BEIRUT: A wave of policy changes since June signals a shift in the government’s approach toward Syrian refugees, with security concerns taking even greater precedence since this month’s clashes in Arsal, according to the official managing the file.
In June, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk issued a decree stripping refugees who frequently cross back into Syria of their U.N.-designated status.
A few weeks later, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said only individuals coming from Syrian areas bordering Lebanon would be permitted to enter the country.
He also said the government sought to distinguish between those who were fleeing violence and those who were coming to Lebanon to seek economic opportunities.
The policy changes are broad in scope, and reflect the extent to which Lebanon has reached a tipping point in the refugee crisis.
Makram Malaeb, head of the Refugee Unit at the Social Affairs Ministry, told The Daily Star that the changes had yet to be implemented, largely because of operational and coordination challenges.
Paucity of funding still hampers the government’s efforts to deal with the refugee situation. The government’s funding appeal has amassed a paltry $30 million from international donors, well short of the $2.8 billion requested.
Translating the prescribed policies into practice has so far been hindered by the fact that the government lacks personal data about Syrian refugees, which it would need in order to accurately distinguish the needy from the merely opportunistic, Malaeb said.
The government can request data from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, “but that is never personal-level information, always aggregate data,” he said.
It can resort to intelligence compiled by the General Security (GSO) along official border crossings, “but that too is limited,” he said.
Some municipalities are compiling their own databases, “but unfortunately at different rates.”
He said that as a result, “we have no unified account to understand the Syrian map in Lebanon.”
He added the policy changes were justified by the data, albeit incomplete, that the ministry was able to glean from its myriad of sources.
Malaeb said at least 20-25 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon tended to move around from one municipality to another. Normally, about 8,000 Syrians cross official borders every day, and the same number return.
About 47 percent, Malaeb added, crossed into the country from areas such as Aleppo that lie closer to Turkey and Jordan than Lebanon.
“For them, it’s a choice,” he said. “They are not people fleeing mass slaughter – and these cases exist and we want to protect them – but refugee status a la carte, that is, choosing where you want to be a refugee, is not something we are willing to tolerate.”
The numbers, however, are still impossible to verify.
The GSO seldom asks Syrians crossing the border about refugee status, and without coordination from the UNHCR, the resources required to realize the ministry’s new management approach will be effectively undermined.
“Right now we are discussing a mechanism to transfer information from the GSO to the UNHCR. We are also working to agree on some criteria for deregistering those who cross over back and forth,” he said.
“If we cannot on a blanket basis deny refugee status, then we need to have more input on an individual basis, in order to grant or deny status,” he added.
The security situation in Arsal has not led to policy changes, he said, despite Derbas’ statements alluding to the possibility of border closure, made shortly after the five-day clashes earlier this month.
“It hasn’t changed policy per se; it has strengthened the movement toward asserting more government control with respect to the refugee portfolio, especially in terms of registration, the security arrangement and in terms of [gathering] information,” he said. “Nevertheless, the Social Affairs Ministry has plans to boost its presence in the town, and to take measures to ensure that the camps are demilitarized.
“The ministry is working to establish a way of controlling the informal tented settlements in Arsal, and to hand them over to a ministry body that is able to be in the field and will create management committees, and even decide who enters the camps.”
Touching on the broader issue of establishing formal camps in Lebanon, Malaeb reiterated the ministry’s long-standing policy of establishing them in areas removed from Lebanese communities.
“Under no circumstances are we talking about anything resembling Zaatari camp [in Jordan], which houses hundreds of thousands,” he said.
Instead, the ministry is looking into the possibility of establishing – pending Cabinet approval – 10 to 15 formal camps to shelter 20,000 individuals each.
“If we aren’t going to deport Syrians en masse back to Syria, then we need to find a solution,” he said.