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Syrian dilemma: join Europe throng or wait in line in squalor

Publisher: The Australian
Story date: 20/09/2015
Language: English


When Aliyaa looks at the bare shelves in her kitchen of canvas, she knows what she will do if ever the chance comes.

The widowed mother of four will run from this hot, dusty camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley without a backward glance; she will move to the other side of the world, to Australia, anywhere they like, if it means her children can eat meat with their rice and go to school. For now, she's trapped in Madinah 17, one of the so-called "informal tented settlements" that have grown like weeds on the Lebanese side of the border with Syria.

The human flotsam of war washes up here — an estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon alone, with millions more living hand-to-mouth in a spare room of a friend or relative, or in crowded camps dotted across Turkey, Jordan and the Kurdish homeland in Iraq. The scale and intensity of the suffering has ­finally forced international action. Australia's response, announced by Tony Abbott before the axe fell on his prime ministership, will be to lift its refugee intake by 12,000, nearly doubling the humanitarian quota for this year.

Officials from the Immigration Department flew out last week to get the vetting process under way. The Australian understands that some staff are already on the ground in Jordan, paving the way for the operation to be stepped up in conjunction with the UN's lead refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Mr Abbott indicated that ­priority would go to members of religious minorities persecuted by Islamic State, such as the Yazidi. But picking a few to be saved from this seething cauldron of despair will be testing work.

In Lebanon, people are daring to hope that there may be a way out from the limbo they're in, ­either by joining the throng ­making for Europe, or by trusting that there will be enough places in sanctioned resettlement programs to go around. The only certainty is that many more dreams will be crushed than realised.

Aliyaa has heard about the human pipeline that snakes through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, with open-door Germany the final destination. "Everyone is talking about it,'' she says. "You hear about someone suddenly leaving ... no one knows for sure where they are going, but people just say it's for a better life, and if you have the money to pay to go, you should, because there is zero life here. Zero." A tall woman of 35, she fled her home in Aleppo province in February 2012 — early in the war — carrying not much more than the children. Little Hussein, 7, barely remembers their comfortable life there. The eldest, Ahmad, 16, used to talk about being a lawyer; when his mother mentions it now, his eyes harden. "There is no education here, no school," he says bitterly. "What do you expect me to become?" Hanan, 12, was daddy's girl. He used to say she would be a pharmacist. That's a distant dream when the closest she can get to a classroom is an outdoor recreation area that caters for the camp kids. Mohammad, 14, can't get in to even that.

Hussein is named after their ­father, a kind, smiling teacher who died a few months before he was born. Aliyaa worries about him most of all. She has to leave him with his brothers and sister to work in a vegetable pickling plant. Trucks thunder along the busy road outside Madinah 17 and Hussein has never had the opportunity to learn traffic sense. She shudders at the whispered stories about children being kidnapped and trafficked.

In anguish, she says: "There are too many bad things here, too many bad people." Tonight, the family will eat only boiled rice seasoned with salt. There is sugar for the tea, but not much. As a treat, the children sometimes get a few spoonfuls of labneh, strained yoghurt. There are two jars of dried beans on the shelf next to a plastic bottle of cheap vegetable oil, which they've nearly finished. The bread ran out days ago. They sleep side by side, tossing and turning in the heat. The weather is about to turn, though, and this will be their fifth winter without a proper roof. It snows in the Bekaa and all too soon an icy wind will blow off those tawny peaks to the east, delineating the border with Syria.

The plight of refugees in Lebanon is acute. A country of four million is simply unable to feed so many extra mouths; this is why the gritty encampments are ­rigidly referred to as "informal tent settlements", not refugee centres. To call them that would impose obligations the Lebanese state couldn't, shouldn't, have to meet given its generosity in allowing so many into the country in the first instance. (The Syrian border was closed by Lebanon only in March of this year.) In reality, it doesn't matter much where the refugees find shelter. Whether it is under canvas in a Bekaa camp or in an overgrown lot in Beirut, or with a relative or in a half-finished building, they are for the most part on their own.

Aliyaa earns 246,000 Lebanese pounds ($228) a month from her job and has access to food cards distributed by World ­Vision International worth $95. However, power and rent to the landowner comes out of that budget, and the Lebanese government charges a six-monthly registration fee of $140.

Medical services are limited, to say the least. Aliyaa's neighbour, Abdulkader, is at his wit's end trying to get help for his leukemia-stricken son, Mohammad, 8. The family don't have a refrigerator, so the drugs the boy needs cannot be kept at home. Instead, Abdulkader takes him on the long bus ride to Beirut for chemotherapy. This costs so much time that he has had to give up his job and send ­Mohammad's 11-year-old brother, Yehyia, to work in a lumber yard for $5 a day. "If I don't get help, we will have to go back to Syria," ­Abdulkader says.

Turning to a people-smuggler is not an option for most families, though "snake heads" don't seem hard to find. The going rate, according to NGOs, is $US2000 a head ($2800). Aliyaa says she woundn't pay even if she could. The journey is too dangerous and, besides, she doesn't like the idea of doing something illegal. "If we can't go back to Syria we will wait our turn to go to another country,'' she says.

Of the 560 people languishing in their encampment in the central Bekaa, 90 minutes' drive from Beirut, 300 are aged under 12. This is by no means uncommon. A third of the estimated 3.1 million people displaced in the Kurdistan region of Iraq are children, NGOs say.

According to Cecil Laguardia, of World Vision's Erbil office, Germany and Australia are the destinations of choice for those who have given up on returning home.

Anwar, a 45-year-old musician from Qaraqosh in northern Iraq, says there is no going back for his family after the largely Christian city was seized by Islamic State.

"From comfortable houses in Qaraqosh with large bedrooms and kitchens, we now have to live in one room with all of our things stacked,'' he says. "We do not have a village to go back to. I won't allow my family to go back even if it is possible because it is not safe." That most refugees are unwilling to have a surname published when interviewed attests to their yearning to return: they are still thinking about the repercussions in Syria, whether it's from the teetering regime of Bashar al-Assad or the fanatics of Islamic State. Shadijah, 38, was told by her husband last week that their tickets out of Madinah 17 had come through, and they were accepted for foreign resettlement. "I want to go back to my country," she says. "My father, my brothers ... they are all there.'' Aliyaa insists she just wants to feed her children and get them to school. Girls are married off at 12 in the camp and she can't stand the thought of that happening to Hanan.

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