David Cameron visited a refugee camp in the Beka’a valley of Lebanon a few days ago. He said he was there to see ‘what they need’. No doubt he got some good photos and can now deploy some appropriate sound-bites. Ad nauseum, he’ll trot out something along the lines of “when I was at refugee camp x I met a woman called -insert made-up name here- who told me ‘-insert misleading statement which supports some element of UK policy here-‘ ).
I visited several Informal Tent Settlement’s recently with a Palestinian friend of mine, Melad, who is hosting me at his camp. On a visit two days ago I learned about the aid they were receiving. I had it in my mind, as perhaps many of us do, that the well funded, intra-national aid agencies and branches of the UN et al were there to provide the basics, such as water, food and healthcare. I thought there would be a network of food depots and distribution points which would ensure all refugees receive the food they need. For various reasons this is not the case and the reality is much different. According to a man I was speaking to at a camp near the town of Halba in Akaar province, refugees with families to feed receive $13 per month and individuals received $6 per month. Lebanon is relatively expensive, especially in the context of this region, food prices are comparable to those in much of Europe so such a paltry amount of food aid does not go far. How can someone provide food for their family for the equivalent of less than 30p per day? To compound the situation, this month over 130,000 Syrians stopped receiving food aid from the World Food Programme http://www.wfp.org/emergencies/syria in Lebanon due to the severity of the situation and the need to allocate resources elsewhere. US and UK allies in the middle-east are also conducting a devastating war on Yemen which is also causing a humanitarian crisis, so of course, resources are severely stretched. David Cameron was informed on his camp visit by a mother of ten that she is receiving $5 a month in food aid. He claimed to be there to listen to ‘what they need’ but strangely never mentioned more cash for food. According to the Telegraph, he did however offer them ‘good luck’, which must be a relief.
On the roadsides in between the camps we have visited there are always children at the junctions selling CDs, tissues and whatever else just to try to raise some money to help their families. They should be in the schools Cameron boasts about funding. The men in the camps have also been employed on farms in the surrounding area during periods of the harvest, but sadly many have not been paid, there’s nothing they can do about it. The great international aid agencies that Mr Cameron enjoys boasting about and that most of us probably imagine have the funds to deal with this crisis, to at least feed these people, are unable.
Other major concerns, if food insecurity wasn’t enough of a problem, include medical support. I met a man at the camp from Homs who was carrying a bad back and spine injury, he had a slipped disc and the bones were deteriorating. He needed treatment, including three cortisone injections that would cost around $2,500. Of course, he can’t afford to pay for it, though without it his condition will deteriorate. I was very surprised – naive of me, yes- that such, what I (and most people?) would consider basic and vital treatment were unavailable to him. Without treatment and with a family to support he could remain dependant on meagre aid handouts for a long time. What option would you take if you were him, continual deterioration in a camp or an attempt to travel to Europe with the chance of health care and a new life?
Another aspect of camp life, which increases the insecurity felt by Syrians and Palestinians, is the regular assaults by the Lebanese military. They often conduct military operations in the camps in order to detain suspected militants or other such undesirables. Of course, there have been instances of militants residing in camps and attacking the military so their objectives or not entirely spurious but the reality for most is that the camps are largely populated by women, children, the elderly and other vulnerable groups so these raids by the military take a terrible psychological toll on residents. I mentioned in a previous blog-post an old man who had stayed behind after his camp had moved on. I only just learned that the reason the camp had been moved, as so many others had also, was because over the mountain in the Beka’a valley militants had been using the camps to take shelter and fire upon the Lebanese military so the blanket policy enforced was to move all camps a few kilometres away from main roads. I hadn’t realised before, but that is the main reason the camps are scattered inland around remote farmlands.
Perhaps on his next trip the PM can seek to learn and communicate about the situation facing refugees and seek to address their issues rather than grandstanding about the UK’s alleged benevolence. Meanwhile, there’s always more money for a bombing campaign in Syria, not so much money for the basic needs of refugees.