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A Half Full Beirut

SamiaKhan15 March 2019

One person is forcibly displaced every two seconds in the world and over twenty-five million people are now refugees worldwide as result of conflict.[1] They journey seeking settlement in a place where they can secure livable circumstances.

Humanitarian literature on refugees is clear to distinguish the types of protection at play; UNHCR for example determines that the three ways to protect a refugee is to rehabilitate, repatriate or resettle.[2] A majority of refugees in the Arab world who have fled failed states and armed conflicts have resettled in neighbouring countries and still continue to do so.[3] Throughout the past 70 years, Palestinian refugees have been through several phases of vulnerability and displacement, affected by their immedeate struggles, but also by a shifting set of tensions: deterritorialisation, urban pressures and geo-politics. Arab host countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and ‘temporary’[4] camps set along the West bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza strip[5] lack the proper infrastructure and regulatory frameworks to integrate refugees which complicates resettlement processes. With the arrival of refugees as a result of the Syrian crisis of 2011[6] existing refugee camps and displaced communities in host countries such as Lebanon started to overflow by a population of over another million[7], and reached a crisis point that needed immediate attention.

Recent events show how political unrest impact the plight of refugees. Lebanon was without a stable government for nearly two and a half years before starting to form cabinet structure very recently.[8] This political unrest suspends efforts for urban planning which tackles the influx of refugees. The economic infrastucture is still recovering from the conflicts the country witnessed, particularly the 1975 – 1990 civil war and the armed conflict of 2006 with Israel. Though efforts were made for public and social reconstruction, economic growth was insufficient and large areas were bought by private sector for real estate development to help the Lebanese economy thrive.[9]

The extended political crisis resulted in an eminent economic downfall. Tax reforms, suspension of bank loans and Lebanon’s debt of $81 billion being the third largest in the world, soared real estate prices.[10] According to a recent conversation with a local activist, Elza Seferian, “ the ‘unliveability’ of Beirut is like a Pandora’s box for me. The price of renting a room in Beirut is as costly as Paris. Affordable housing is scarce.”.

With refugees from neighbouring countries moving in at an exponential pace, existing refugee settlements such as those for example in Sabra, Shatila and Akkar are overpopulated and in dismal living conditions.[11] The lack of space in temporal arrangements pushes refugees to the capital to rent spaces in tower buildings, that were abandoned by private sector initiatives. ‘A half full Beirut’ is a notion that is derived from the complex situation in Beirut where private sector developers have run out of money and are unable to complete real estate projects[12] leaving Beirut’s skyline half empty. However, these abandoned spaces have been vacant on the formal market for years, yet are rented out to refugees albeit on extortionate rates[13], hence are more often than not ‘half full’.

 

Refugee laundry seen hanging outside of abandoned building project
half inhabited by refugees in Hamra district, Beirut
Photo courtesy: Elza Seferian, 2017

 

Beirut is lacking in affordable housing for middle-income and this historical issue for locals has now extended and become part of the refugee experience.[14] This shows a fracture in the market. With the relocation of refugees from camps to capital, they become an active part of the urban population and drivers of the formal and informal real estate market.

State led initiatives to mitigate refugee housing issues has been quite limited in Lebanon. It is one of the countries that has not signed the 1951 International Convention for Refugees which was established in by UNHCR. The convention’s core principle “asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom…”.[15] The civil society, though unstructured, is the major agency of support for refugees alongside non governmental organizations.[16] A detailed mapping of Civil Society Organizations and their scope in Lebanon can be found here: https://eeas.europa.eu/archives/delegations/lebanon/documents/news/20150416_2_en.pdf

Refugees rely on housing arrangements made by CSOs and NGOs such as ACTED[17], URDA[18], ANERA[19], DRC[20] and more.[21] They are ready to take on any opportunity for housing they can secure. Without formal paperwork, documentation or legal rights, refugees become susceptible to exploitation. The real estate black market thrives on premium rental rates, making refugees susceptible to forced evictions and other forms of abuse that pose no repercussions on the landlords.[22]

Though private sector developments are abandoned, they stand on land bought by private companies from the government, stripping the government from authority over majority of Beirut’s land or the real estate projects. In light of these conditions, the following conclusions can be considered:

  • Government can strenghten legal frameworks and negotiate alternative uses for abandoned spaces to provide more liveable urban solutions to locals and refugees
  • Since CSOs and NGOs possess the role of primary support to refugees and low income households with housing, agency can be established between the private sector and civil society to liaise with discontinued developments and create affordable housing schemes
  • Refugee integration schemes can be enhanced by CSOs and NGOs by creating a rigid framework of lease documentation to closely monitor the resettlement process

There is a pressing need for housing in Beirut yet an abundance of uninhabited spaces. Perhaps if the underlying opportunity within these spaces was recognized and organized, a solution could arise for the housing crisis that affects millions.


Samia Khan
is a graduate of the MSc Building and Urban Design program at the DPU


Additional Resources:

http://portal.unesco.org/en/files/27465/11162415081UNDP_NGO1.pdf/UNDP%2BNGO1.pdf

https://openmigration.org/en/analyses/syrian-refugees-in-lebanon-still-reluctant-to-go-home/

https://website.aub.edu.lb/ifi/publications/Documents/policy_memos/2017-2018/20180318_you_can_stay_in_beirut.pdf

https://germanwatch.org/sites/germanwatch.org/files/publication/8889.pdf

https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/45502

http://aub.edu.lb.libguides.com/c.php?g=276479&p=1843038

http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@arabstates/@ro-beirut/documents/genericdocument/wcms_240130.pdf

http://blog.blominvestbank.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/In-Depth-Review-of-the-Lebanese-Real-Estate-Sector-in-2015.pdf

http://website.aub.edu.lb/ifi/Documents/op_ed/20190208_sjc_op_ed.pdf

http://reporting.unhcr.org/node/2520

http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/UNHCR%20Lebanon%20Operational%20Update%20-%20January%20-%20June%202018.pdf

https://www.alnap.org/system/files/content/resource/files/main/20150907-noplacetostay.pdf

http://www.undp.org.lb/communication/publications/downloads/intgov_en.pdf

https://www.daleel-madani.org/civil-society-directory/cooperative-housing-foundation

 

 

 

[1] https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

[2] https://www.unhcr.org/50a4c17f9.pdf

[3] https://carnegieendowment.org/2017/03/29/refugees-and-displacement-in-middle-east-pub-68479

[4] Refugee camps are often thought of as a temporary solution under the assumption that refugees will one day return to their home countries. These camps have now evolved to urban slums as the influx in the Middle East increases.

https://www.ft.com/content/b27283ce-ed29-11e8-8180-9cf212677a57

https://unhabitat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/From-Refugee-Camps-to-Urban-Slums.pdf

[5] https://www.unrwa.org/palestine-refugees

[6] https://www.britannica.com/event/Syrian-Civil-War

[7]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321779706_Syrian_Refugees_in_Palestinian_Refugee_Camps_and_Informal_Settlements_in_Beirut_Lebanon

[8] https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2018/12/21/why-lebanon-struggles-to-form-governments

[9] http://www.lb.undp.org/content/dam/lebanon/docs/Operations/LegalFramework/UNDP%20Lebanon%20PS%20Strategy.pdf

[10] https://www.apnews.com/d7faca02c8024f8da57ffa6987500e2d

[11] https://www.thenational.ae/world/shatila-s-population-unknown-as-palestinian-refugee-camp-bursts-at-seams-1.178993

[12] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-02/beirut-s-ghost-apartments-are-haunting-the-economy

[13] https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/reportsfeatures/the-refugee-effect-on-lebanese-rent­

[14] http://www.executive-magazine.com/opinion/comment/charting-a-path

[15] https://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10

[16] https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/BeyondIslamists-Lebanon-4.pdf

[17] https://www.acted.org/en/countries/lebanon/

[18] http://urda.org.lb/en/details.aspx?ID=1718

[19] https://www.anera.org/where-we-work/lebanon/

[20] https://drc.ngo/where-we-work/middle-east/lebanon

[21] http://joannachoukeir.com/List-of-NGOs-in-Lebanon#.XHKhsZMzaRs

[22] http://www.executive-magazine.com/business-finance/real-estate/renting-on-lebanons-black-market

Gaza: Cage Politics, Violence and Health

HaimYacobi4 December 2018

This blog is the second of the health in urban development blog series. View also:
Health in secondary urban centres: Insights from Karonga, Malawi

If you are interested in DPU’s new MSc in Health in Urban Development, more information can be found on our website.

“I’m like a bird in a cage”, told Shaheen in an interview to Al Jazeera as she lay in bed at Al-Rantisi hospital. “Outside of my cage I can see water and food, but I can’t reach it. This is my condition right now.” Shaheen suffers from breast cancer, her condition has been deteriorating ever since she was denied exit from Gaza for treatment. The Gaza Strip does not have adequate resources to provide her with appropriate treatment, yet she cannot leave, as Israeli authorities rejected her permit three times in a row without explanation. But this is not an anecdote – current data indicates that 54 Palestinians, including 46 cancer patients, died in 2017 after their requests for permits were delayed or refused.

Gaza, drawings by Gazan children, Photograph: Mohammed Baroud, Screen Photograph: Yoram Kuperminz

The case of Shaheen illustrates the ways in which health, death, life and space are entangled. It is not just about the crossing of the border between the Gaza strip and Israel, but also about being in a “cage”, an urban territory where electricity, clean water, sewage system and adequate housing which are basic conditions for ensuring a health – are absent. As already noted,  in 2017 more than 96 percent of groundwater is unfit for human consumption, and the forecast is that the damage would become irreversible by 2020; Due to chronic shortage in electricity operating pumps, there is a constant threat of raw sewage flooding residential areas. The beach areas of Gaza strip are polluted by more than a hundred million litres of raw sewage flowing into the sea every day. This matter was recently defined by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights as a “TOXIC SLUM”, claiming that Gazans “…are… caged in a toxic slum from birth to death”, a ghetto of 1.9 million residents (50% under the age of 18) living in one of the most densely-populated places on earth.

The spatio-politics of health, death and life goes beyond the notion of necropolitics; it is not just about the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die as Achile Mbembe suggests; rather it is also about the spatial dimension of “cage politics”. Within this context I argue that spatial organisation determines the right to kill as defined by Foucault; blocking Gaza, isolating its habitants, controlling the goods that can enter the strip (such as food, construction materials etc). Yet the question is not whether the organisation of space and health are linked, but why is space organised, controlled and destructed in certain cases so as to protect the right to health; What are the ideological forces and the political processes that promote or hinder the organisation of space?

Gaza, Photograph: Khalil Hamra, Screen Photograph: Yoram Kuperminz

The conditions in Gaza are not the result of any natural disaster, neither the outcome of the last few months events along the border. Rather, I would suggest to see it within the context of settler colonial political history, which prioritises territorial and demographic control over basic rights. As already noted the establishment of settler colonialism is based on “the will of erasure”, or at least the “systematic containment” of the original inhabitants. First of all, the refugees: close to 70% of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip are refugees. Most of them ran away, or were expelled from villages, towns and cities that are part of the State of Israel today.

Since then, Israeli political discourse focuses on the idea that this problem would disappear by itself. Yet, as the last few months demonstrate this is not the case: Young Palestinians who are demonstrating at the border are the third and fourth generations of the original refugees, and they are willing to die for the right to return, reminding us that 1948 is still with us, waiting for a political (rather than military) answer. Indeed, links between health, death, life and cage politics should be understood within a wider context, where freedom of movement, access to public services and infrastructure, as well as freedom from pollution and environmental hazards, are obvious rights linked to space.

Gaza murals, Photograph: Mustafa Hassona, Screen Photograph: Yoram Kuperminz

Indeed, the case of Gaza illustrates the ways in which people who have been displaced experience “root shock” – the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of some or all of one’s emotional ecosystem. As the case of Gaza demonstrates, the very historical foundations of the root shock are the expelled of Palestinians after the 1948 war from Israel, the creation of the “refugees crisis” and the ongoing violence in the last few decades. Root shock is both personal and collective: on the individual level emotional trauma affect a person experiences when his or her environment is destroyed. It causes the risk for stress-related diseases like depression and diminishes social, emotional, and financial resources. Here, several reports point on the growing number of mental illness in Gaza, including a growing number of suicides.

Importantly this has also an effect on the community level; root shock is expressed by the loss of interpersonal ties that is vested in the collective connections and affect negatively a community resilience. A telling example is the aspect of the high rates of sexual assaults in Gaza resulted of the common addiction to Tramadol which is available in Gaza, and popularly traded as an illegal street-drug. According to Mansour, the Tramadol side-effects have an immense impact on the frequency of sexual assaults and other un-healthy sexual behaviours. In general, Mansour describes Gaza as a society in “a tremendous and accelerated disintegration” in which “people are losing their humanity”. Another aspect is gender-based violence. In 2016, more than 148,000 women were subjected to psychological and physical abuse. Studies show a link between violence against women and the worsening of living conditions. According to the UNFPA, ‘The structural, cyclical and hierarchal nature of violence… means women often become “shock-absorbers” of the crisis’ in Gaza.

To sum up, cage politics violence has two dimensions that affect health conditions in Gaza. Active violence stemming from direct military actions and explicit policy. This affects water supply, electricity, nutrition. It also causes a severe shortage of equipment, medicines (including antibiotics and morphium), and medical expertise. This, for example, means injured people with gunshot wounds to the legs are not always treated quickly, leading to amputation. But cage politics is also discursive, symbolic and implicit; this is expressed in the very de-humansing and demonising public discourse in Israel, that in turn justifies active state violence. A current example is the building of an underwater sea barrier that according to the Israelis aims to prevent Palestinian infiltrators from entering Israel by sea. The barrier will consist of three layers. The first will be below the water; the second will be made of stone; the third will be made of barbed wire. An additional fence will surround the sea fence. The effect of this project on Gaza is clear: fishing, mobility, health and economy is one side of it, but this also takes us back to the very argument presented today: cage politics of health, life and death are highly political and that access to water, electricity and services, or proximity to environmental hazards, are not neutral facts but rather the results of policy and violence.

 

Haim Yacobi is a Prof of Development Planning and the Programme Leader of the Health in Urban Development MSc Programme at the DPU. In his current research he focuses on the ways in which ideology, planning and health are entangled in conflict zones.