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NRC shelter programme in Lebanon


By the Norwegian Refugee Council, Lebanon and Jordan

This article represents the combined efforts of many members of the NRC teams both in Lebanon and Jordan.

The arrival of over one million refugees into Lebanon, a small country with just over four million residents, has outstripped the capacity of the local housing market to meet the escalating demands for shelter. Such demands have not been matched by supply. As a result, prices throughout the property markets have significantly increased and the consumer price index has registered a clear increase in rental costs since July 2012. Prices are likely to further increase as refugee numbers continue to rise and supply of suitable housing options remains limited. Increases in rent prices are also contributing towards the eviction of refugees, as landlords ask for higher rents which many refugees cannot afford.  As resources are depleted, more people are likely to be forced to sleep on the streets.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)1 is one of the largest humanitarian actors responding to shelter needs of tens of thousands of people affected by the Syrian crisis in both camp and non-camp settings in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. NRC’s shelter activities aim to facilitate both the physical and social needs of targeted beneficiaries.  This article describes the shelter experiences of NRC in Lebanon, and includes a postscript on the NRC shelter approach in a Jordan as a further example of NRC’s shelter programming in non-camp settings in the region.

NRC’s shelter programme in the Lebanese context

Since mid-2011, NRC Lebanon has been involved in the humanitarian response for refugees arriving from Syria. With an initial focus on the most immediate needs identified, NRC through its shelter programme has been a main actor in providing shelter solutions in the host community for displaced people from Syria, including for Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS).

North Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley between them host the bulk of the displaced population, where extremes of heat and cold make adequate shelter especially important. These areas are also substantially affected by the conflict in Syria spilling over the border and causing tensions between Lebanon’s communities. South Lebanon and Beirut also host substantial numbers of displaced, and the Palestinian camps and gatherings2 are usually the destination for PRS, exacerbating the already overcrowded conditions frequently found in those places.

In addition, there are 260,000-280,000 long-term Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Living conditions in official camps and unofficial gatherings are substantially worse than in the country as a whole, with significant overcrowding and often inadequate infrastructure. The general prohibition on Palestinians owning property in Lebanon is interpreted in such a way as to make ad-hoc repairs and maintenance of their homes illegal, and this is often enforced. In Nahr el Bared camp, and in gatherings in South Lebanon, many buildings have not yet been rebuilt after the 2007 conflict, with former residents living in sub-standard temporary structures. 

NRC assists displaced people from Syria who reside within the host community. They may live in homes shared with Lebanese or Lebanon-resident hosts, in unfinished buildings, in collective shelters or in other structures. They may also be homeless and seeking accommodation in the host community. They may be Syrian, PRS, or Lebanese citizens normally resident in Syria. NRC also assists extremely vulnerable members of the local Lebanese community. To date the displaced people have settled overwhelmingly (78%) in the host community, often supported by familial or co-religionist bonds but often also where these do not exist (and sometimes where these bonds are under strain due to the sectarian nature of, and Lebanese involvement in, the conflict in Syria). The economic and social burdens on the host community can be acute, especially in marginal border areas for which cross-border trade was a core livelihood. The hosting sector needs support, both tangible and symbolic, in order to maintain its ability and willingness to host the displaced population.

For displaced people from Syria in the host community, NRC supports the hosting process by offering a package of upgrades for unfinished buildings and other structures in exchange for the rent-free hosting of a displaced household. The building upgrades package provides minimum standard shelter for the primary beneficiaries. This is rent-free for a period, usually one year, in which they have the possibility to become established and financially stable and so able to pay rent when the period is over. The provision of shelter with sanitation also gives the attendant health and security benefits. The Lebanese or Lebanon-resident hosts are supported tangibly, with the transfer of economic assets for the future, and visibly, by which the hosting sector as a whole may recognise that they are not bearing the burden alone. Most importantly, every housing unit created is added to the general rental stock, helping reduce the impact of inflation, benefiting displaced people from Syria who are renting and also Lebanese people living in the rental market. Bonds between the communities are strengthened and the risk of large-scale evictions is reduced. Since 2012, NRC Lebanon has rehabilitated over 6,800 housing units across Lebanon in exchange for 12-month occupancy free of charge periods for vulnerable refugee households. NRC Lebanon is currently planning to rehabilitate a further 3,600 housing units in 2015. 

An evaluation is planned for the last quarter of 2014. Because of restrictions of the kinds of work that refugees from Syria are permitted to do without a work permit (limited to unskilled labour such as agriculture and construction) coupled with the significant numbers of refugees competing to make a living, it is not certain that economic stability will be achieved. However anecdotal information from contracts already ended suggest that in some cases, refugees are able to negotiate to stay on in the accommodation that NRC has upgraded. The evaluation will help us to understand further.

The shelter needs of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon

A building undergoing rehabilitation in LebanonNRC also assists Palestinian refugees who have been resident in Lebanon since before the Syrian crisis, and are in need of shelter support. Many of these are second or third generation refugees. They live in official camps and unofficial gatherings – NRC works in the gatherings and is ready to assist in camps should United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) request it. Thirty-eight per cent of the 260,000-280,000 long-term Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live outside the formal camps and so are ineligible for full support from UNRWA and the rights and services it ensures. Residents are generally not permitted to repair buildings they do not legally own, and so the property stock is consequentially of a very low overall standard. As well as compromising their attainment of the right to shelter, there are implications in terms of health, security and economic well-being3. Since 2013, NRC Lebanon has supported over 2,000 Palestinians with direct shelter support in order to improve their living conditions. NRC Lebanon will continue with assistance to the Palestinian Camps and gatherings in 2015. 

NRC acquires the necessary permissions and supports rehabilitation of these properties, setting a precedent for rehabilitation taking place while also advocating that this be allowed to happen without NRC intervention. For the same reasons, NRC also works in the reconstruction of totally destroyed buildings (mainly those destroyed during the 2007 conflict in the Nahr el Bared camp) and the capacity building of beneficiaries (be it committees or individual families) on care and maintenance of the dwellings. In most cases, NRC resources the acquisition of building materials; the assistance does not extend to furniture, equipment, etc. Palestinian refugees benefit from rehabilitation or reconstruction of their homes which they could not carry out themselves, often for financial reasons but certainly for legal ones. They attain an improved standard of living with consequent health, security and economic benefits. 

NRC’s selection of shelter beneficiaries

NRC selects its shelter beneficiaries based on vulnerability criteria, which include existing sub-standard living conditions and inability to find adequate shelter alone, female or child-headed households, disability and people with other special needs.  An important aspect of NRC’s shelter programme is to mainstream aspects of disability (physical, sensory and cognitive) and specific shelter needs related to severe medical conditions (injury, chronic disease). NRC tries, as much as possible, to match properties and families according to specific needs. For example, a household with a member with limited mobility would, wherever possible, be provided with accommodation on the ground floor. In addition, NRC’s shelter teams have made specific adjustments to shelters to facilitate mobility and independence for beneficiaries with physical disabilities, such as constructing disabled access ramps to enable wheelchairs to move in and out of the house, or adjusting bathrooms for such purposes. An important element of NRC’s programming is the consultation which the social teams carry out with disabled beneficiaries in order to understand from them – and their families where relevant and appropriate – how to best meet their specific needs. 

Looking ahead: a protracted shelter crisis

More than three years into the Syrian conflict, which has led to a protracted humanitarian crisis with regional dimensions, over 3 million people have sought safety and protection in neighbouring countries and North Africa. According to UNHCR, the average rate of monthly registrations continues to exceed 100,000 so far in 2014. In Lebanon alone, over one million UNHCR-registered refugees are living across the following four settlement options – 82% of Syrian refugees are in existing structures, 2% are in collective centres, 16% are in informal settlements and less than 1% are in formal settlements.

The lack of affordable housing has led to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria living in substandard, overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation without security of tenure and exposed to risks of exploitation and forced eviction. Cycles of secondary displacement in Lebanon have been increasing, as refugee families move from place to place in search of adequate and affordable shelter and income generating activities. Recent NRC assessments indicate actual - or fear of - rising rental prices and competition to secure adequate housing as the two main areas of tension between refugees and host communities.

In Lebanon, where the government has not authorised the establishment of camps for Syrian refugees4, it is estimated that 67% pay rent for privately owned (finished) apartments, which equates to an estimated monthly minimum contribution of USD 32 million to the Lebanese economy. In addition, 14% are estimated to be renting unfinished buildings and another 14% pay rent in informal settlements, which are characterised by basic, self-built shelters with poor access to water and sanitation services and uncertainty over status of the land. The majority of the 52,000 Palestinian refugees who were displaced from Syria live in pre-existing Palestinian refugee camps and gatherings, hosted by Palestinian refugees already in Lebanon, increasing the strain on already overcrowded areas and on the limited services available.

Depleted income and high cost of living

A November 2013 Oxfam survey on the livelihoods of Syrian refugees in Lebanon5 found that, on average, monthly rent represented 43% of a Syrian refugee household’s monthly expenditure and 90% of its monthly income. This is particularly significant because of the depressed Lebanese economy, lack of employment opportunities in Lebanon and increased pressure from the Lebanese authorities to minimise livelihood opportunities for refugees from Syria. 

While the main household expenditures are rent for shelter and food, the majority of refugees (almost 70%) do not receive shelter assistance and many are forced to pay rents they cannot afford. The impact of high rental costs on household food purchase was not examined in this study and we are not aware of any other study that looks at this. Other forms of humanitarian assistance, such as food and non-food items (NFIs), are further reducing through the targeted assistance programme, as humanitarian funding for Lebanon plans to reduce. When Syrian refugees where asked in a recent UNHCR (telephone) survey about their sources of income to cover shelter and other living costs,  62% said their income came from their own earnings, 37% depended on humanitarian assistance and 18% borrowed money. A further 7% reported that their income came from their children working, 3% received assistance from family abroad and the remaining 4% responded ‘other’6

For refugees from Syria that have arrived across official border crossings (and are considered to have ‘legal’ entry and stay by the Lebanese authorities), the annual cost of renewing expired legal stay documentation (i.e. the residency permit for every person over the age of 15 years) is prohibitive (200USD). For those who entered Lebanon across unofficial border crossings, they are required to submit a ‘petition of mercy’ for the consideration of the Lebanese authorities. This is a discretionary procedure. If the conclusion is positive, then they are required to pay the equivalent of 600USD to regularise their status in Lebanon and obtain a residency permit for one year. The opportunity cost (see Table 1) demonstrates the difficult choices refugee families from Syria have to make when considering what to spend monthly income on.

Table 1: Opportunity cost of paying the fee to renew legal stay for families deciding whether to renew residency visa documentation.

The average family earns USD250 per month which they need to cover a range of household needs. The table below captures a selection of competing priorities for household expenditure, and gives an indication of what households consider when deciding whether they can afford to renew their residency visas.

Renewal of residency visa documentation (2 adults for one year)


Self-Built Shelter




Monthly Minimum Expenditure Basket (MEB)

USD 400

Equal to 4 months of rent for one room in an unfinished building Equal to Material for 1 low standard shelter in an informal settlement Equal to Food for 1½ months Equal to Heating for 4 months Equal to 1 noncaesarean birth in hospital Equal to 55% of MEB

The risk of eviction for refugee families

NRC has recorded an increase in cases of mass forced eviction of refugees from informal settlements, especially those perceived as becoming ‘too permanent’, as well as reports of higher rates of forced evictions of refugees from rental accommodation. Initial findings from a recent NRC assessment in Lebanon found that, like Jordan, the majority of Syrian refugees do not have secure tenure, are often at risk of forced eviction and that many are at risk of homelessness if they are evicted from their current shelter. In addition, from its fieldwork, NRC has noted that forced evictions are often related to disputes between refugees themselves or between refugee and host communities, often related to sharing utilities, the number of people living together or use of land.

The lack of security of tenure

An informal settlement in LebanonFor the purposes of this article, security of tenure refers to mechanisms to ensure protection against the threat of eviction or forced eviction. As the number of refugees who have to manage their own shelter situation is increasing, it is important to have an improved understanding of the circumstances leading to potential evictions (particularly forced evictions, where lawful procedures are not applied). In particular, refugees without any clear agreement with a landlord or landowner, such as a written lease contract, have been at a heightened risk of eviction. Being at risk of eviction and facing uncertainty about their living situation means that refugees do not have security of tenure. The risk of eviction concerns refugees living in all types of housing situations, including private apartments or houses, informal settlements or in collective centres on private or public land. 


In order to understand these housing, land and property matters more, NRC initiated a pilot project in the Bekaa valley. Through the pilot project, NRC collected information and data in order to determine the most appropriate ways to respond to and prevent evictions. Qualitative and quantitative data were collected through 46 interviews with individual refugee tenants and six focus group discussions, including with landlords and tenants. Set out below are initial findings of the pilot project, regarding security of tenure and the role and importance of written lease agreements or other types of agreements between landlord and tenant:

  • Syrian refugees face severe insecurity of tenure in their housing arrangements and state that they do not know where to seek help when they face a dispute and/or an eviction.
  • All refugees who identified a current eviction or threat of eviction stated that they would be homeless as a result of an eviction.
  • Refugees face significantly different challenges depending on whether they access their housing through the private rental market or through informal settlements.
  • Although written agreements contribute to improved security of tenure, the top two reasons that refugees hesitate to clarify rental terms with written agreements are:
    • Refugees are unaware of the benefits of a written agreement; and/or
    • Refugees are afraid to approach the landlord or the informal refugee representative (often known as a Shaweesh) about a written agreement.
  • Landlords report that they are willing to sign a written agreement in order to protect their interests.
  • Female refugees face specific protection issues that weaken their access to secure housing.

Preliminary results from a joint NRC and Save the Children assessment in Beirut and Mount Lebanon7, which is seeking to identify statistically relevant correlations between move outs (when tenants leave a property they have been renting) and host community acceptance, rental burden, and livelihoods, are: 

  • The majority of refugees in Beirut and Mount Lebanon believe they are at risk of eviction due primarily to unlawful rent increase and diminishing host community acceptance.
  • The priority areas for intervention by humanitarian agencies in the opinion of refugees and vulnerable Lebanese communities in Beirut and Mount Lebanon are water and electricity projects in addition to improved living conditions (housing rehabilitation).
  • Direct intervention with refugees would require strong contextual understanding which so far indicates that Community Support Projects (CSPs) are a key entry point to working in Beirut and Mount Lebanon in order to reach the most vulnerable refugee communities while relieving tensions with host communities.

For more information on the Lebanon programme, contact Neil Brighton, email: neil.brighton@nrc.no


NRC Jordan’s urban shelter approach

This article was developed from a case study produced by NRC. 

As in Lebanon, the influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan has put considerable strain on the local housing market. There are now more than 600,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, 80% of whom are living outside of formal camps in cities, towns and villages throughout the country. The Syrian crisis has exacerbated the existing shortage of affordable housing in Jordan. The Government of Jordan noted that in the seven years prior to the Syrian conflict, the Jordanian housing market faced an annual shortfall of 3,400 housing units (a housing unit is defined as the space needed to accommodate an average family ).To respond to growing shelter needs, NRC is putting new housing units on the market through an innovative integrated Urban Shelter programme which provides tangible support to Jordanian host communities while meeting the immediate shelter needs of vulnerable Syrian refugees.

An additional 120,000 new housing units are needed to accommodate the current numbers of Syrian refugees in Jordan. The refugee influx is now impacting poor Jordanian households with recent assessments indicating actual or fears of rising rental prices and competition to secure adequate housing as the two main areas of tension between refugees and host communities. Many Syrian refugee families are therefore struggling to find adequate and secure accommodation. In 2014, UNHCR noted that more than half of Syrian refugee shelters assessed outside of formal camps are substandard. For those managing to find  accommodation, many are not able to pay rising rents, which in some refugee influx areas has risen by more than 25% between 2012 and 2013.Syrian refugee families assessed by NRC often tell of multiple moves inside Jordan as they try to find adequate and affordable shelter impacting their ability to access basic services such as keeping their children in schools, stay connected to their family and support networks and crucially stay legal as they are required to update their place of residence on government-issued service cards in order to access local services.

NRC is providing financial incentives and technical support to Jordanian landlords in northern Jordan to bring new units onto the rental market. In return, vulnerable Syrian refugee families identified by NRC are provided with rent-free accommodation of between 12 – 24 months. Since July 2013, NRC has put an additional 1,500 housing units on the market, benefiting more than 5,000 Syrian refugees. NRC has more than 8,400 Syrian beneficiaries currently on waiting lists for the project now operating in 48 villages across the Greater Irbid and Jerash areas.

The Integrated Urban Shelter Programme is supported by NRC’s Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) teams who conducts regular follow up house visits with beneficiaries to provide information and counselling and monitor and respond to any landlord-tenant relationships. 

Unlike other shelter approaches (i.e. cash for rent or repair of substandard dwellings), this project crucially contributes towards the creation of additional housing units. The development and increase of available and secure housing opportunities in local communities will help stabilise rents and reduce current inflation rates within the rental market - the main concern facing urban refugees and host community residents alike.

NRC Jordan engineering team assessing unfinished housing units in northern JordanNRC Jordan currently has funding for 4,000 housing units by end of 2014. NRC estimates that it will have invested some USD 10 million (JOD 7 million) in the local Jordanian economy through construction materials, labour-costs and other income generating opportunities. NRC is the only organisation currently implementing this shelter methodology in Jordan. It is one of the key approaches outlined in the Syria Crisis Regional Response Plan (RRP) and highlighted in the Government of Jordan’s National Resilience Plan (2014 – 2016). The project is being developed in collaboration with community-based organisations and in coordination with the relevant governmental departments.

For more information on the Jordan programme, contact Amjad Yamin: amjad.yamin@nrc.no

For more information on the shelter response in the region, read: NRC, June 2014. A precarious existence: the shelter situation of refugees from Syria in neighbouring countries

For further information on NRC’s shelter work, go to: http://www.nrc.no/

1 For more information on the agency, see: http://www.nrc.no/?

2 “Gathering: It is a place of residence for Palestinians outside the refugee camps and includes 25 households or more living near each other, in the same neighbourhood. UNRWA does not serve the smallest gatherings.” http://www.fafo.no/pub/rapp/418/418defeng.htm. There are 12 official camps in Lebanon and 42 gatherings. UNRWA provides healthcare and education services to all Palestinian refugees, but housing, water and electricity are only provided to refugees residing in the official camps.

3For more information, see the NRC report: No Place like Home: An Assessment of the Housing, Land and Property Rights of  Palestinian Refugee Women in Camps and Gatherings in Lebanon, available at http://www.flyktninghjelpen.no/arch/img.aspx?file_id=9166459 

4 On 11th September 2014, the Government of Lebanon announced its intention to set up two ‘experimental’ camps in border areas in the east of Lebanon.

5Available at: http://www.oxfam.org/en/policy/survey-livelihoods-syrian-refugees-lebanon 

6 The total percentages add to more than 100% because more than one answer could be given to the question as refugees may combine sources of income in order to pay for shelter.

7 The assessment comprised discussions with 668 refugee households as well as interviews with key informants in host communities.

8 http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/9179861.pdf


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