ARSAL, Lebanon: Watfa Saifeddine didn’t sleep Wednesday night. Having fled her hometown of Al-Sahel in Syria earlier in the day under heavy bombardment, she sought refuge in a small tented settlement in what was previously a no man’s land on the outskirts of Arsal.
But despite quickly securing shelter for herself and her elderly parents in the overcrowded Lebanese border town, nightfall brought no repose.
“There are so many of us, and there is not enough space,” Saifeddine said of the single-room tent she shares with 16 people in the badlands surrounding Arsal.
“And I have only this,” she said, clutching desperately at her red velveteen frock.
The wider Arsal area, which previously had a population of 35,000, is now hosting a further 50,000 Syrian refugees.
But the influx isn’t slowing, in fact recently it’s sped up.
Saifeddine is one of more than 12,000 Syrian refugees who have arrived here since the beginning of February. Most hail from towns surrounding Yabroud, now the site of a major battle between Syrian government forces and various rebel factions.
The informal tented settlement where Saifeddine lives sits on largely barren, privately owned Lebanese land just beyond the Army checkpoint that separates Arsal from Syria. More than 1,000 refugees have settled here since the start of this month, according to UNHCR. Some are living in the vehicles they arrived in.
“This is the first stop for refugees when they cross the border,” said Mahmoud Ezzedine, who works with local nongovernmental organization Shebab al-Umma.
“A week ago, about 240 families came [to the area] in three days,” he added. “In each tent we have two or three families living together.”
In Saifeddine’s camp alone, some 110 families are packed into 70 tents.
Once a way station on the route to Arsal, locals say increasing numbers of refugees are permanentlysettling in areas on the fringes of town.
“We don’t have enough land in Arsal to erect more tents, so we’ve had to do it beyond the checkpoint,” explained Ahmad Fliti, the town’s deputy mayor.
Some three to five families are now assigned to every tent, he said.
“Most of the refugees that have arrived are women and children, handicapped, elderly and the injured,” he added.
Because these burgeoning tented settlements are situated beyond the Army checkpoint, international organizations can only provide intermittent aid.
“There is no clean water, there is no clean toilet, we can’t change our clothes or bathe,” Saifeddine said as she tried to pacify her senile father, slumped shoeless on the floor of the shared tent.
The few NGOs that do work there are struggling to keep up.
“Every tent costs $700, including the cement [foundation], wooden planks, weatherproof material, heaters and fuel,” Ezzedine said. “We wanted to make another camp, but we couldn’tbecause we don’t have enough money.”
Sahar, a 23-year-old who worked as a seamstress in Syria, is struggling to adjust to her new living conditions. She arrived just last week in her uncle’s car with few supplies and only a single change of clothes.
“We were chased by warplanes until we reached the border,” she said from a cramped corner in a shared tent.
Like most families escaping Yabroud, Sahar has no money to look for more permanent housing. “We left everything,” she said.
For Ezzedine and local authorities, the situation is now unsustainable.
“Problems will arise if they [the refugee families] aren’t accommodated separately,” he said.