to smuggle her husband to Europe. Sent through Sudan, Libya, and then across the Mediterranean, he made the perilous journey with an old but painful abdominal injury from tank shrapnel that ripped through his body as bombs destroyed their home in a Damascus suburb.

Returning to Syria is no longer an option. “There is nothing for us to go back to,” Najwa says. “We want our daughters to have a real future. Syria has no future.”

As Britain and France discuss bringing in some 20,000 each over several years, tiny Lebanon has absorbed 1.2m registered Syrian refugees — the real number is likely to be much higher — comprising a quarter of its 4m population. It is now preventing new refugees from entering, aid groups say; Syrians already in the country must pay $200 a year to renew their residency, an impossible sum for most as refugees are banned from work.

Najwa, as the descendent of Palestinian refugees who settled in Syria, is not even eligible for residency and lives in constant fear of arrest and deportation. She limits her world to Shatila, the infamous Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut that was the scene of one of the most brutal massacres in Lebanon’s civil war. The camp, a muddy, concrete jungle of cramped alleyways shaded by clumps of electrical wires, is the legacy of another unresolved refugee crisis, when 400,000 Palestinians fled to here from neighbouring Israel after its foundation in 1948.

Even in Turkey, which has taken in about 2m Syrians and has been considered the most hospitable host, life is getting harder. Refugee camps are full and there are few options for work.

“Every day you’re full of worries, you wonder ‘how will I get through tomorrow?’ You’re only thinking about tomorrow — forget the rest of the week or month,” says Syrian activist Tareq Abdelhaq, who lives in the southwestern Turkish city of Antakya.

The UN says it has raised only $7.4bn of the $19.5bn it needs worldwide to cope with the largest displacement crisis since second world war.

For refugees like Najwa, this means the UN Palestinian agency UNRWA’s monthly $27 per person food stipend must now cover rent and school expenses too. She and her three daughters will rely on stockpiled eggs and ramen noodles to ensure a daily meal. She has already taken her eldest daughter out of school to ensure her two youngest can get basic education.

Agencies like UNRWA are pleading for more aid as a way to encourage those settled in the region to stay and not make dangerous journeys to Europe. But refugees already en route say the numbers following them have only grown since European countries began to announce new refugee quotas, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would not deport Syrians seeking asylum.

Many who have already reached Europe are rerouting for Germany. Omran Alnasser, a Syrian who fled jihadi militants in the eastern Deir Ezzor province, said he was initially aiming for Britain or the Netherlands. “I changed my mind when I saw how much kinder the German people were,” he said.

Some European countries are now trying to discourage refugees from embarking on their journeys — Denmark published advertisements in Lebanese papers announcing cuts to social benefits for refugees and saying family reunification would not be allowed for the first year.

Not all Syrians have given up on returning to their home country, but say that ending the war is the only way to halt the crisis. Opposition activists like Mr Abdelhaq, say the quickest method would be to end regime air strikes. But the west has shown little appetite to intervene against Mr Assad.

“I still believe most Syrians want to return home, to their land. But ask and they will all say the same thing: ‘I’m afraid of the planes,” Mr Abdelhaq said. “If the west really wants to solve its refugee crisis they have to stop the strikes.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don’t cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.


Related Stories

Leave a Reply