Homs 2010, Syrian refugees, Lebanon and the General Election 2015

Homs 2010, Syrian refugees, Lebanon and the General Election 2015

Blog by Joseph Willits

In 2010 I watched the outcome of the General Election, and coalition forming from an internet cafe in Homs. Tomorrow (May 7), as we go to the polls to vote, plenty more people will have heard of Homs, and more still will be aware of the plight of Syria’s displaced.  I would hope that my vote tomorrow will mean any future government would pledge to resettle more than the shameful number already resettled in the UK – 143 – and anticipated 500. Sadly, I am far from optimistic.

Five years on from May 2010, destruction, bombardment, siege, displacement and death have put the city on the map for many people in the UK. After over four years of a crisis, nearly four million Syrian refugees are registered in the region (over two million of these are children), and 12.1 million in Syria are in need (this includes 5.6 million children). According to UNHCR figures from January 2015, nearly 150,000 people from Homs Governorate alone had fled to Lebanon.  Syrians are the highest number of people making treacherous journeys by land and sea to reach Europe. Many of course, have perished.

Syria’s refugee crisis isn’t an election issue, although Syrian refugees find themselves the targets and objects of dehumanisation in a vicious political climate in the context of both immigration and talk of ISIS.  It seems apparent to me, that despite the devastating extent of this crisis, compassion (both political and from the general public) is waning, and in many circles the levels of empathy have reached saturation point.

 Although there have been over 4,000 positive asylum decisions for Syrians, as part of the Government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme, only 143 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees have been resettled in the UK. The Government has consistently refused to join the UN’s resettlement scheme. Germany on the other hand has resettled 30,000 Syrian refugees as part of the UN programme. If they form a Government, the Labour party has said that it will work with the UN to support Syria’s most vulnerable refugees.

In March I visited Lebanon to see the extent of a Syrian refugee crisis on a country smaller in size than Wales, and an estimated population of 5.9 million, where over 1.5 million de facto Syrian refugees now live on top of 313,000 Palestinian refugees. What do these figures mean?

  • 1 in 4 people in Lebanon is displaced.
  • Out of an estimated 5.9 million living in the country, 3.3 million (including vulnerable Lebanese communities) are in need.
  • 2 million Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese are considered highly vulnerable.
  • The poor have increased by 60% since 2011, and the labour force doubled in this period.
  • More Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian children are out of school compared to 300,000 enrolled in public schools.
  • By December 2015, 3.4 million people will be below the poverty line.

Women and children are among the most vulnerable. In Lebanon I saw the fantastic work of Al Najdeh Association in Burj El Barajneh, an NGO supported by UNICEF and by British charity Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP). Najdeh operates as a vital safe space for children, many of which have escaped violence in Syria and live in overcrowded and difficult conditions in the camp. They assess the psychological needs of children, providing support to such needs through play, and doing work in the community to ensure the stigma over discussing mental health does not impact negatively on the children. Drama is used in group sessions with 3-6 year olds, and 10-12 year olds as a way to gauge mental health and psychosocial needs of the children, to raise awareness about issues such as gender stereotyping and sexual abuse, as well as to have fun. 620,000 of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are children, 77% of which are under the age of 11. 25% of them are considered at risk, and Lebanon has an estimated 1,500 children living and working on its streets, 75% of which are Syrian. I also visited a vital women’s centre supported by UNHCR. The centre provided a space for women to meet up, cook and talk with one another, but also to feel safe particularly given the circumstances that they find themselves in. Many women there headed their households, often looking after several children alone, with husbands either being killed in Syria, or still there working.

At the centre there were also classes for children, many at risk of working on the streets. One activity at the centre was demonstrating the dangers that children may face working as street children, and was offering guidance to them about strangers – what is and is not an appropriate way of being touched on the street. The situation for street children in Lebanon was addressed– many of which are victims of physical or sexual abuse or both, or are at increased risk of it, as was the situation for women who are victims of sexual violence, and the stigmas surrounding speaking about rape or abuse – both sexual and physical. UNHCR explained the work being done to ensure that these women were safe, women who are often the victims of abuse from husbands or other family members. They also discussed survival sex in Lebanon, mostly for women, but also men, often forced into having sex with employers/landlords/sponsors and others, in order to survive. They also spoke of the vulnerabilities among LGBT refugees, often some of the most isolated having been displaced, but also shunned by family members and friends, and living in a society which is not particularly gay friendly.

The number of cases considered to be the most vulnerable of Syrian refugees is incredibly high. It is always difficult to assess vulnerability, given that of all those displaced inside and from Syria, there is vulnerability. Many of the most serious cases include however, victims of rape and sexual violence, torture, chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and hepatitis, and those at a heightened risk because of sexual orientation or belief. The number certainly surpasses 143.

In an ideal world there would not be nearly 4 million Syrian refugees, and a discussion about the desperate need to resettle more Syrian refugees in Europe, and in particular the UK. The Government is consistent in saying that it is preferable for Syrian refugees to remain in the region. Whilst this may be the case (in an ideal world), it is simply not good enough when assistance and resettlement of Syrian refugees is at the mercy of political rhetoric and an increasing sentiment that is lacking in compassion.

No British Government can justify a shameful and disgraceful level of resettlement for Syrian refugees. My hope is that more will be done to resettle Syrian refugees in the UK, whatever the outcome of the election.


Resettlement case examples in Lebanon (courtesy of UNHCR Lebanon)

All names below are fictional.

Three year old child with stomach cancer

“Kareem, his wife and their 8 children are living together in Lebanon. Their minor daughter Myriam is religiously married to a relative.

Kareem’s son was 3 years old when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He underwent a surgery in Lebanon to remove the abdominal tumour. He also underwent chemotherapy and radiation for 9 months. The doctors then informed Kareem that his son was treated and that he no longer has cancer.

Around 3 months ago, upon regular medical tests, the results showed that the cancer has reoccurred and is now in the bones and lymph nodes which are causing swelling in the abdomen. Kareem was informed that his treatment would be aggressive and with high doses of chemotherapy but the family was not given hope of recovery as the cancer is more serious than before. Kareem’s son has not started taking chemotherapy as the family is awaiting response from the Children’s Cancer Centre and whether the center will cover the costs.”

This case cannot be considered for resettlement at this time, based on the fact that the case holds child spouse and based on the lack of resettlement quota for serious medical/disability cases.

Woman in her 30s, victim of sexual and gender based violence looking after twelve children

“Fatima is a SGBV survivor in her 30s currently taking care of five of her 12 children. She divorced from her first husband and remarried. She believes the rest of her children and her husband were killed in Syria. She indicated that one of her girl had been married at the age of 13.  She is unable to work because of back problems.”

This case cannot move forward for RST based on incomplete family composition, not knowing the husband is indeed dead or alive in Syria.

11 year old boy, the sole provider for his family, working for seven hours a day in a supermarket

“Salam is 11-years-old and came to Lebanon with his parents and siblings. His father has a medical condition preventing him from working. Therefore, Salam is the only provider for his family. He works at a supermarket around seven hours per day, seven days a week. As a result, he shows signs of extreme exhaustion, even if he recognizes that the shop owner treats him well. He is of course not attending school.”

This case cannot be considered for resettlement at this time, based on the lack of resettlement quota for serious medical/disability cases.

Gay man in his 20s, raped by regime official in Syria, disabled

“Tarek is a gay male in his 20s registered at UNHCR. He was subjected to rape by a Government official in Syria and as a result, he had to confide in his family who in turn, physically assaulted him to punish him for his sexual orientation. He cannot find a job in Lebanon as he is disabled. He lives with an acquaintance who constantly threatens to evict him, given that he cannot contribute to the rent, and is constantly harassed by both Syrian and Lebanese due to his sexual orientation. If he was to return to Syria, he would fear being persecuted because of his sexual orientation.”

This case cannot be considered for resettlement at this time, based on the lack of resettlement quota for serious medical/disability cases.

Man tortured in Syria, contracted Hepatitis C

“In Syria, Toufic was on his way to visit his family.  He was in a car with seven other men when the car broke down near a village in Homs. They were kidnapped and taken hostage by an unknown armed group for about 50 days, during which Toufic was tortured. When Toufic and the other detainees managed to escape they had to leave all their documentations behind. He then fled to Lebanon.

Toufic is currently unemployed as he struggles to find work because of his disability. In 2000, he was working near his house cutting wood when his fingers were cut off.

Toufic’s son, aged one year and half, suffers from calcium deficiency which may be affecting his motor skills. Toufic affirmed that his son is unable to speak and can barely walk. However, Toufic is unable to seek medical attention for his son due to financial constraints.”

This case cannot be considered for resettlement at this time, based on the lack of resettlement quota for serious medical/disability cases.