BEIRUT: Lebanon will set a limit on the number of Syrian refugees allowed to enter the country and establish formal camps for a displaced population that is fast approaching 1.5 million, according to the economy minister.
Alain Hakim made the comments Thursday after a ministerial committee comprising senior members of the Cabinet concluded a meeting at the Grand Serail on the issue of Syrian refugees.
“The committee agreed on two main topics, [including] setting the maximum limit for the Syrian refugee influx, which Lebanon can no longer handle,” Hakim said.
“The second point is establishing refugee camps, but we still haven’t agreed on the locations of such camps; they might be inside the Syrian border or on the Lebanese side,” he added. “We will discuss this during the upcoming Cabinet session.”
It was announced last week that Lebanon and the United Nations were considering establishing formal camps for Syrians. There are already around 1,100 informal settlements across the country.
The committee meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam and attended by the ministers of defense, telecoms, social affairs, environment, justice, labor, education and economy, as well as the head of the Higher Relief Committee, which gives aid to refugees.
It was not clear exactly how the committee was planning to restrict the number of refugees and it is not yet a definite policy. Further details are likely to emerge after Friday’s Cabinet session, at which ministers will discuss the government’s approach to the refugee crisis.
Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk have hinted in the past that Lebanon might impose such restrictions.
According to UNHCR, there are just over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon either registered or awaiting registration. The unofficial number is believed to be much higher, with Education Minster Elias Bou Saab putting it at 1.5 million.
Rights groups and international figures have long praised Lebanon for keeping its borders open and have urged it to maintain the policy. Many believe that restricting the number of refugees will lead to more suffering.
Khairunissa Dhala, Amnesty International’s researcher on refugees’ and migrants’ rights, said:“Amnesty International acknowledges that Lebanon hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees worldwide and is under incredible strain as a result. However, Lebanon cannot deny refugees from Syria – who are fleeing conflict – from seeking safety and security.”
For Maria Assi, CEO of local aid non-governmental organization the Beyond Association, the complexities behind the decision to restrict the influx of refugees are clear.
“There are so many political and economic issues to think about,” she said, citing rising unemployment and the worsening economic situation among Lebanese host communities.
“We [aid organizations] are focused on the humanitarian issues, so maybe they [the government] can see more than us.
“All we know is that we must help the refugees that are coming in.”