BEIRUT: With no end in sight to Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon nearly a year and a half into the country’s popular uprising, now publicly termed an internal armed conflict by the Red Cross, some are pushing for Lebanon to set up camps for the displaced.
“We want to make sure that the victims are the ones who get help,” International Committee for the Red Cross spokesperson Alexis Heeb told The Daily Star.
International organizations such as the Red Cross generally avoid making suggestions about whether a country should establish refugee camps in response to a crisis.
“We work based on transparent dialogue with different parties so that we can help people in need, and be considered a humanitarian and not a political actor,” he said, adding that the term “internal armed conflict” was designated to give a legal framework to reach those in need, not enter into a debate.
Still, with violence in Syria continuing and resources in Lebanon drying up, the new designation for the country’s unrest has inevitably led to debate over how to deal with the refugees.
Advocates for camps argue that this would ease the economic burden on Tripoli and surrounding areas, where most of Lebanon’s almost 30,000 registered Syrian refugees are staying, and where there is already severe poverty.
They could provide resources such as education and job training that are currently unavailable to Syrian families staying in Lebanon and give the refugees a relatively safe place to stay compared with the makeshift housing where they currently reside, which makes them vulnerable to harsh weather and cross-border attacks from Syria.
However, even if Lebanon were to get the funding to erect tent communities near the Syrian border, as Turkey has done – Turkey hosts 40,000 refugees in 10 camps near Turkey’s 911-kilometer border with Syria – it would be difficult politically.
Some politicians have voiced support for Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, most notably Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt. The PSP leader said this week that “if the policy of disassociation has led to an ambiguous description of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, we see that the humane and moral duty makes it imperative to build camps for them similar to the ones in Turkey and Jordan to provide the minimum of assistance for them.”
But the March 8 majority coalition, most vocally Hezbollah, has come out strongly against refugee camps in Lebanon, arguing they would be used to launch and smuggle weapons to Syria.
“We cannot accept refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon because any camp for Syrians in Lebanon will turn into a military pocket that will be used as a launchpad against Syria and then against Lebanon,” Hezbollah’s No. 2 Sheikh Naim Qassem said in March.
“These sorts of groups pass into continents and countries and have no loyalty to any one country. They move holding several nationalities from one place to the next. What would Lebanon stand to gain by allowing some to turn it into a place or conduit to harm Syria and Lebanon at the same time?” he asked.
In late 2011, March 14 coalition officials hinted that Lebanon should consider establishing a refugee camp in north Lebanon to accommodate the constant flow of Syrians fleeing the government crackdown in their country.
But even this proposal has its pitfalls, as former Zghorta MP Samir Franjieh, a March 14 official, noted.
“We need to take care of all the Syrian refugees who come to Lebanon,” Franjieh told The Daily Star.
“It’s a moral and humanitarian duty, before a political one,” he added, but declined to say if refugee camps were the best option for Lebanon.
Today, Syrians continue to cross over the border. Many of them are women and children whose husbands and fathers who have died or stayed behind, often with more medical needs than before due to the increase in land mines along the border, and with even fewer resources to help them upon arrival.
Last week, the government’s Higher Relief Committee announced that it could no longer provide Syrian refugees with food or medical care because funding had dried up.
Even with the refugee crisis worsening in Lebanon, and with political divisions possibly preventing better aid, the country is being recognized for what it has been doing under difficult circumstances. Those familiar with the issue stress the importance of the quality of assistance, over whether it is delivered in refugee camps or through the current system of overlapping government and NGO networks.
“In many ways Lebanon has been a very good neighbor for the Syrian people, by keeping its borders open to those fleeing, and the provision of emergency medical treatment to injured is generally regarded as good,” says Amnesty International researcher Neil Sammonds.
“And particularly given certain local challenges – that areas receiving high levels of refugees are relatively poor, and that certain sections of the Lebanese institutions and society are allied one way or the other with the Syrian government – this is to be commended.”