10/02/2013 10:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Syria Smartphone Mapping Effort Puts Spotlight On Hidden Refugees


GPS systems are being used to register new refugee camps and target relief in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

Thousands of “hidden” refugees who arrived in Lebanon unnoticed are being registered by smartphone. The British taxpayer-supported initiative aims to ensure that vulnerable victims of the Syrian  conflict are not left without help.

Among those found was an elderly man whose right leg was blown off by a rocket. He was discovered sitting  incapacitated in his family’s tent.  Hundreds of children living without access to education, healthcare and protection from potential abuse have also been discovered as part of a “mapping” exercise. The initiative, which is being conducted in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley by emergency relief charity Medair, began because of the large number of improvised refugee encampments which have been springing up across the country.

Unlike in Jordan, where many fleeing Syria live in large, state-authorised camps, most refugees in Lebanon rent small farmland plots from landowners wanting cash or agricultural labour. Many arrive without being registered at the border, creating an absence of information about where refugees are living, and in what numbers.

That makes it harder to co-ordinate relief efforts and leaves aid agencies unable to ensure that resources are targeted at the most needy.

To address the problems, the European Commission Humanitarian Organisation, which is funded by Britain and other EU governments, has asked Medair to map the settlements.

For Reine Hanna, a 24-year-old Lebanese computer technology graduate who joined Medair this summer to carry out the work, the task is simple, but vital. “We found nine new settlements yesterday,” she said. “People are arriving all the time and we need to know where they are so help can be given and to stop duplication.

“Some places are getting help from more than one organisation because  there aren’t proper records and when they’re visited they say no one has been when they have. Other places are getting nothing because they are not recorded. So this is about improving co-ordination and making sure money is spent on people who need it most.”

At each settlement Ms Hanna joins the local “shaweesh”, or community leader, to count the number of tents and refugees. She logs  the information and the settlement’s GPS co-ordinates on her phone and transmits it directly to a UN database.

The value of the work becomes apparent as  her team arrives at one tent and finds 70-year-old Khaled al Saho sitting on the floor displaying the stump of his right leg. It was amputated above the knee after a rocket crashed into his home in the Syrian town of Idlib five months ago.

He arrived in the settlement two days ago and has to be carried to the lavatory by his sons. One of Ms Hanna’s colleagues notes details of his injury and location so that his case can be referred to specialist charity Handicap  International.

In each newly discovered settlement, children appear in large numbers. With Lebanese schools unable or unwilling to admit Syrian children, and aid agency provision limited, few are receiving  education. Many work instead. At one empty tent, for example, Ms Hanna is told by the shaweesh that the parents and their children, the youngest of whom is 10, are all out working.

Some children are given jobs herding sheep, chopping wood or helping in the fields. The visual impression is confirmed by official statistics. A recent report by the European Commission Humanitarian Organisation, which is funding Medair’s work in Lebanon, said that more than half of those who have fled Syria are children.

Other assessments show that most are of primary age. Pinpointing their location will not, on its own, solve such problems. But as Ms Hanna explains to those in the latest new settlement, it is an essential first step to addressing their plight.



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