TRIPOLI, Lebanon: There are now so many Syrian refugees in Lebanon that they are running out of places to stay. Aid workers have warned for months that housing levels for refugees are quickly reaching a saturation point for the tens of thousands of refugees here, and it appears that the country has reached that point.
There is enough food to go around, but not enough buildings, says Lokman Khoder, the head of an Islamic charity that works in north Lebanon.
Some refugee families have been forced to live crowded together in unfinished homes. Many others have had to take shelter in temporary agriculture tents that dot farmland in the Bekaa Valley. Aid workers say even those accommodations are hard to come by.
And as the unrest in Syria continues against the regime, more than 13 months after it erupted, many refugee families are also wearing out their welcome with the Lebanese who have been hosting them.
Khoder, who is one of the leaders of an influential coalition of charities, spoke to The Daily Star on his way to meet a landlord in Akkar about renting a small apartment building.
The building will only house about 11 families, but with the dwindling numbers of homes available and rising numbers of refugees, Khoder says he needs this deal to go through. There just aren’t buildings left to rent.
Khoder and the Gulf-backed coalition he is part of say there are now 42,000 refugees in the country. Refugee numbers are growing by the hundreds on a weekly basis and NGO leaders say the number of available homes is dangerously small.
The care for those tens of thousands of displaced by the Syrian uprisings has increasingly been put in the hands of local NGOs and Gulf-backed Islamic coalitions operating in the country. The resources of the government’s Higher Relief Committee are limited and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is sometimes hampered by a lack of access.
The UNHCR is in the process of fixing nearly 100 homes and public buildings to convert them into livable housing, according to its latest report.
But Khoder says the efforts by official bodies to tackle the issue remain insufficient. “The [Lebanese] Higher Relief Committee is neither paying the cost of rent for families or paying the cost of finding buildings for the families,” he adds.
The scarcity of homes has increased demand and is driving up prices. Refugees and aid workers say they are forced to pay exorbitant rates, over $500 a month, for low-quality homes.
The housing situation for refugees is the worst it’s ever been, says Oday Missilmany, a field officer for the Norwegian Refugee Council in the Bekaa.
Missilmany adds that homes to rent are so scarce that he is lobbying the landlords of over 30 buildings still under construction to let his organization fix them up and use them as temporary housing. He is also working to convert abandoned buildings and mosques to house the refugees.
The situation is even worse because many refugees are wearing out their welcome with host families.
“Host families are starting to complain, because these Syrian families cost the Lebanese families money,” Missilmany says. “They are complaining and they will start asking the Syrian refugees to leave their homes.”
If forced out of their residences, it will further compound the problem. “This is the most difficult [it has been] and soon it will get worse,” he adds.
It’s not only a lack of buildings that is keeping families without a home. Ahmad Moussa, one of the leaders of the Syrian Local Coordinating Committees in Lebanon, says landlords are hesitant to rent out their apartments because of concerns over housing refugees. Many landlords worry about the ability of the displaced tenants to pay rent. Most problematic is the political baggage.
In a country where Syrian refugees have lingered for a year in an uncertain welcome, living under a government partially sympathetic to the Syrian regime, the political baggage of housing refugees is enormous.
“Many people are hesitant about [renting houses] to refugees because of the political tensions that could result from it,” Moussa says.
Political rhetoric in the country over the Syrian unrest and the refugees has ramped up recently, and displaced Syrians have been caught in the crossfire.
The political risk of dealing with refugees is prompting some landlords willing to rent their houses to charge more for their services. It’s also made host families less willing to let refugees continue to extend their stay.
“Due to the high demand on these buildings, the rent has increased tremendously,” Moussa says.