BEIRUT: Prime Minister Najib Mikati chaired a meeting Monday between his ministers and representatives from donor countries to discuss the government’s plan for Syrian refugees in the country, which he labeled an “urgent humanitarian situation.”
Mikati asked for $178 million to cover costs to assist the growing number of refugees throughout 2013. International donors have, thus far, donated $67 million.
There are currently 133,895 displaced Syrians in Lebanon who have registered with the U.N.’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, or expressed interest in registering.
This is more than Turkey – which is 75 times larger than Lebanon – and around 5,000 fewer Syrian refugees than currently reside in Jordan, but there are thought to be many thousands more refugees living in Lebanon who have not registered.
Mikati said that the government expected the number of displaced Syrians in Lebanon to rise to some 200,000 during 2013.
The ministers of health, defense and interior joined the minister of social affairs, Wael Abu Faour, who is overseeing the refugee plan, at the meeting, as well as Ibrahim Bashir, the head of the government’s Higher Relief Committee, which has been working alongside the UNHCR to coordinate aid efforts since the outbreak of violence in Syria in March 2011.
Opening the meeting, Mikati said, “We are here today to address the urgent humanitarian situation in Lebanon due to the flow of Syrian refugees ... 60 percent of whom are women and children,” according to the National News Agency.
“The situation has become very pressing and we cannot deal with it alone. We have to face it together,” he added, expressing confidence that “improvements can be made on all sides of this issue.”
Speaking after the meeting, Abu Faour said that the government’s plan clearly delegated specific responsibilities to each relevant ministry.
“We have presented a detailed explanation relaying which mission each minister would undertake and its expenses,” he said, adding that Syrian-Palestinian refugees would be taken care of by UNRWA.
“We have differences in Lebanon, even within the government, in dealing with the situation in Syria but we, as ministers, have reached a unified stance, which I think is also a national stance, not to politicize the issue of the Syrian refugees and deal with it from a humanitarian point of view,” Abu Faour, from the Progressive Socialist Party, added.
Since the beginning of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, Lebanon has officially adopted a dissociation policy toward Damascus. However several events – most recently the killing of a group of Lebanese fighters by the Syrian Army on the border between the two countries last week and the admission by opposition MP Oqab Saqr that he has been involved in transferring arms to Syrian rebels – have threatened to undermine this neutral position.
“The government has finally made up its mind on this matter [assisting Syrian refugees] and has decided to shoulder its responsibilities,” Abu Faour added Monday, voicing hope that donors would respond to the pleas from the government.
The U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos visited Beirut last week where she met with Mikati and Abu Faour to discuss the government’s refugee plan.
At the time she said that, “We are very grateful to the government for the work that they are doing, in partnership with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other U.N. partners.”
She stressed that “here at the U.N. we will continue to give all the support that we can,” to the Lebanese government, and would also encourage the international community to do so.
Speaking to The Daily Star, a foreign envoy who had attended the Monday meeting at the Serail said that while Mikati was “clearly very worried” about the issue of Syrian refugees, the government plan seemed strong and was “genuinely quite encouraging.”
Reflecting on this time last year, when there were only 4,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Mikati Monday alluded to the fact that the government had then been “living in denial,” but that it was now making concerted efforts to address the issue and provide the necessary aid, in cooperation with international donors.
The envoy added that Abu Faour’s leadership of the inter-ministerial committee tasked with overseeing the issue was encouraging, as the social affairs minister had presented a strong, clear structure.
According to the latest weekly report from the UNHCR, the agency registered 25,000 refugees in November alone, and its teams are continuing to register around 1,300 Syrians daily, at registration centers across the country.
Ahead of the coldest stretch of winter, the UNHCR distributed 80,000 fuel coupons to refugees across the country last month. The biggest proportion of displaced families are living in north Lebanon, around 53,000 people, and then in the Bekaa, some 41,000. Nearly 8,000 registered refugees are living in south Lebanon and Beirut.
Another such meeting will be held Dec. 17, according to Abu Faour, in order to “give answers to some issues that the donors have raised during today’s meeting.”