MGHEIRIEH, Lebanon: The elderly Elias Dagher points toward acres of olive groves overlooking the precipitous region of Iqlim al-Kharroub, identifying the expansive area as one singled out by humanitarian organizations to be a potential formal settlement for Syrian refugees.
“The land is small,” the local resident said of the plot in Jmaylieh. “We [in the town] cannot handle such big numbers [of refugees].”
Dagher’s sentiments echo those of local authorities who remain unequivocal about their rejection of formal refugee camps in the area, after media reports surfaced in recent weeks alleging that Dar al-Fatwa was looking to rent the privately owned land to shelter displaced Syrians.
Though the Lebanese government maintains its no-camp policy, new Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas is lobbying to alter the strategy during his tenure.
The local authorities of Mgheirieh, Jmaylieh and Alman were compelled to hold a meeting over the weekend to denounce reports initially aired by Al-Jadeed that Lebanon’s top Sunni institution, the Social Affairs Ministry and the UNHCR were planning to set up refugee camps in the village of Jmaylieh and overlooking Alman and Rmeileh. In the report, Al-Jadeed covertly taped a man identified as Mohammad Rawass as he explained that the land owner in the area was asked to establish a leasing contract for a three-year period.
Though Dar al-Fatwa, the ministry and the U.N. denied concrete plans were in the works to establish formal settlements in the area, the televised report was enough to draw the ire of local mayors and Progressive Socialist Party officials, who cite local socio-economic concerns and draw on their negative experience with Palestinians in the past as their reasons for rejecting the project.
“We refuse the establishment of camps in all of Lebanon, especially in the Chouf, and specifically in Iqlim al-Kharroub,” Mgheirieh Mayor Mustafa Daher told The Daily Star Monday, as Jmaylieh does not have a municipality. “We hope that the television reports are only rumors.”
There are approximately 2,000 Syrian refugees living among 4,000 Lebanese in Mgheirieh, and the deluge has cost Lebanese their jobs, Daher complained.
“We’ve come to a point where their existence is a threat to our existence,” he said.
A week ago, Sidon Mufti Sheikh Salim Sousan called on security and judicial authorities to investigate the reports, adding that the source quoted by Al-Jadeed did not have the authorization to speak to the media, especially concerning a topic as “sensitive” as refugees.
Alman Mayor Farid Ghanem said he had been approached by U.N.-Habitat a week before the Al-Jadeed report was aired and asked whether there were any plots of land available to rent in order to establish a camp for refugees.
His town of 500 Lebanese currently hosts 1,300 Syrians.
“Whether here [Iqlim al-Kharroub] or elsewhere, the idea is totally rejected,” Ghanem stressed, adding that he believed the reports to set up a camp in the area were true.
Both mayors voiced concern that, like the Palestinians who came before them, once formal camps were established in the area, Syrian refugees would become a fixed feature in Lebanon.
“We are worried about a similar threat in the future,” Daher said.
Jamal Saad, the local Progressive Socialist Party official in the area, said he contacted party head MP Walid Jumblatt after seeing the Al-Jadeed report and that the latter had “totally refused” the project.
He expressed concern that a substantial number of Lebanese residents in Jmaylieh, of which there are 500 in all, would likely leave their homes if a formal camp were established due to security fears. Communal coexistence has only recently begun to be normalized in the area, especially among the Christian population, Daher argued.
“We are calling for the Christians to come back to the area, we are encouraging them to come back,” Saad said. “But with this large number of refugees, they will leave. Even those who are here will leave.”
UNHCR spokesperson Joelle Eid said the agency was “aware” of the site in question, adding that it was one among “several” plots recommended to the government after a technical assessment was conducted to pinpoint potential areas to establish “modest formal settlements.”
Given the shortage of shelter options for refugees, UNHCR and its partners recommended the establishment of such settlements in “secure and appropriate” areas of Lebanon. From the standpoint of the U.N., with many people resorting to informal settlements that have inadequate protection and health safeguards, there is a need to move to more formal tented settlements.
According to the U.N., the government has agreed in principle to establish such transitionalsites, which would offer the possibility to accommodate vulnerable refugees in safe locations with humanitarian and protection services. The areas identified are mostly on privately owned lands.
The U.N. has presented the government with a number of sites appropriate from a technical standpoint.
“It’s in the government’s hands now,” Eid said.
Eid added that the process was “ongoing” and that “no settlement can be established without the approval of the local government,” in reference to Iqlim al-Kharroub.
There is but one formal tent settlement in Lebanon, established in the refugee-saturated border town of Arsal after the influx of Syrians from Yabroud and housing 70 families.
According to Shiekh Hisham Khalifeh, head of Dar al-Fatwa’s Islamic Endowments, the Sunni authority’s relief committee was looking to establish refugee camps across the country. Following the example of the camp in Arsal, which was set up on land belonging to Dar al-Fatwa, the committee hopes to erect similar camps elsewhere in Lebanon, though not in Jmaylieh.
Saad and the local authorities in Iqlim al-Kharroub were of the opinion that it would be better to establish camps in safe areas along the Syrian-Lebanese border than within Lebanon proper. The new administration at the Social Affairs Ministry seems to agree on that point and is currently lobbying the government to do the same, citing areas close to the borders in Akkar and the Bekaa Valley as ideal.
Hala al-Helou, an adviser to Derbas dismissed the Arsal example as an “exception,” saying as of now the ministry still adhered to a strict no-camp policy. Ongoing projects to establish formal settlements for refugees were being carried out without the government’s required consent, she said.
“The formal settlement in Arsal was done on an ad-hoc basis, it was a one-time pilot project that was supposed to extend to different projects, but was not replicated,” Helou said. “It took the president of the republic, the prime minister and the Social Affairs Ministry to approve this one settlement, and it was done because it was an emergency situation.”
Though she acknowledged that the U.N. submitted recommendations for settlements to former-Minister Wael Abou Faour and again to the incumbent minister, they had not been approved due to the current policy.
“In parallel, the only reason we are considering these potential areas, along with others that have been assessed by MOSA, is because our minister is working to change the no-camp policy by lobbying the government,” she said, adding quickly, “We are not talking about full-scale camps, we are talking about medium- and small-scale reception areas.”