Lebanon News

UNHCR opposes government plan for Syrian refugee camps

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier shakes hands with Syrian refugee children as he visits a school at a Syrian refugee camp in the town of Barr Elias, May 30, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BARR ELIAS, Lebanon: The U.N. Refugee Agency does not think camps should be established on Lebanon’s border with Syria, putting it in direct opposition with the government over its latest plan to address the huge influx of people fleeing the neighboring civil war.

“In our experience camps that are built on border areas can be transformed into places where armed activities take place,” Dana Sleiman, a UNHCR spokeswoman, told reporters during a trip to the Bekaa Valley with Germany’s foreign minister Friday.

Sleiman also expressed doubt that the Lebanese authorities could maintain security in the remote border regions, many of which are essentially lawless no-man’s lands.

“The border has witnessed a good number of security incidents over the past three years and the Lebanese government does not have a permanent presence [there] to oversee the security situation,” she said.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil reiterated Thursday that the Cabinet had decided to create “residential compounds” for refugees either inside Syria or along the border. Sleiman pointed out that setting up formal camps required enormous resources, however.

“They are cities that are built from scratch,” she said. “They require infrastructure, schools, water, drainage, electricity, everything. Jordan’s Zaatari Camp, which houses more than 100,000 Syrian refugees, costs more than $500,000 each day to operate.”

During his two-day trip to Lebanon, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also expressed his reticence about the idea of camps in Syria, saying during a news conference Thursday, “I see no possibility of establishing these camps in safe conditions.”

Traveling under heavy guard in a 15-car convoy, Steinmeier visited a UNHCR registration center in Zahle and a refugee camp in Barr Elias.

There, Steinmeier and the rest of the German delegation witnessed first-hand the hardships Syrian refugees face in Lebanon.

While young students offered Steinmeier toothy grins from inside their makeshift tented classroom, others were less upbeat.

“My son needs medical tests, nobody knows what’s wrong,” said one woman, pointing to a festering wound on her son’s nose and his badly deformed ears. “UNHCR won’t cover it.”

“We hope that the visit will bring more attention to the Syrians,” sighed 20-year-old Mohammad.

Upon returning to the German Embassy, Steinmeier continued his goodwill tour by donating 10 fully fitted ambulances to the Lebanese Red Cross.

“They will be used to support the Syrian refugees. They will be especially mobile in areas where Syrian refugees are, but at the same time they will also serve the Lebanese population,” explained Rene Schulthoff of the German Red Cross.

Steinmeier earlier this week pledged 5 million euros to support efforts to address the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, voicing Germany’s readiness to host an international conference to raise funds for the Lebanese government as it struggles to cope with over 1 million refugees.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 31, 2014, on page 2.




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