How Aid Groups Map Refugee Camps That Officially Don’t Exist

On the outskirts of Zahle, a town in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, a pair of aid workers carrying clipboards and cell phones walk through a small refugee camp, home to 11 makeshift shelters built from wood and tarps.

A camp resident leading them through the settlement—one of many in the Beqaa, a wide agricultural plain between Beirut and Damascus with scattered villages of cinderblock houses—points out a tent being renovated for the winter. He leads them into the kitchen of another tent, highlighting cracking wood supports and leaks in the ceiling. The aid workers record the number of residents in each tent, as well as the number of latrines and kitchens in the settlement.

The visit is part of an initiative by the Switzerland-based NGO Medair to map the locations of the thousands of informal refugee settlements in Lebanon, a country where even many city buildings have no street addresses, much less tents on a dusty country road.

“I always say that this project is giving an address to people that lost their home, which is giving back part of their dignity in a way,” says Reine Hanna, Medair’s information management project manager, who helped develop the mapping project.

The initiative relies on GIS technology, though the raw data is collected the old-school way, without high tech mapping aids like drones. Mapping teams criss-cross the country year round, stopping at each camp to speak to residents and conduct a survey. They enter the coordinates of new camps or changes in the population or facilities of old ones into a database that’s shared with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and other NGOs working in the camps. The maps can be accessed via a mobile app by workers heading to the field to distribute aid or respond to emergencies.

Lebanon, a small country with an estimated native population of about 4 million, hosts more than 900,000 registered Syrian refugees and potentially hundreds of thousands more unregistered, making it the country with the highest population of refugees per capita in the world.

But there are no official refugee camps run by the government or the UN refugee agency in Lebanon, where refugees are a sensitive subject. The country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and government officials refer to the Syrians as “displaced,” not “refugees.”

Lebanese officials have been wary of the Syrians settling permanently, as Palestinian refugees did beginning in 1948. Today, more than 70 years later, there are some 470,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, though the number living in the country is believed to be much lower.

Maps compiled by Medair showing the growth in the number of informal refugee camps in one area of Lebanon over the past six years.

Courtesy of Medair/UNHCR

In 2015, the government asked UNHCR to stop registering Syrian refugees, and it prevents construction of permanent refugee camps. Most of the refugees live in homes and apartments, according to UN data. But the number living in informal settlements has grown as some refugees who had lived in rented apartments exhausted their savings and moved to tents. At the end of 2019, Medair reported 302,209 Syrian refugees living in more than 6,000 informal camps, up from 236,000 in late 2016.

“The high rental costs and limited shelter space in Lebanon coupled with the no-camp policy in the country pushed Syrian refugees to seek shelter in hundreds of spontaneous informal settlements,” says Lisa Abou Khaled, a spokesperson for UNHCR.

Refugees rent space from landowners with unused plots of ground—usually in agricultural areas—and erect tents made from wood and tarps. UNHCR and other organizations provide some building materials and give cash assistance to some of the neediest families, but many refugees pay rent out of pocket, typically about $50 a month.

The decentralized and informal nature of the refugee system—along with the general lack of street addresses in the country—makes providing aid or responding in emergencies like floods and fires a daunting prospect, Hanna says.

“For me, if I have to tell someone where I live, I tell them, ‘Take the second left after the bump in the road and maybe you’ll find my house,’” Hanna says. “So can you imagine if you’re trying to tell someone where you live in the middle of nowhere in a settlement?”

When Hanna graduated from university in 2013 with a degree in computer science and a minor in GIS mapping, she didn’t expect to go into humanitarian work. But she quickly learned that her skills were in demand in the growing refugee response effort.

When Medair began mapping the settlements in 2013, workers found isolated camps that had never been visited by aid organizations or received any services. “No one knew they were there, even, and the reason for that is some sites it took us a 45-minute drive from the nearest highway or the nearest main road to get to them in the middle of nowhere,” Hanna says. “But those are the most vulnerable—those are the people who actually need the assistance.”

The maps were crucial during last year’s severe winter storms, which left many camps inundated, allowing aid groups to find the settlements in need of help bailing out water or supplies like fresh mattresses and blankets.

The first maps, in 2013, covered the Beqaa Valley, which hosts the country’s highest concentration of refugee settlements. In 2014, in coordination with UNHCR and several other NGO partners, Medair expanded the mapping project to all of Lebanon.

Most of the structures in the informal camps are made of wood and tarps.Photograph: Jihad Muhammad/Getty Images

Using Esri GIS mapping software, teams fanned out across the country and mapped every settlement they could find. In some cases, UNHCR or other NGOs already had coordinates for the camps. In others, residents of neighboring settlements pointed the mapping teams to encampments. In some cases, the mapping teams simply drove through country roads in search of tents.

Each settlement is designated with a “P code” (or position code), a sequence of numbers delineating the province, village area, and latitude and longitude. The mappers survey the camp residents to gather and enter basic data on the number of tents and residents, and on infrastructure such as water sources and number of latrines at the site.

The mapping teams repeat the survey every four months to note changes. In some cases, settlements are evicted by the Army or by landlords. In others, new camps spring up. Families might move in search of seasonal work. Some might return to Syria.

There’s now a hotline that refugees can call when they move to a new site, to request a visit from the mapping team. “We used to ask refugees, municipalities—used to drive around in the middle of nowhere just trying to see” where the camps are, Hanna says. “Now we have refugees themselves reaching out and calling the hotline.”

The changes are noted in the mapping database, which is shared with UNHCR and other NGOs providing services to the settlements. For instance, if the mapping team finds a new camp, the new arrivals may need “shelter kits” with plastic sheeting, vinyl, and wood planks. Database access is only shared with verified NGOs working in the area after receiving permission from UNHCR, Hanna said.

Sometimes the mapping teams become an outlet for residents’ frustration over lack of aid. Criteria for assistance have become stricter as fighting in Syria drags on and “donor fatigue” has set in.

In the settlement near Zahle, residents pointed to tents with splintering wood and leaking roofs and complained that the camp had not received new tarps or wood from the UN or other NGOs for four years.

Ahmad Ibrahim, a father of three living in the camp, says he has no work, $8,000 in debt, and a leaking tent. “Yesterday, it rained a little bit and water came in on my children,” he says.

Ali Ismail, who has been working with the mapping team in the Beqaa for six years, acknowledged that the work can become discouraging. “The hardest thing is when you go into a camp and their situation is quite bad and you can’t do anything,” he says.

But he insists that the work makes a difference. “There are camps where, when we go, we find people have newly arrived and they don’t have anything,” he says. The mapping team gives the newcomers a code; then, “NGOs begin to come and visit them and help with shelter and latrines and so forth, and their situation improves after a bit.”

More Great WIRED Stories

Read More