In the space of a few months the once-empty four-storey complex has become one of more than 360 informal settlements of refugees surging into Lebanon, a country overwhelmed by a sudden influx from its larger neighbor’s civil war.
“We have become like a small state,” said Um Mohamed, who fled the Syrian city of Homs and became the first person to move into a vacant shop in the Tripoli mall, settling in the empty building with her three children in October.
Since then, it has become a bustling indoor town. Empty shops have been fitted with plywood facades and bedsheets for doors. Laundry hangs across the inner courtyard where men recline on foam cushions and dozens of children roam about. A young man cuts boys’ hair while veiled women on the second storey sell carrots, lemons and watermelons.
“People are finding it increasingly hard to find adequate shelter, and even the shelter that they’re finding and they’re renting is not adequate, so people are really becoming desperate,” UNHCR representative in Lebanon Ninette Kelley said.
The number of Syrian refugees in the region has doubled in the last four months as a two-year-old conflict entered a particularly bloody phase, and the brunt of the exodus is now being born by tiny Lebanon, a fragile country that shares the sectarian divisions that tore its neighbor apart.
Unlike other countries in the region, Lebanon refuses to let Syrian refugees move into formal camps, a step which would allow them to put down roots and more easily receive systematic aid.
Syrians are seeking shelter wherever they can find it: in garages, abandoned buildings, and makeshift tented settlements.
According to U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, 666,000 refugees have registered or are waiting to register in Lebanon, compared with 513,000 in Jordan, 431,000 in Turkey and more than 100,000 each in Iraq and Egypt.
Including those who are not claiming refugee status such as migrant laborers and their families, 1 million Syrians are now living among a population of just 4 million Lebanese.
Around the region, the welcome offered to Syrians is growing colder. Turkey officially maintains an “open border” policy but has also tightened security on its 900 km (600 mile) frontier, building barbed wire fences to make it more difficult to cross outside official gates. Jordan closed some crossings this year, stranding thousands of Syrians at the border, aid workers said.
Some Lebanese complain that the Syrians’ arrival has led to sharp increases in rents and food prices, and put a strain on public services such as electricity, transport and hospitals.
In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, an improvised camp near the village of Kfar Zabad is nestled between grape and peach groves a few kilometers from the Syrian border. About 60 tents made of wooden planks and worn fabric are packed onto a plot of cracked land turned to mud by streams of waste water.
Aminah sits in a bare tent and cradles a swaddling baby in her arms. The 20-year-old mother of two arrived from the Aleppo countryside two months ago and gave birth to the baby girl in the camp two weeks ago with no medical attention.
“There’s no water, no electricity, no aid,” she said.
At a nearby camp in Terbol, refugees beseech visiting aid workers to improve sanitation and other services. Formerly a settlement for migrant workers on privately owned land, it has little room for the refugees who arrived in recent months. They fear winter will see their cold tents flooded by heavy rains.
International aid groups are limited not only by budgets but also by political obstruction and legal restrictions.
Lebanon has been mired in political stalemate since March when its powerful Shi’ite militia Hezbollah openly joined the Syrian war on behalf of its long-time ally, President Bashar al-Assad. It fears large camps could offset the fragile balance between its own diverse religious and ethnic groups.
Refugees are hardly a new issue for Lebanon: 10 percent of the people living in Lebanon are descendents of Palestinians who arrived 65 years ago. They are still mainly confined to camps, denied citizenship and excluded from working in dozens of professions such as medicine and law. Their presence was an important factor in Lebanon’s own 1975-1990 civil war.
Beirut is alarmed by examples like Jordan’s Zaatari camp, which has attracted 115,000 Syrians since it opened a year ago and is now effectively Jordan’s fourth most populous city.
UNHCR’s Kelley called in February for the establishment of transit sites where refugees could be offered temporary food and shelter before other accommodation is found. Such a step would require authorization from the Lebanese government.
But without big formal camps to house refugees, Lebanon will have to host its Syrians ad hoc, in makeshift places like the one where Aminah rocked her newborn baby.
“There’s nowhere else for us to go,” she said.
Photo: Syrian Refugees in a disused shopping center