BEIRUT: The U.N. refugee agency in Lebanon expects the daily rate of registrations – around 2,000 to 3,000 – of Syrian refugees to continue at a steady pace, meaning the current total of 250,000 could double by May.
At a media roundtable at the UNHCR office Tuesday, Ninette Kelley, the resident representative of the refugee agency, said that around 3,000 refugees come forward for registration each day across Lebanon and that in January the process was finalized for 38,000 in total. This represents an increase of 12,000 since December alone.
Kelley said the refugee crisis was a “a huge, huge challenge for us and of course an enormous challenge for Lebanon given its very small size and its political, social and economic fragility,” as evidenced by the dozens of Syrian refugees waiting in the street outside the UNHCR office in Jnah.
Lebanon currently hosts the biggest Syrian refugee population in the region, and while the UNHCR expects a steady increase in arrivals, it is also preparing for a sudden, marked increase.
The issue of refugee camps – which already host large numbers of displaced Syrians in both Jordan and Turkey – has been controversial in Lebanon since the beginning of the civil war across the border, but recently President Michel Sleiman said that the establishment of such sites in the future could not be ruled out.
The majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon used to reside with host families, but now 60 percent are renting without assistance, and with rents increasing, many are living in “the types of accommodation that you might not even want to park your car in,” Kelley said.
Informal tented settlements, many of them annexes of sites which housed Syrian migrant workers long before the outbreak of the conflict, account for 5 percent of all refugee accommodation.
However, Kelley said the time was approaching when the agency would introduce “transit sites” near the border with Syria, which she stressed were different from refugee camps. All they were waiting on, she added, was whether the Lebanese government could identify land upon which they could be constructed.
“We think we’re at a point where we should have transit sites, at least for temporary accommodation only, until we can find a bridge between the time of arrival until a more acceptable place of shelter can be found.”
“Having said that,” she added, “it could be the case that if Lebanon were to continue to receive a great number of arrivals, the need for camps may become much more apparent.”
The agency has also put in place emergency supplies in case of a sudden influx of refugees, which includes tents and some 50,000 non-food items such as mattresses and blankets.
Of those refugees who remain unregistered, Kelley said the number was very difficult to gauge.
General Security has said there are around 800,000 Syrians in Lebanon, including some 500,000 workers who were residing in the country before the conflict began in March 2011.
This leaves somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 who have not come forward to register, Kelley said. For some, this may be because they don’t feel the need to register, if they are financially stable or are receiving adequate support from the local community.
For others, she said, some have expressed fears over registration, and “they worry about being seen either as disloyal to the regime or as being disloyal to the opposition, depending on which side of the fence they are on.”
Those Syrians who cannot be registered as refugees, she said, were suspected combatants.
Although few come forward, as they know only civilians can receive humanitarian assistance, the body has turned some suspected militants away.
It was impossible to know with full certainty whether someone is a militant, Kelley said.
“You can’t know: It’s a credibility test. How do you know a person is a refugee? We have questions, a mechanism. Is it 100 percent? Probably not. Is it better than nothing? Yes.”
In terms of the recent donor conference in Kuwait, Kelley said that the agency was “delighted with the response,” which saw countries pledge $1.5 billion to the regional refugee plan.
She was “cautiously optimistic” that all the money would come through, and said that even the promise of money has allowed the agency to scale up their response plan, which has, in Lebanon, been merged with that of the government.
While the Lebanese government has no formal refugee classification – meaning those from Iraq or Sudan, for example, can face detention if they overstay their visas – Syrian refugees have not faced these same hurdles, Kelley said, as “the government’s approach has been entirely a protection-oriented one.”
However, although the residency period for Syrians was recently increased from six months to one year, the $200 renewal fee that each Syrian must pay after that time “is very weighty on the Syrian refugees,” and the agency has been lobbying the Lebanese government to revoke this fee.