BEIRUT: With a land area 75 times bigger than that of Lebanon, Turkey now has only 500 more registered refugees, according to the latest statistics from the U.N. refugee agency – 110,649 to Lebanon’s 110,095.
And that’s just the registered population: Activists and officials in Lebanon believe there are possibly tens of thousands more displaced Syrians in the country who have not come forward for registration, whether due to fear, lack of awareness over the opportunities and benefits of registering, or because the aid that comes with registration is not required.
The refugee population in Lebanon has spiked drastically over recent months, with 20,000 having been registered in the last month alone.
The biggest proportion of refugees is residing in north Lebanon – where there is a permanent registration office – and then the Bekaa Valley, where there are mobile units at which refugees can register.
A few thousand are in Beirut and south Lebanon, where a registration unit was opened near Sidon Oct. 24.
Ahead of winter, shelter continues to be the biggest concern facing the UNHCR and partner organizations, whether local or international.
Whereas in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, official refugee camps are providing shelter free of charge to thousands of refugees, the government in Lebanon has not yet permitted the construction of similar sites.
Some Syrian refugees are living in unofficial rented accommodation in the Bekaa Valley, which has emerged in recent months at sites adjoining those already occupied by Bedouin and long-term Syrian workers in the area, according to the latest weekly UNHCR report.
The vast majority, however, are living with host families, who can receive assistance from UNHCR and its partners should they require it. Others live in private rented accommodation, with those most in need able apply for assistance in covering their rent.
For Dana Sleiman, information associate at UNHCR in Beirut, while Lebanon is coping with the numbers of refugees, “Shelter is a critical priority at this stage, especially because of winter, which gets very cold, particularly in the north and the Bekaa [Valley], and it’s important that people are well equipped.”
As part of this winterization program, aid partners are working to distribute blankets, mattresses and shoes ahead of the cold season, she said.
The establishment last month by Prime Minister Najib Mikati of an inter-ministerial committee – comprising the ministers of Social Affairs, Education, Health, Interior and Defense, as well as the High Relief Committee, the government’s emergencies body – was a positive step, Sleiman said.
The option of constructing official refugee camps, which has been controversial politically in Lebanon, with Hezbollah saying they could be used as weapons bases for Syrian rebels, would be a last resort – even for the UNHCR – Sleiman said.
When refugees are able to live in houses or even collective shelters, it affords them a degree of normalcy not permitted by refugee camps she said, and they are able to better integrate with the local population.
She added that, “Lebanese can benefit from the presence of refugees. When remedial classes are offered, or shelter renovations, Lebanese often very much in need can receive these too.”