BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Aid organizations brace for major influx of Syrian refugees

People unload trucks carrying a Qatari aid to Syrian refugees in the northern Wadi Khaled area, Lebanon, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012. (Antoine Amrieh/The Daily Star)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Aid organizations in Lebanon are preparing for a major influx of refugees in case the Syrian crisis significantly worsens, but refugee leaders say the situation is already dire for a population several times larger than official counts, which are being manipulated by political interests.

By all accounts the number of Syrians entering the country is continuing to increase, as thousands flee the bloody crackdown on the 11-month uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule.

With a deadlock over international response, the violence in Syria shows no sign of abating, and aid organizations are considering what can be done if areas of Lebanon reach humanitarian crisis levels.

Leading aid organizations say they are drawing up contingency plans in case the situation in Lebanon gets disastrously worse. The plans involve identifying medical supplies and shelters that can be quickly acquired if current resources are overwhelmed.

“The material is there but we just have to make the concrete written plans,” said Helmi Mekaoui, the emergency coordinator at Médecins Sans Frontières, adding that the organization was ready to act “tomorrow” regardless of numbers.

The organization recently expanded their operations in the country to include Tripoli and the Bekaa and has acquired stockpiles of medical supplies in case of a mass influx of Syrians fleeing the crisis.

“The main challenge is to try to predict when it might happen. This is unpredictable and there is no timeline for it. It could happen tomorrow or it could never happen. The timeline is huge,” Mekaoui said.

Officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees say they also are looking to pinpoint the best spots where major aid “interventions” can take place in case of a significant increase in refugee numbers.

According to the UNHCR’s latest report there are 6,916 Syrians currently registered as refugees in north Lebanon and the organization’s officials say they are working hard to provide for all refugees who seek help in the nation.

But refugees and local activists say that number only represents a snapshot of the actual situation. They say the need for large levels of aid is already here and a further influx of refugees would be disastrous.

In an upscale cafe in downtown Tripoli Syrian activist and refugee Ahmad Moussa shuffles between two heavily worn cellphones. Moussa is hurriedly fielding calls from activists, journalists and Syrian refugees recently arrived in the country.

Moussa’s activist work has thrust him into the spotlight as an unofficial representative in Tripoli for Syrians fighting Assad’s regime and fleeing its brutal crackdown.

His slicked hair and suit put a light veil on a harried life, constantly on the move. Syrian groups have already attempted to kidnap him twice and he can’t stay in any one place for too long.

While evading capture Moussa and activists like him in areas across Lebanon are also trying to spread a small amount of resources to a massive community of refugees. Aid workers and activists say that community is around 17,000, nearly three times the size of official counts.

“The numbers are increasing now and the organizations can no longer absorb this amount,” Moussa said.

Activists say fear and government manipulation is forcing thousands of Syrians to not register, and instead to seek help from local aid groups that have only small amounts of cash.

To register with the UNHCR refugees’ names must first be submitted through the Lebanese Higher Relief Council. Because some parties in the current Lebanese government have strong ties to the Assad regime, there is a fear among refugees that registering will put them at risk. The Lebanese government has also categorically refused to approve the building of refugee camps to house all those fleeing the conflict in Lebanon’s biggest neighbor.

Activists allege that lists of names they submit to the council are pared down considerably before they reach the U.N.

Across the east and north of Lebanon there have been reports from local aid organizations of a doubling in the number of refugees coming into the country.

That has left local aid coalitions to take care of them, and their resources are stretched thin. Activists say promises of major outside donations from Gulf organizations have yet to materialize.

In recent weeks March 14 politicians in the Bekaa and Akkar have said they don’t have the resources to take care of the refugees. Local leaders have threatened strikes if these warnings continue to be ignored.

In Tripoli, Moussa says there are thousands more refugees than are registered and they are living in very tough conditions.

“The toughest issue is that of residence, we’re unable to secure homes because of the high numbers and we don’t have the financial ability to rent homes,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 25, 2012, on page 1.

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