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Refugees in Lebanon: Challenge or Opportunity?

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Jun 22, 2016 / 0 Comments
Collective water tank, informal refugee camp, Bekaa, Lebanon

At a time when Europe is trying to restrict refugees’ access to its territory, it is essential to provide more support to the countries bordering Syria. This support should meet the vital needs of those fleeing the conflict, while at the same time strengthening cohesion between the host country and the refugee population.


With 1.8 million[1] Syrian refugees, Lebanon now has the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world (30%). The massive influx of refugees is putting unprecedented pressure on public services, such as health and education, electricity, access to water, and waste disposal. Although the country has kept its borders open, the length of the conflict is testing the resilience of Lebanese society and the State’s capacity to provide an appropriate response.


Unfavorable Institutional Context Complicating the Identification of Needs


Determining a response to the situation is a complex challenge because the refugee habitat is extremely disparate. It is divided into three major categories: informal camps, collective and individual shelters, and apartments.


The proportion of refugees living in informal camps, mainly in the areas of Bekaa and North Lebanon on private farmland, is estimated at 20%. Before the crisis, many Syrian farmworkers were already living in Lebanon in shelters and tents on agricultural plots. When the conflict began, they were joined by their families and members of their village communities.


The non-governmental organization (NGO) Solidarités International is developing projects aimed at ensuring access to drinking water, sanitation, and health for these populations. It is building and rehabilitating latrines, showers, and water supply systems. The absence of recognition of these camps by the Lebanese Government is forcing the organization to set up provisional facilities. Often, water is distributed from cisterns filled by tanker trucks. Besides the cost of this type of water supply, quality control of the water is also an issue.


These constraints also have an impact on the building and functioning of latrines. Since they are temporary, they cannot be connected to septic tanks and must be emptied once a week.


Given the informal nature of these camps, NGOs have little interaction with Lebanese institutions.  Thus, the installation of infrastructures generally depends on the consent of the landowner, which may be obtained by drilling boreholes that can be used for agricultural purposes after the departure of the refugees. 


Individual and collective shelters (unfinished homes, former storage sheds, garages, cellars, containers, former factories, etc.) make up the second area in which refugees live. These disparate habitats present a new challenge for NGOs, which are devoting some of their efforts to identify them. The NGO Care has launched habitat improvement programs that include a segment on water and sanitation. In agreement with landowners, the identified housing is being connected to drinking water sources, and showers and latrines are being built or rehabilitated. 


The refugees’ plight is deteriorating as the conflict persists. Many studies document the growing poverty of the refugees. Although 80% of them pay rent, only a few of them manage to find jobs. So the savings they have been living on thus far are running out.


Transition from Emergency Aid to Development Assistance


Five years after the start of the Syrian conflict, there seems to be no short-term solution. NGOs are therefore gradually moving away from emergency aid toward development assistance geared to building the capacities of actors and increasing and rehabilitating water infrastructures.


Along these lines, the Italian NGO Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (GVC) has launched a capacity-building program for the Bekaa Regional Water Authority (RWA). Established in 2000, the RWAs are in charge of water management, sanitation, and irrigation. These authorities suffer from a notable lack of legitimacy, as shown by the many illegal connections and low bill collection rates (30% for the RWA). Along with the extension works and renovation of infrastructures, the organization has held awareness-raising campaigns for users in order to break this vicious cycle.


The transition from emergency aid to development assistance has encouraged NGOs to form new partnerships with Lebanese authorities. As we have seen, the response to refugees’ needs requires an improvement in national infrastructures. In this regard, although it raises serious challenges, the Syrian crisis may also be perceived as an opportunity to improve a sector that was in considerable difficulty before the crisis.


[1] Source: UNHCR, December 2015. 

Claire Papin-Stammose

A graduate of the Rennes Institute of Political Studies, Claire Papin-Stammose received a multidisciplinary education with a concentration in public service, before specializing in water management (Agro Paris Tech) and economic and agricultural development policies (Institute of Economic and Social Development Studies, Université Panthéon Sorbonne). Her participation in the Groundwater-ARENA research project ( in Morocco enhanced her expertise in groundwater management for agriculture. As a representative of the Water Solidarity Program in Lebanon (, she carries out research and development and advisory assistance activities focused on access to water and sanitation.


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