The Men Who Get Rich Off Syrian Refugees

As Lebanon strains under an influx of displaced families, some landlords have started ratcheting up rates on temporary housing.

A Syrian refugee stands on mattresses inside a school where he temporarily lives with his family in Wadi Khaled town, near the Syrian border, in north Lebanon on July 24, 2012. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)

Hassan is only 30 years old, though like most people who have lived through war, he looks much older. Sitting next to his father, a few neighbors, and the landlord of the room he rents at a former school Lebanon, he beams as he describes the elation he felt upon reuniting with his family last month after he fled his home in Nahriyeh, near Qusair, Syria, and the gratitude he has for his landlord's unremitting hospitality.

As Hassan's story comes to a close, he politely excuses himself to check on the children playing outside. Once outside, the diminutive man slyly looks over his right shoulder before lighting a cigarette.

"My dad doesn't know I smoke," he says in between drags. But Hassan didn't leave the room simply to get out of his father's line of sight. He left to escape the earshot of another guest.

"The landlord is not a good man," he says cautiously as the smile he wore just a minute earlier fades. "He's greedy, and he's become greedier since the rest of my family arrived."

Of the nearly 1.7 million Syrian refugees, more than half of a million have taken refuge in Lebanon, according to UNHCR. And while there are no official statistics available on the subject of their exploitation, interviews with refugees and employees of various NGOs providing aid revealed numerous cases of Lebanese nationals benefitting from Syrian refugees' misfortune.

"Most of the stories we get include refugees renting out a room or sometimes a small piece of land, mainly in the Bekaa [near the Syrian border] and are having to pay a lot of money," said Joelle Eid, a Public Information Associate at UNHCR.

Hassan, who asked his last name not be used for fear of retribution, says the landlord, an overweight local sheikh in his 50s, used to charge around $67 each month for a room. The room where he lives is about 430 square feet, divided in two by a long bed sheet so people dressing can have privacy. Thin mattresses litter the floor where the three families living there eat, drink, and sleep. There is no bathroom and only a small stove for heating water.

More recently, due to the influx of refugees seeking sanctuary in the school, the landlord began charging $10 per person instead of charging per room. Hassan says his rent has nearly doubled and he now struggles to keep a roof over his family's head with the meager income he receives from working infrequent manual labor jobs.

Lebanon is a country of four million that's slightly smaller than Connecticut, but the influx of over 500,000 Syrian refugees has placed a massive burden on a nation already struggling to provide basic services. Host communities have grown weary of the overwhelming number of refugees and have blamed them for an increase in petty crimes like theft. They also complain about refugees who accept work for lower wages, putting some Lebanese out of the job, thus making recourse for the gouged tenants even less likely.

Mohammad, a 23-year-old refugee from Idlib, lives in a one-room apartment with three family members in Faraya, north of Beirut. He pays around $135 a month for what he describes as a broken down apartment where nothing works properly. He also says that his family is being charged more for the room than his Lebanese neighbors are for their homes. Mohammad said his landlord doesn't give him a grace period when it comes to paying rent. "I have to pay by the first [of the month] or I'm out by the second," he said.

But according to aid workers and volunteers, refugees' woes go beyond simple price increases.

Organizations providing aid to refugees try to avoid traveling to areas near the Syrian border that lack security. Instead, they identify local figures that can distribute the aid on their behalf. These local figures may be a mayor, a religious figure, or other people who are well-known in their communities. Some of these figures provide aid to a select few refugees while leaving the rest empty-handed. Others sell the aid to refugees as opposed to overseeing its distribution. Sometimes they will even give the aid to their own families and friends.

When Abu Hassan's landlord is given food to distribute to refugees at the school he often keeps it for his own family, Hassan says.

Kamella Lakkis has worked with refugees in Lebanon for Terre des Hommes and Premiere Urgence and says that she meets people like Hassan's landlord every day when she's working in the field.

Lakkis says that she has encountered many cases where landlords and other Lebanese nationals are exploiting Syrian refugees. She found that Syrians often pay more at local supermarkets, are charged more by taxi and bus drivers, and are paid lower salaries than Lebanese performing the same jobs. But the worst case Lakkis came across was that of a female Syrian refugee forced to engage in sexual acts with a Lebanese male in order to provide her children with food.

"There are many refugees who are accepting any [situation] because they don't want to return to living through a crisis," she said.