Middle East
2:47 pm
Thu April 10, 2014

As Refugees Stream In, Lebanon Copes With Human Flood Tide

Originally published on Thu April 10, 2014 6:12 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The United Nations has now registered more than a million refugees who have fled the war in Syria and gone to Lebanon. There are many more who have gone to other countries, but this massive flow of people creates a perilous situation for Syria's tiny next door neighbor. Lebanon's own security is always fragile and its resources, like water, are in short supply.

NPR's Alice Fordham finds that some Lebanese are fearful, even resentful, of what this human flood tide means for their country

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Lebanon's central Bekaa Valley in early spring is a lush green expanse of farmland, overlooked by mountains still sprinkled with snow. But passing through these days, it's punctuated every few hundred yards by shabby, disorganized, tented camps.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

FORDHAM: There are probably half a million refugees now living in the valley in clusters of ramshackle tents, where potato sacks shield latrines and chickens peck around piles of firewood.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

FORDHAM: In one tent, decorated with tinsel and streamers, the charity Save the Children runs a kindergarten. A 10-year-old girl, whose name they ask us not to use, says she misses Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

FORDHAM: Before the war, I wasn't afraid, she says. But after the war, I was a bit frightened because there was a sniper in the building just next to us.

Most refugees you talk to really didn't want to end up here. Lebanon is a place of last resort because resources here are already so strained. Refugees consume scarce food, water, electricity. And many of Lebanon's four million residents have had enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

FORDHAM: In the local town of Bar Elias, I catch the vice president of the municipality as he's leaving work, who tells me a little bit about the effect that this influx of refugees has had on the community.

MOHAMMAD SAROUD: You know, they had an effect on everything - from the water, the sewage system, to the roads, to the parks, to the cleaning - everything. Everything, you could name it, they have an impact on our community.

FORDHAM: The official, Mohammad Saroud, calls his area the capital of refugees. His town of 45,000 has been joined by 70,000 more fleeing from Syria.

SAROUD: We are dealing with a situation as a disaster. It's not that somebody come to you for a visit for a week or two. We have visitors for two, three years now. So, you know, it's a big problem.

FORDHAM: The sensitive issue of refugees goes back decades. Palestinians poured in after the creation of Israel. Not only are they still here but many Lebanese blame Palestinians for sparking the bloody civil war which began in the 1970s. The war ended 25 years ago, but Lebanon's peace is brittle and its sectarian tension is deep.

And then, there's the economic impact. Syrians aren't allowed to hold white-collar jobs, but many work as laborers, fruit pickers, waiters. It's driven wages down and unemployment up. Those refugees with the means to live in apartments have inflated rents.

In a vegetable store in Beirut, one man says 10 or 15 Syrian beggars follow him down the street. The store owner chimes in.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through Translator) They should leave. There really are big Arab countries where there's work and oil. We don't have everything. Instead of sending money here they should take them there.

FORDHAM: But for the moment, few of the refugees are leaving. So what does the future hold for Lebanon? Rami Khoury is a public policy expert at the American University.

RAMI KHALED FAHMY: Well, I think if the flow of refugees continues like it is, the Lebanese government is going to have to respond in a more formal way, probably with international support to create some camps along the border or maybe even have an agreement with the Syrians to have these camps inside Syria.

FORDHAM: But most Syrians are terrified to go back. For now, the refugees, and all the problems they present for Lebanon, are here to stay.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.