BEIRUT: As the conflict in Syria reaches its first year anniversary this week, an escalation in the flow of refugees across the border looks increasingly likely, raising the questions of how the government should define these displaced people, and how their needs can be met.
By U.N. estimates there are now around 12,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon: 7,088 formally registered jointly with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and Lebanon’s Higher Relief Committee in north Lebanon and another 5,000 unregistered in the Bekaa and south of Beirut.
However, according to Syrian activists in Lebanon, the real total is far higher, as families escape the brutal crackdown across the porous, 365-kilometer-long border.
Speaking earlier this month, President Michel Sleiman downplayed fears over an influx of Syrians, and said that, “We are treating the Syrians who fled as families, as relatives and not as refugees.”
Beirut, which is not a signatory to the U.N. 1951 Convention on Refugees, defines all refugees in the country, including Syrians, as “displaced people.”
The UNHCR, however, “considers those who escape conflict to be refugees,” said Dana Sleiman, a spokesperson for the UNHCR.
“At the end of the day, if [the Syrians] are receiving the help they need, we don’t mind if the Lebanese government refers to them as refugees or not,” she added.
While around 200 refugees are living in rehabilitated abandoned schools in Wadi Khaled, the vast majority are residing with host families, according to the UNHCR.
Over the next couple of weeks, the UNHCR will begin issuing Refugee Certificates to those registered with the agency.
While it’s a largely bureaucratic measure, to help manage the distribution of services and control fraud, it will hopefully also help improve the quality of life of those refugees unable to move or find work, many of whom have now been living in the country for months.
“We’re hoping it would help allow them to move more freely as they would have a UNHCR document,” Sleiman said, adding, however, that it was “not a guarantee.”
In July of last year, the government decided to hand out circulation permits to those in the north, which would enable them to exit the Wadi Khaled area, cordoned off by check points, and, eventually, to find work. However these have yet to surface.
“We are still lobbying for these circulation permits,” Sleiman said.
Responsibility for provisions for registered refugees comes under the UNHCR and the government’s HRC, which work in close coordination to provide basic provisions, such as food, blankets, hygiene kits and heating materials.
The HRC is also responsible for funding emergency medical care for wounded Syrians in hospitals in and around Tripoli.
This situation is vastly different from provision given to Iraqi refugees, when thousands fled to Lebanon between 2003 and 2007 and provision was provided solely by the UNHCR.
Elie Khoury, the coordinator of international donations at the HRC, said this was because Iraqi refugees were scattered across the country, and did not stay in Lebanon for long periods of time.
In contrast, according to Khoury, the HRC currently has no ceiling on its funding to provide for those displaced from Syria.
Several other nongovernmental organizations work in tandem with the UNHCR and HRC to fill gaps in provision, from ongoing medical care to remedial classes for children.
These bodies include the Lebanese and International Red Cross and Crescent, the International Medical Corps, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Save the Children.
They work with the UNHRC and HRC to identify areas of need, and provide a flow of communication.
“For the time being I have to say the cooperation we’ve had with authorities, and specifically the HRC, has been quite productive,” said Fabio Forgione, the head of the MSF Lebanon mission. “Our main objective is to focus on the main gaps, which for one reason or another cannot be provided by governmental institutions.”
But while the conflict continues, and the importance of planning long-term strategies for accommodating Syrian refugees grows, the HRC says it is focusing on working “day to day.”
“Politics makes it difficult to work on these issues,” Khoury said, adding that the HRC “doesn’t want to have those [long-term] plans.” He said that while all political parties were committed to the current levels of humanitarian assistance, refugee issues were nonetheless politically contentious.
March 14 politicians have spoken of the need to establish refugee camps on the Syrian border; camps on the Turkish border house around 12,000 Syrians.
However, Hezbollah last week rejected the idea, with the party’s deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem, saying that camps would prove ultimately dangerous to Lebanon.
“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,” he said.
UNHCR’S Sleiman said that camps would always be a final measure.
“We have the expertise to establish camps, but we want this to be a last resort,” she said.
Enabling refugees to reside with host families is the agency’s preferred choice, allowing for “the most normal living conditions,” Sleiman said. Camps, densely populated by nature, are more likely to become unsanitary and “alienate and stigmatize the displaced population.”
Not only that, but camps would, “raise the visibility of the community,” she added, rendering them, “more vulnerable to external attacks.”
However, “we would establish camps if there was an actual need ... We have to be prepared.”
Several organizations refused to comment on their current and future strategies in providing assistance to Syrians in Lebanon, including the Danish Refugee Council and the International Medical Corps, which provides primary health care, because their work comes under the umbrella of the UNHCR and the HRC.
Others, including Save the Children, say they are monitoring the situation, with no specific long-term plans. The organization, which provides remedial classes for around 750 children, said it carried out an assessment of the situation in Tripoli last week, and will shortly do the same in the Bekaa. Mona Monzer, a communications and advocacy officer with the charity, said it is considering expanding its services as refugee numbers rise, but that “so far, we have no plans for the long term.”
“We have prepared a team for [the next] four months, then when three months pass we will see how to proceed,” she said.
Samar al-Kadi, a spokesperson for the International Committee for the Red Cross, which provides logistical support for emergency medical care through the Lebanese Red Cross, said the organization was “monitoring the situation closely.”
“We are aware that things could escalate, and deteriorate, from a humanitarian aspect,” she said. So far, she said, “we haven’t plans for tomorrow,” but she added that “we have to prepare for the worst case scenario.”