Fabian's Blog

Fabian IDC committee work - extended blog

Friday 4th April 2014 12:41 PM

Fabian visited the Middle East in March 2014 as part of his work with the International Developmen Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament. He and his colleagues are undertaking a tour of Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, particularly looking at the fall out from the civil war in Syria and the plight of the large numbers of refugees. This is an extended version of the blog first posted on the 24th March 2014

We arrived at the skeleton of an apartment block in Southern Lebanon to find that the building site was in fact occupied by hundreds of Syrian Refugees who have fled to neighbouring Lebanon to escape the horror of the civil war there.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) had taken us to the seemingly abandoned building site to show us how British Taxpayers' money, paid to them through DFiD (the UK Department for International Development) had been used in very practical ways to house vulnerable people who had escaped the war with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and whatever money they could summon as they left their homes in Syria.

The building was one of many for which the money needed to complete the block had run out. The owner of the unfinished apartments were happy for the NRC to pay for some very basic work in order to make them habitable - but only barely habitable. As we climbed the stairs to the first floor flat - there was no outer door to the building itself - my first thought was that if this had been in the UK we would have to wear high-vis jackets, hard hats and protective clothing, but this was Lebanon, a country on the brink of collapse itself under the weight of a humanitarian crisis which has seen its population increase by twenty percent in the past two years.
We were greeted at the door of the flat - at least it had a door - by an older woman, a younger woman, three small girls aged maybe three, five and seven and a teenage girl of perhaps thirteen or fourteen. The younger woman, their mother, was carrying a to month old baby boy. They welcomed us and through the interpreter told us that we didn't need to take off our shoes, though they were all barefoot on the bare concrete floors. We were shown into the crude kitchen which the NRC had ensured was equipped with a basic sink, cooker, shelves and cooking utensils, otherwise the walls were grey cement, the same colour as the floor.

What struck me first was the warm welcome then the lack of any furniture. The flat had three large rooms, one for each family, so there were about fifteen to twenty people in total living in accommodation designed for one family. The older woman asked us whether she could make us coffee, which for ten visitors crammed into her home would probably have used up a considerable amount of her ration for that week. We asked whether they would allow us to take photographs and they agreed, as long as the adults were not in any of the pictures. Syrian refugees are understandably very concerned that photos of them might get onto the internet and be recognised by the Syrian Government authorities so making their relatives who are still in the country the targets for attack. There is some evidence that these fears have been realised.

The NRC, to which DFiD contributes a third of their income in Lebanon, had ensured that the accommodation, crude as it is, has running water, electricity and sanitation. The landlord who receives some payment in rent for the building, ensures that the walls are plastered, there are usable doors and floors and the balconies, often the only source of fresh air for the children who are not allowed out, are safe and don't collapse. There is, naturally, some resentment from the host communities against the refugees, even though most Lebanese people regard Syrians as their relatives. It's no long-term solution but for now it will allow refugees to be safe and fed. The people we met looked healthy enough because basic supplies are also delivered regularly by the NRC workers, most of whom were not Norwegian themselves and one of whom is a British worker who studied Arabic at the University of Leeds.

Nobody knows what the long-term outlook for these families will be. Clearly, the only answer is some kind of peace deal in Syria which looks increasingly unlikely. We were told that many Syrians who hated Assad and his regime are now more fearful of the Jihadi fighters who have come from outside Syria to wage a Holy War and who have no interest in the Syrian victims of the conflict. Some of them said that even preferred Assad's regime, evil as it is, to what was happening now,

I spoke to a representative of the World Food Programme (WFP) at a meeting in Beirut who had driven from Damascus where he is based, He told me that the young Syrian Jihadi fighters whom he had met on the streets in some of the besieged towns like Homs were wondering how it had come to this. They had now gone too far to go back, and often joined the next group which offered them food and ammunition, but given a choice now would gladly go back to their studies or their pre-war jobs. The foreign fighters weren't so repentant, however, they wanted to achieve the Islamic Caliphate they had come to Syria to fight for and were not concerned about civilian casualties or property. They were not about to give up, either.

There are now more than six million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Syria according to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and three million more who have left the country and are now in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. This is a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale not seen since the Second World War and the Syrian victims of this appallingly brutal conflict must not be abandoned by the world community, although we were told that there is now some evidence of 'donor fatigue' setting in with income slowing down as the flow of refugees increases.

Za'atari Refugee Camp, North Jordan

Although I have visited a few refugee camps over the years, I have never seen one with so many satellite dishes attached to the tents and caravans which make up the Za'atari camp for Syrian refugees in the North of Jordan, near the border, which we visited last Saturday. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) set up Za'atari in just twelve days in 2012 as the refugee flow started to increase dramatically following battles in Da'ara in southern Syria. With thousands of families arriving every week, Jordan was inundated and so asked UNHCR to help. It, in turn, appealed to donors for money, supplies and help with constructing a temporary city the size of Cambridge, but on a piece of desert land just five percent of the area of land occupied by Cambridge. Add to that no roads or infrastructure, and desert dust which made it impossible to breath if there was any wind, and you can imagine the size of the task.

Tents set up for the arrival of new refugees

Most refugees are now housed in Portakabin-style homes which are dry, cool and safe and can take a family of five. At first, the UNHCR contractors arranged the cabins in neat rows but as the Syrians settled in they moved them around to form circles and squares based upon their village communities from which they had fled. Andrew Harper, the Head of UNHCR in Jordan told us that he was a little put out initially but soon realised that the Syrians' arrangements were far more sensible and made highly traumatised people feel more at home, especially after they had mostly fled with few possessions leaving everything they knew and owned behind.

Main street of camp

What I hadn't really appreciated was that Syria was one of the best educated countries in the Arab world with high literacy rates and many trained and skilled people. That meant a plethora of tradespeople arriving in the camp able to connect electricity, plumbing and even satellite dishes. It also means that in a temporary city of more than 100,000 population - now the fourth largest in Jordan - there are more than 2,500 small businesses being run by the refugees themselves. The World Food Programme has also built and stocked two large supermarkets so that Camp residents may now shop there with food vouchers handed out by the WFP. We were told that as from May, every refugee will be given a Mastercard with a set amount of credit on it for each family member and that this can be used at either of the supermarkets, shops in the nearby towns and some of the small shops and stalls which have sprung up around the camp.

Word Food Programme supermarket manager showing the Mastercard which will be issued to all camp residents as from May.

Camp supermarket meat counter.

Water is still a problem, though. Providing enough water for this small city in a country which is one of the most water-poor in the world (ranking fourth, I believe) is difficult, especially when so many local residents find it hard to access enough for their own use, never mind the refugees. The water for the camp is brought in by tanker every day, and at the moment, waste is removed by tanker too. The camp administrators hope that proper sanitation will be possible before too long, though they couldn't say when.

Za'atari Camp is a logistical miracle and - hopefully - a model for future refugee camps both in the region and throughout the world. We were told that the incidents of trouble, violence against camp administrators and officials has greatly reduced since the introduction of the supermarkets and the ending of food parcels. Vulnerable people need dignity and respect and the new way that UNHCR has evolved of running this camp is working. Much dignity has been restored by this system and whilst nobody in the camp is happy that they have to be there, it is far safer than the alternative which is being stuck in the middle of a war zone. Following the recent battles in Dara'a in Southern Syria, plans are being drawn up and implemented for the construction of a second large camp nearby as UNHCR told us they were expecting a further 120,000 refugees from the fighting.

Whilst at Za'atari, we saw the work being done by Handicap International with those who had been injured in the fighting or who had lost limbs from land mines and bombing of civilian areas. The infinite patience of the voluntary and paid workers was truly inspiring but the scale of injuries and mental anguish was very distressing, especially when you meet the children who have been affected. We also went to the Health Clinic at the camp and met with Doctors and health workers there as well as talking (through interpreters) to some of the patients. A few children were playing and drawing nearby so we had the chance to speak to them too.

One of the camp medical staff

Children drawing at the medical centre while Committee Member, Jeremy Lefroy MP (left) talks to one of the camp's doctors.

After having lunch at the camp, we left for the nearby Northern Jordanian town of Al Mafraq, where many Syrian refugees who had been able to get their savings before fleeing had settled in locally rented property. We visited one family who told us that there had been some profiteering from their distress and that the house they were renting was not quite big enough for the family, so in the garden was a UNHCR tent, like the ones given to newly arrived refugees, where some family members were having to sleep every night. But they said that at least they felt safe and had enough to eat and water to drink.

Copyright Fabian Hamilton 2104



Fabian at work with the International Development Committee

Monday 24th March 2014 4:32 PM

Fabian is visiting the Middle East as part of his work with the International Developmen Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament. He and his colleagues are undertaking a tour of Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, particularly looking at the fall out from the civil war in Syria and… Read more