Inside Majdal Anjar, A small town remedies refugee issues
The small eastern border town of Majdal Anjar is not unfamiliar with Syria. Just a stone throw away from the al-Masnaa’ border crossing, its economy heavily relies on trade, with many markets set up along the highway that runs across the town to the border. However, nobody expected that the conflict in Syria would turn as a vicious as it did in 2012, leading to the influx of thousands of refugees to the safety in the small town.
“Majdal Anjar’s history is tied with the Syrians because we’re a border town,” Majdal Anjar Mayor Saeed Yassine told Refugees=Partners. “When the conflict in Syria first started…we first welcomed the Syrians – the displaced and refugees.” Yassine explained that Majdal Anjar was a transit point for refugees, who would spend a few days there before moving elsewhere, within Lebanon or abroad.
As of today there is still no clear data on the number of both Lebanese and Syrians in Majdal Anjar, and almost anywhere else in Lebanon. Lebanon has not conducted an official national consensus since 1932, and there has been no explicit and organized refugee policy since the beginning of the conflict. Refugees first registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); however, the UN agency was forced to halt registrations as of 6 May 2015 at the request of the Lebanese government.
When it comes to Majdal Anjar, Yassine estimates that there are 19,000-21,000 Lebanese nationals in the border town, with some 23,000-25,000 Syrian refugees. On the other hand, the UNHCR estimates that there are 18,000 Lebanese nationals, 14,500 UN-registered refugees, and an additional 3000-4000 unregistered.
Leaving the Burden on the Municipality
“The Lebanese government gave the municipalities a mandate without any support,” the mayor told Refugees=Partners, explaining that the government did not play a role in supporting refugees with water, electricity, housing, or anything else necessary for their basic livelihoods.
As a result, Majdal Anjar, like many other towns in Lebanon, had to rely on support from various non-government organizations and aid groups to help take care of refugees.
On paper, Lebanon’s Ministry of Interior would be responsible for implementing a countrywide strategy for Syrian refugees across Lebanon’s municipalities, but that never happened. In an interview with Legal Agenda, advisor of then-Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, Khalil Gebbara, explained that this was due to the lack of political consensus on the Syrian conflict. The ministry only played a small role in implementing refugee policy, passing some legal circulars, notably in relation to location and placement of refugee camps and settlements.
In addition, Majdal Anjar faced further infrastructural issues due to the population increase, without technical or financial support from the central government, notably with its roads.
Yassine also blamed the mismanagement of financial resources and aid by the Lebanese government intended to support hosting communities.
Compassion through thick and thin
“Because it is a border town, Syrians entering Majdal Anjar was something that [regularly] happened before the crisis,” Khaled Ghoneim, a member of the Majdal Anjar municipal government told Refugees=Partners. “Whatever problems that have happened [since], the municipality looked at it as a local problem, regardless of who or what caused it, and took care of it.”
Ghoneim explained that Majdal Anjar did not want to impose a discriminatory policy between Lebanese and Syrians. “Everyone in Majdal Anjar had the same services whether they were Lebanese or Syrian,” he said.
That being said, not all residents in Majdal Anjar were pleased about the increased presence of Syrian refugees and the increased labor competition in Lebanon’s already ailing economy. Ghoneim, who primarily handles refugee-related affairs in Majdal Anjar, admitted that some residents protested, calling for the closure of Syrian-run shops, but the municipality refused to do so. “There were some decisions [in other municipalities] to impose curfews from 9 PM to 6 AM; we never imposed anything like this here.”
“The laws apply to everyone [here],” he explained. “[For example] the motorcycle ban after 10 PM applies to everyone.”
When asked about his thoughts about other municipalities imposing curfews and other restrictions, Ghoneim said he “didn’t want to make judgments.” “I don’t know what happened for them to make these decisions, or if there was an incident caused by the displaced [Syrians] there,” he said. “What I know is that humans have to treat each other equally.”
Protecting at-risk Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese
But despite the compassionate approach, limited resources from an already economically struggling Majdal Anjar, as well as a significant decline in international aid and the Lebanese government preventing any access to UN registration means that Syrian refugees have continued to struggle.
Upon meeting refugee communities in various tented settlements, child labor was prevalent, with children and adolescents selling heavy sacks of potatoes on street by a refugee camp. It was a cold and windy December, but it appeared that most of these children did not have the adequate clothing to brave the cold. The tented structures were flimsy; those who were lucky had cinderblocks to strengthen the assembly of their tented homes.
Some refugees, who remained unnamed for protection reasons, told Refugees=Partners that overseers, known as shawish, have facilitated child labor in mostly agricultural fields, and at times have even prevented children from attending school. Overseers often cooperate with landowners who have leased their land for refugee camps.
Refugees continued to be impacted by declining international aid, with one refugee telling Refugees=Partners that some families have lost their eligibility for some cash and food aid. In 2018, the UNHCR were only able to secure 45% of its required funding for its programs in Lebanon. And with no pathway to registration, leaving many undocumented and at risk, it comes to no surprise that livelihood conditions continue to worsen. 81% of Syrian refugees, despite not being able to legally work in almost all domains in Lebanon, pay rent, with some working to waive paying rent rather than to earn cash.
Syrian refugees who spoke to Refugees=Partners all shared their same thoughts on returning home. They want to return to normal living conditions and live in dignity, but fear the unstable security situation and the risk of facing forced conscription into the Syrian Army.
Easing tensions through shared history and humanity
But despite everything, there have been efforts to maintain familial-like ties and social cohesion between Lebanese and Syrians in Majdal Anjar. This has been done primarily through NGOs, but also with support from the municipal government. One of these organizations doing that is Women Now For Development, which has an office in Majdal Anjar.
A Lebanese NGO that was established in 2015, Women Now work to promote economic and educational empowerment for women. Dr. Sahar Derbas, who manages the Majdal Anjar office, told Refugees=Partners that the organization trains women to have the skills necessary to be economically independent and to provide opportunities in the workplace. “Many women who arrived [from Syria] have arrived…alone with their children and dealing with hardships in life,” Derbas told Refugees=Partners. “So we want to provide services of some sort that will be beneficial to them.”
Women Now offer many classes for girls and young women, including computer literacy and language courses. But they also offer psychosocial support and reintegration into society after facing traumatic experiences.
That being said, the program is also inclusive of women from Majdal Anjar. “Over 30% of those involved are [women] from Majdal Anjar,” Derbas added. “The positive thing is that because there is a lack of these services, when NGOs came to provide them [during the refugee crisis], they also did so for the host community.”
It was no surprise that this yielded positive results across the board. “At first we were worried with some of the differences that existed,” she explained, citing differences in education curriculum, as well as some customs and traditions. “But we realized through our sessions that ties were strengthened and many friendships were established between them.”