The Plight of Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon

Syrian refugees children play near a snowman in a camp for Syrians who fled their country?s civil war, in the Bekaa valley, e
Syrian refugees children play near a snowman in a camp for Syrians who fled their country?s civil war, in the Bekaa valley, eastern Lebanon, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013. Syrians at a sprawling refugee camp in northern Jordan scrambled to batten down their tents against torrential rains and high winds as a blustery winter storm battered parts of the Middle East for a second day Thursday. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

For all of the complexity of the Syrian humanitarian crisis, there is one tragedy with an obvious solution: the plight of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. I witnessed first-hand the conditions in which these children are forced to live as they struggle to survive the crisis, and this is clearly one problem that the global community can quickly solve.

I was in Lebanon in November doing research for a study that has just been published by Harvard University's FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. The study, titled "Running Out Of Time: Survival of Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon", reports on interviews that a colleague of mine -- Susan Bartels, MD, MPH -- and I conducted with Syrian refugee families in Beirut, Tripoli, and the Bekaa Valley, as well as staff members at local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations agencies.

Close to one million Syrians -- more than half of them children under the age of 18 -- have sought refuge in Lebanon since the outbreak of hostilities in their home country in March 2011, and the influx shows no signs of abating. At the current pace, the United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that the number of refugees in Lebanon will increase to 1.5 million by the end of 2014.

Lebanon is not new to me. My husband and I lived there with our young children from 2006 to 2012. I know the terrain, speak Arabic, and am familiar with the daily dynamics -- the sights and sounds of Beirut and the surrounding area. But that did not prepare me for the conditions in which the Syrian refugees live.

There are no formal refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon; the government, having hosted Palestinian refugee camps since 1948, wanted to avoid repeating that process. Instead, Syrian refugees in Lebanon live among Lebanese communities and in informal tent settlements.

In the Bekaa Valley, these informal settlements appear like mini-shantytowns dotting the landscape. Each settlement consists of anywhere from five to 500 tents, pitched close together and typically without the infrastructure and planning that make a bad situation better. Some encampments are wedged in between buildings; others are situated between roads and farmland. Still others are located at the base of high-voltage electricity towers or near sewage streams and garbage piles. Living in overcrowded conditions generates risk for infectious disease outbreaks, and the risks are heightened further by inadequate water sources and insufficient sanitation.

As a human rights lawyer, I wanted to assess the conditions and advocate for improvements. As a mother, I wanted to help in any way I could.

Sitting with mothers in their tents, I was concerned that some of my questions about their circumstances might be distressing to them -- and sometimes they were. But in most cases, the refugees were grateful for a witness who could document their difficult living conditions.

Our research revealed that the predominant concern for families in the Bekaa Valley is the impending winter. Most families do not have sufficient clothing or shelter for cold temperatures and wet weather, since many left home with only the clothes they were wearing.

Child labor is widespread among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Syrian children must work to support themselves and their families, and they have found employment in circumstances that often endanger their well-being, including on the streets, in the fields, at construction sites, or in commercial locations.

Formal schooling is neither affordable nor accessible for the vast majority of Syrian children. Only one in five Syrian refugee children are currently enrolled in formal education programs in Lebanon.

A large number of families are dependent on food vouchers and other food aid but report that the amount they receive is not enough to feed the whole family. Increasing rates of malnutrition in Lebanon are being reported, with more than 100 Syrian refugee children identified as suffering from malnutrition during a recent screening in the Bekaa Valley conducted by International Orthodox Christian Charities with the support of UNICEF.

Many Syrian refugees struggle to access health care in Lebanon due to prohibitive medical costs. And reports of early marriage -- and marriages that may camouflage sex trafficking -- raise concerns about the vulnerability of Syrian refugee children to being trafficked.

On January 15 an international meeting of donor countries, chaired by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was held in Kuwait in response to a UN call for $6.5 billion in fresh funding for the region for 2014, of which $1.7 billion would be targeted specifically for Lebanon. At that meeting, the United States pledged $380 million for Syrian assistance, bringing the U.S. total to $1.7 billion since the start of the crisis. Kuwait pledged $500 million, the European Union committed $225 million, Great Britain pledged $165 million, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar each added $60 million.

Total pledges, while still growing, are nowhere near where they need to be. In contrast, Saudi Arabia just pledged $3 billion to the Lebanese military.

These children deserve the world's support. Not addressing their needs sufficiently will only create more tragedy and fuel illness and anger that are in no one's best interests.

The author is a Fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.