Legal limbo in Lebanon traps Syrian refugees in unsustainable reality | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 14.10.2015
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Legal limbo in Lebanon traps Syrian refugees in unsustainable reality

Syrian refugees watch as what they thought would be a temporary stay in Lebanon becomes a more permanent life. The worsening war at home and conditions in refugee camps have some eyeing Europe, reports Anna Lekas Miller.

At first glance, the refugee settlement in the Miniyeh District of northern Lebanon looks more like a greenhouse than a refugee camp. Plastic tarps are erected as tents against the idyllic backdrop of a lemon orchard. Once called temporary housing, it's becoming increasingly permanent accommodation for the official 1.3 million, and estimated 1.6 million, Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon.

Maher* is handsome and smartly dressed in a button-down shirt and wing-tipped shoes. In Aleppo, he used to work in agriculture, tending to greenhouses throughout the region's rich countryside. Now, he has a few seedlings growing from potted plants outside of his tent - a plastic tarp erected in agricultural land 20 minutes outside of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli - a tent deemed "uninhabitable" by the Lebanese government.

Tents in Miniyeh

The tent settlement in Miniyeh is, officially, uninhabitable

"There are many problems in the camp," he told DW, sitting cross-legged on one of the mattresses neatly placed on the floor. Although his tent is the barest of accommodations, he has carefully divided it into two rooms - a kitchen, with stacked dry goods and a small gas stove, and a bedroom that doubles as a living room, with mattresses on the ground and even a television and a small exercise bike in the corner. It is tidied to perfection and decorated with an eye to detail.

"But our specific problem is that we cannot go out," he said.

From temporary stay to permanent existence

Like many Syrians, Maher left Aleppo two and a half years ago - expecting to wait out the war with his wife, and then two daughters for a few months before stability returned to the country. But as a few months became one year, and one year became two, temporary life in the plastic tent erected on "uninhabitable" land became more permanent.

Syrian refugees at a camp in the Bekaa Valley

Millions of Syrians have sought safety in Lebanon

Legally, this became more challenging - and less sustainable. After the Lebanese government imposed a set of fees and requirements for Syrians to renew their visas, and legally stay in Lebanon, many, like Maher, have been logistically forced to become undocumented, restricting his ability to move freely and access basic services.

"This is affecting every aspect of people's lives," explained Layal Abou Daher of the Norwegian Refugee Council. "If you cannot move freely, how are you expected to have a job? If you are the victim of a crime, how are you able to go to the police?"

Maher used to leave the camp, periodically risking arrest to look for work. But after he was once apprehended at a checkpoint, spent one month in jail and several thousand dollars on a lawyer to be released, he resigned himself to staying within the confines of the camp for the sake of his family.

Working women and children

Although his father works in the vegetable market in the Tripoli city center, the low wages are hardly enough to support his extended family. According to Abou Daher, similar situations have caused many families to send their children to work and provide for the family, as an alternative source of income without risking the father's arrest.

"There is a perception that women and children are less likely to be arrested," Abou Daher said. "So instead of being sent to school, the children are sent to work, since the head of the household cannot work on account of not being legal."

Hoping he can provide a better life for his own children, Maher is planning to travel to Europe in the coming weeks, borrowing money to pay smugglers to bring his wife, three daughters and himself by boat from Lebanon to Turkey to Greece. Although most Syrian refugees arrive to Turkey legally by either ferry or airplane, Maher's lack of residency status in Lebanon means he cannot enter Turkey legally, forcing him to take not one, but two smuggler-operated dinghies across the sea.

"Here they have no education opportunities," Maher said, while his children played in a neighboring tent. "They do not even know how to write their names."

Waiting for winter, hoping for Europe

Since he is waiting on money - and family members reports of the journey, and the situation in Germany - he is not planning to travel until the winter months, when the weather will be cold and the now infamous sea route will be exponentially more dangerous. His seven-month-old daughter, Rana doesn't even fit into a life jacket.

But staying in the camp during the winter carries risks of its own. Although this particular day is a perfect October day, with many sitting outside their tents enjoying the sunshine filtering through the leaves of the nearby lemon and pomegranate trees, the camp is vulnerable to inclement weather. Illegal - and sporadic, at best - electricity means summers without fans and winters without heat. A light drizzle means that the ground turns to mud; a heavy rain means flooded tents, hypothermia and other diseases.

For most refugees, life in the camp will continue to be a reality; even though hundreds of thousands of refugees have migrated to Europe, this is only 0.2 percent of the total number of Syrian refugees.

Maher shrugs his shoulders when asked about whether he is afraid to leave.

"Even if we die on the way, we're going to die here anyways," he said.

*Because of his and his family's residency status in Lebanon and plans to migrate to Europe, Maher requested his real name not be used in this article.

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