BEIRUT: Lebanon needs to find housing for 300,000 Syrian refugees for three to five years, aid organizations warned Wednesday at a conference that sounded the alarm about the dire state of housing for refugees in the country.
Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour and officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Norwegian Embassy and Norwegian Refugee Council held the conference in Beirut that also saw the announcement of $10 million in refugee aid from Norway. The meeting drew attendance from much of the diplomatic and aid communities.
“Especially in east Lebanon shelter is thought to be one of the most pressing concerns. People arrive here whose lives are absolutely shattered and the first thing they are looking for is a warm place to go, so shelter is critical,” said UNHCR’s regional representative, Ninette Kelley.
But with over 200,000 refugees receiving aid from the U.N., a monthly influx of refugees now nears 40,000 people and over 60 percent of refugees living in expensive rented homes, finding a safe place for those fleeing the crisis has become increasingly difficult. Aid groups projected the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon could reach 300,000 before June and the country should be prepared for this group to stay for several years.
Wednesday’s meeting was also a platform for the government to express its dedication to working with the international aid community to help refugees despite Cabinet acrimony over the burden Syrians are placing on the country. Last month, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil urged the government to close the border with Syria, saying the country did not have the resources to support refugees.
Abu Faour said there was now a consensus in the government about helping refugees and Lebanon was prepared to take charge of aid efforts provided there was enough international help.
“It has been difficult to get consensus,” Abu Faour said about the Cabinet’s $180 million plan for aiding refugees. “Finally we were able to arrive at such a consensus.”
“Now we have a plan, we need only the money if we are to help,” he added.
Abu Faour said the government was hopeful their international aid appeal would be funded, particularly by Arab countries, and added that the government was working on drafting an emergency plan in case there was a mass exodus from Syria.
Fighting in Syria has dragged on for almost two years and affected most major cities, sending refugees fleeing over the border in numbers the aid community has been unable to plan for. “It is difficult to keep up,” Kelley said.
At the beginning of the crisis most refugees were staying with Lebanese host families, but in the past several months more refugees have been forced to stay in rented apartments, temporary tent shelters and group homes.
“Among those who rent, many of them are very vulnerable and it’s unclear whether or not they are going to be able to keep up their rental accommodations especially in light of rising rents,” Kelley said.
She said the rates landlords are charging for the few apartments still available have shot up, putting a rented home beyond the reach of many people who don’t have a regular income.
The organization is increasingly switching to cash aid programs so Syrian families can find shelter on their own, Kelley said.
Lebanon will need to look at alternative housing methods as it is likely 300,000 Syrian refugees could be in Lebanon for the next three to five years, said Mads Almaas from the Norwegian Refugee Council, an aid organization that works on housing issues for refugees.
Almass said standard tents were not available in Lebanon on a large scale, but said his organization had been working on a plan to use modified greenhouse tents for the new masses of refugees. The proposed tent could be manufactured in Lebanon, offer 25 square meters of floor space, be set up in three to four hours and cost $1,200. The tents could later be converted to greenhouses, Almass added.
The need for a solution to the housing problem is imperative, because despite high levels of hospitality from host communities, tensions between refugees and Lebanese are increasing.
“Friction between host and refugee communities is there; it’s on the rise,” said Almass.