BAALBEK, Lebanon — In a typical refugee camp, the tents or trailers would probably be all white and bear the donor’s logo. Here, the shacks that hundreds of Syrian refugees have built themselves are draped with discarded billboard tarps that, in their second lives, still go on advertising the Emirates airline, Silkor Laser Medical Center, Sea Pros Yachts and Khoury Home Wedding List.
A Lebanese charity called Sawa equipped some of the shacks with toilets and water reservoirs. But most of the Syrians on the outskirts of Baalbek, a town in central Lebanon with one of the highest concentrations of refugees, were on their own.
Of the 2.3 million people who have fled Syria’s civil war, only about 20 percent live in camps. The rest are what aid organizations call urban refugees, whether they are in cities, towns or villages. In Lebanon, where there is no single formal refugee camp, 850,000 registered refugees are scattered throughout the country in 1,600 locations.
In one settlement, 33 families were squeezed into 30 shacks. None of the children were going to school. Only a quarter of the residents were registered with the United Nations refugees agency and thus eligible for food assistance, the refugees said.
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To a certain extent, the situation in Lebanon is a result of policy choices. Generally, the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations have in recent years moved refugees outside camps, which often become crucibles of social problems. The theory was that urban refugees would lead healthier, more normal lives and keep acquiring skills that would help them after their eventual return home. Services could be provided, just as inside a camp.
But the scale of Syria’s refugee crisis also has shown the difficulties and cost of catering to a largely urban refugee population, and now the United Nations is pressing for the establishment of camps in Lebanon.
Aid groups have strained to provide the kind of basic services found in all camps to the more than 1.8 million registered urban refugees dispersed throughout Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere. Yet neither the United Nations nor governments know how many urban refugees there really are. Hundreds of thousands remain unregistered.
“The Syrian crisis poses a real challenge for the humanitarian agencies, which are much more used to dealing with refugees inside camps, where everybody is in one place,” said Jeff Crisp, a senior director at Refugees International, an advocacy group in Washington, and the former head of policy development at the U.N. refugees agency.
While Ninette Kelley, the agency’s representative in Lebanon, said refugee camps should be “a last resort,” the United Nations, overwhelmed with the influx of Syrians, has been lobbying the Lebanese government to establish them. So far, Lebanon has refused, citing its tortured history with its Palestinian camps.
Direct comparisons are hard to make. But in Jordan, where a fifth of the refugee population resides in camps, the United Nations has appealed for help equivalent to about $980 per refugee; in Lebanon, that number is $1,210.
Part of the extra cost goes to helping communities overwhelmed by the flood of refugees, who end up competing with local people for apartments, jobs and services. In Turkey, the richest of the host nations, the presence of a cheap, though illegal, foreign workforce may be tacitly encouraged.
But in the smaller, fragile economies of Lebanon and Jordan, jobs are scarcer.
Mohammed Mafaalani, 35, a refugee from Daraa in southern Syria, lived for six months north of Amman, the Jordanian capital, paying about $240 a month for a two-room apartment for his wife and two sons. He found sporadic work as a house painter, but was called in several times by the Jordanian authorities for working illegally — exposed, he believed, by Jordanians angry that he would work for less.
Unable to afford his rent, Mafaalani and his family stood in Zaatari, the huge refugee camp run by the United Nations in Jordan, waiting for a bus to the Syrian border. The family was going back to Daraa despite the fighting there.
The family did not consider staying in Zaatari, which, as the refugees agency itself has acknowledged, is lawless in many ways, with criminal and rebel groups beyond the control of agency officials.
While the legions of urban refugees present challenges to humanitarian groups, the conditions inside the camps are generating other problems. As the United Nations and regional governments work on the assumption that Syria’s civil war will last for years and are ready to open new camps or expand existing ones, many worry that the worst camps are becoming incubators of despair and Islamic extremism.
“If I were in Zaatari, I’d become a jihadist,” said Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Salafist jihadism.
A small camp in Jordan, Mrajeeb al-Fhood, financed by the United Arab Emirates and run by the Emirati Red Crescent, prides itself on catering to all the needs of its 3,000 residents. Token jobs are available, but officials do not allow the refugees to set up small businesses. By far the most organized, cleanest and safest of the camps, it also has the tightest security and is the strictest in granting permits to leave.
“Zaatari is dirty and dangerous, so we are happy to be here,” said Sahar Karazan, 37, who was living there with her five children.
In Turkey, the government has spent $2 billion to house 200,000 refugees in 21 camps. It directly manages the camps and allows very limited access to outsiders.
In Kilis, a Turkish border town, about 14,000 refugees live in trailers and have access to a full range of facilities in what is considered one of the best camps. Entrepreneurship is permitted.
But a prominent criticism of the Turkish camps remains: Tightly controlled by the government, which backs the rebel movement against Syria’s President Bashar Assad, the camps effectively serve as rear bases for Syrian rebels and have few, if any, Alawites, members of the Shiite offshoot who tend to support Assad.
“We support Bashar, and everybody else in the camps is going to fight him,” said Mohammed al-Mahmoud, 27, who had gathered with other Alawites at a center in Istanbul. “I don’t think we could hide the fact that we are Alawites inside the camps.”