BEIRUT: Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour said they are “becoming inevitable,” President Michel Sleiman has indicated he won’t oppose their construction, and last week, UNHCR’s resident representative said the refugee agency has contingency plans to open them should the mass influx of Syrians continue.
As Lebanon struggles to provide shelter and services for more than 265,000 refugees – and with arrivals continuing at a rate of about 2,000-3,000 per day – the question of whether or not to open formalized refugee camps is a pressing one.
But experts remain unconvinced that such camps would ultimately prove beneficial for either those fleeing the almost two-year-old conflict in Syria or the country hosting them.
Dawn Chatty, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University, is unequivocal: “I don’t think there are any benefits,” she says, speaking to The Daily Star by telephone. “The decision to open [camps] is usually a political decision to separate the refugees from the rest of the population.”
“The operation of refugee camps goes back to the establishment of UNHCR in the 1950s,” explains Chatty, referring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“The philosophy is that it makes it easier to provide emergency services, and UNHCR has been operating with this philosophy for decades.”
But, she says, “when people are incarcerated this way, they are stripped of their agency. Studies done in the Sahel of North Africa show that refugee camps create a situation where people are unable to live independently again.”
According to Chatty, even UNHCR has learned that camps are not always the solution.
“The Iraqi crisis taught UNHCR a big lesson. Up until the 21st century, UNHCR was determined to maintain the establishment of camps as its primary response to refugee crises, but it began to realize many refugees were actually trying to avoid the camps.
“They did not wish to be incarcerated and went directly to the cities.”
The Iraq experience in the mid-2000s precipitated a UNHCR policy shift toward a more rights-based approach, leading to a 2007 paper by the agency on how to help refugees while working with local communities rather than through refugee camps.
“This approach was used in Tunisia and Libya during the Arab Spring and initially tried in Jordan [in response to the Syria crisis],” Chatty says.
It was abandoned, she adds, when the “Jordanian government became nervous” – a nervousness which resulted in the creation of Zaatari camp in July 2012.
Now home to almost 100,000 Syrian refugees, Zaatari has been the site of repeated riots as inhabitants, who are not permitted to leave, protest poor conditions inside the camp.
“Zaatari camp is like a concentration camp basically, with many inhabitants wanting to leave,” Chatty says, likening it to Britain’s Sarafand camp in Palestine in which Palestinian nationalists were detained in the 1930s and '40s.
Lama Fakih, Human Rights Watch’s Syria and Lebanon researcher in Beirut, agrees a Zaatari camp-like scenario is undesirable.
“Human Rights Watch has no position yet on the establishment of refugee camps in Lebanon but would ask that if the government establishes camps they remain open, unlike Zaatari camp in Jordan, and allow freedom of movement,” she says in an interview with The Daily Star.
HRW also asks that sufficient humanitarian assistance is provided and that there is adequate privacy for female refugees, something which has been an issue in camps hosting Syrians in Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.
The question of funding is central to the provision of such assistance says Rupen Das, director for community development at the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development and a former director of humanitarian assistance with World Vision.
Like Zaatari, camps in Lebanon could quickly become overcrowded and underserved, he says.
“As it is, the U.N. is underfunded in their Syria response – so where will the long-term money for the camps come from?” he asks.
Indeed, UNHCR’s resident representative Ninette Kelley told Reuters news agency Friday that although $1.5 billion was pledged for Syrian humanitarian aid at last month’s U.N. conference in Kuwait, organization’s operations inside Lebanon have only received 15 percent of their required funding.
The lack of guaranteed consistent international funding for the camps may, Das warns, leave Lebanon “holding the baby” – that is with a large, encamped and unhappy population and no means to meet their needs.
Camps could also, he says, prove targets for attack, recruitment grounds for opposition militias, or become heavily armed and subject to infighting between factions.
Then there’s the issue of host country support. In Lebanon, despite Sleiman and Abu Faour’s comments, this is far from unanimous.
In an interview with The Daily Star, Ramzi Naaman, head coordinator of Lebanon’s Syria response plan, says that the country’s politically divisive environment makes camps hard to imagine at the moment.
Water and Energy Minister Jebran Bassil has strongly voiced his opposition to formal refugee camps, saying that they would “eventually turn into centers for armament.”
Speaking to The Daily Star, Das says Lebanon’s unique history with refugees is a key consideration.
Lebanon’s Palestinian camps, which were first founded to temporarily house those fleeing persecution following the foundation of Israel in 1948, have become permanent, overcrowded and sometimes volatile settlements over which the Lebanese state has no jurisdiction.
There is “the fear that [the new camps] will become armed communities like Ain al-Hilweh camp [near Sidon],” he says.
Das also notes that Lebanon is not a party to the U.N. Refugee Convention and has no obligation to provide assistance to refugees.
However, as the debate goes on, humanitarian organizations are increasingly highlighting the inadequacy of shelter provisions and access to services under the current non-camp system.
Medicine Sans Frontiers issued a report Thursday saying that half of refugees were receiving inadequate medical care and 75 percent are living in “conditions utterly unsuitable for the hardships of winter.” Similarly, in its most recent report UNHCR states that “shelter remains a priority as numbers rise and affordable shelter becomes increasingly scare.”
With refugees arriving quicker than UNHCR can secure appropriate shelters, Kelley told a media round table last week that the agency is at the point where it should set up “transit sites” to temporarily accommodate new arrivals.
MSF also called for accelerating the establishment of “reception centers” for newcomers.
Kelley stressed transit sites would not be equivalent to refugee camps. Das and Chatty, however, are not assured.
While Das notes that transit sites were used effectively in Jordan during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the previous Gulf war, he puts their success down to good planning which led to refugees being moved out to other locations or host families within around 48-72 hours.
But, he cautions, “if there is no plan or if [the transit site] is not properly managed, then yes it can slowly become a long-term settlement.”
Chatty is more skeptical. “Transit site – but transit to where?” she asks. “It’s really just fooling around with terminology. [Likewise] a ‘reception center’ is a refugee camp.”
“A non-camp approach proved very effective for 2 million Iraqis in Syria and Jordan, and for refugees in Tunisia and Libya,” she says.
Chatty recommends a similar approach in Lebanon, concluding, “Local communities are willing to work with NGOs, you don’t need to encamp people to do that.”