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Cash-strapped Syrians struggle in Lebanon

Skyrocketing rent in Beirut has forced Syrian refugees into alternative shelters.

Last Modified: 13 Sep 2013 14:50
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Many Syrian refugees in urban Lebanon relocated to informal tent settlements [AP]

Beirut, Lebanon - Unable to pay rent for his family, Syrian refugee Shabkaji Abdelrahma sent his children to work in Beirut when they arrived.

That was until his eight-year-old son was raped on the streets.

"I could afford the rent because I sent three of my four children to work," Adelrahma, from Zamalka, in southern Syria, told Al Jazeera. "Everything was OK, but then my life changed. My son was subjected to rape and we had to move houses one month ago."

The 42-year-old, who works as an electrician and came to Lebanon last year, said he had to move his family of six into his sister's apartment so they could have a roof over their heads.

They pay $350 a month, for one small bedroom, in a two-bedroom apartment which is home to 11 people.

"My children are now at home," Adelrahma said. "They are afraid to go outside because of what happened to my son.

"In Lebanon it is very difficult to find a house," he said. "It is crazy at home because there are a lot of kids in the same room."

Sky-high rent

Seventy-five percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in rented accommodation, according to Joelle Eid, the public information associate for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon.

At the beginning of the crisis, more than two years ago, most refugees lived with Lebanese families - but that number now stands at less than 20 percent.

Eid said that an increasing number of refugees were unable to afford rental accommodation.

"With rents across the country continuously on the rise, the demand for alternative shelter solutions continues to increase - as many refugees are not longer able to pay rent," Eid said.

"[Refugees have] had to be relocated into improvised solutions including informal tented settlements and collective shelters."

Some vulnerable refugees, such as single women with children, are eligible for rent assistance under a programme titled Cash for Rent.

But while about 23,000 Syrians have received shelter support, there are more than 720,000 refugees in Lebanon.

Georges Massabri from Phoenicia Properties in Beirut said he has had an influx of Syrians calling to find accommodation.

Roberta Russo shows an UNHCR pre-fabricated house as an alternative to tents for Syrian refugees in Beirut [AP]

"A few months ago, many Syrians were calling to find a flat in Beirut, but now most can't afford it," Massabri said.

"It is a big problem because the flats are very small and those who can afford it are very uncomfortable because they have to share it with many other families.

"It has gotten so bad that rich families have to pay upfront - and that's what agents are preferring now."

But while many Syrian families have no option but to squeeze more than 10 people into a tiny apartment, some have reported that landlords have been financially exploiting them, according to Roberta Russo, the spokeswoman for the UNHRC in Lebanon.

"We do get informal reports that sometimes landlords prefer to rent their apartments to several Syrian families sharing very small spaces rather than giving them to Lebanese or Iraqi families, as they make more money on the rent," Russo said.

Caritas Lebanon's recent report into older Syrian refugees emphasised the same problem, adding that rising rents were heightening social tensions.

"Some landlords have evicted Iraqi refugees from their apartments because they are able to charge higher rents to Syrians," the report noted.

But while some landlords are willing to take advantage of those in need, others have turned their backs on the situation, according to Michel Zeid, the manager of National Properties in Beirut.

"Landlords do not trust Syrians any more, because of their unsure [situations]," Zeid said.

"Syrians are very good bargainers. They are fitting unlimited families in apartments. When they are asked why they have extra people in the apartment, they say it is members of the same family.

"My customers now have to pay six-months ahead; those are my rules."

'I have nothing'

At 80 years old, Syrian refugee Ezzedine Ratibeh Wajih was forced to flee her home in Homs after it was bombed six months ago.

I cannot afford diapers, medicine or any food. And what about school? I cannot manage that.

Ezzedine Ratibeh Wajih

Travelling to Beirut with her son, his wife and their eight children, finding an affordable and comfortable apartment to rent was impossible.

"We have 11 people in two rooms," she said.

"The landlord is pulling some people out because we can't afford the rent. It is $400 a month but we haven't paid for three months.

"I cannot work and neither can the children. The landlord just wants more money."

Wajih has also been left to care for her grandchildren, many of whom are under five.

"My son has travelled to Jordan to find work. He had problems with his wife and she has left Lebanon," Wajih said.

"They do not send us any money."

While Wajih is registered with the UN refugee agency, the children are not.

As a result, they are unable to claim any assistance, such as food vouchers.

"I have nothing," Wajih said.

"My neighbour gives us some food. But for my [grand]children - I cannot afford diapers, medicine or any food. And what about school? I cannot manage that."

Lack of options

Kamal Sioufi, of the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre, said the provision of shelter was becoming an increasing challenge, as more refugees continued to flee into Lebanon.

"People can't live in these conditions," Sioufi said. "When refugees come from Syria with nothing, they of course want a place to sleep. But it is not easy to find.

New camp for Syria refugees already crowded

"Refugees are staying on the side of the road. They can't afford to rent. It is a very big problem."

He notes that, while formal accommodation is a highly politicised issue in Lebanon, action must be taken to ensure refugees will be able to cope with the approaching winter.

"It has to be highlighted that Syrians do not want to stay here," Sioufi said. "It is completely different to the Palestinian situation."

Meanwhile, the UNCHR says it is continuing to look for formal temporary sites and more collective shelters to house the increasing number of refugees.

"The shelter options are exhausted and this is why we are advocating with the government for the establishment of transit sites where we could temporarily host thousands of families while providing them with adequate services," Russo said.

And as for Wajih, she plans to return to Syria, along with her family, as soon as possible.

"My house was bombarded - but if things get better, then, of course, I will go home."

Follow Sophie Cousins on Twitter: @SophCousins

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Al Jazeera
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