BEIRUT: A major conference for Syrian refugees in Lebanon organized by Islamic charity groups Friday faced difficulties after two high-profile speakers failed to attend and multiple guests either dropped out or were replaced.
The general disorganization that marred the conference’s opening mirrored the ad-hoc approach and fragmentation that has hindered aid efforts so far. Multiple speakers advocated for the creation of refugee camps, which the Lebanese government has so far rejected.
The conference, which was held at the Coral Suites al-Hamra hotel in Hamra, was organized by the Union of Aid Organizations for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon under the auspices of the Saudi Arabia-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Charity Commission in Kuwait.
Conference organizers had billed MP Bahia Hariri and Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour as opening speakers, but Hariri sent a representative in her place and Abu Faour’s absence was never addressed. Of the seven speakers listed on the program, five, including Abu Faour and Hariri, were either missing or replaced. Additional speakers were added at the last minute with little or no introduction.
According to a source who attended the opening, many of the international organizations, whose names appeared in the earlier version of the circulated program, were not actually contacted prior to having their names included on the agenda.
Similarly, the conference was advertised as being under the auspices of the social affairs minister, who was neither present nor represented by anyone from his ministry.
Nasser Hammoud, Hariri’s representative who spoke in her place, praised government and civil society efforts to address the refugee crisis, but added that with the continuation of the crisis these efforts were simply not enough to meet the needs of the growing refugee population.
He also came out against the “deportation” of Syrians from Lebanon, in what appeared to be a veiled insult aimed at Energy Minister Gibran Bassil, who has come under fire for comments suggesting the flow of refugees should be controlled.
Hammoud went on to say that the creation of refugee camps on the Lebanese side of the border would make the distribution of aid and services easier.
MP Imad al-Hout supported the proposal and said the creation of such camps would result in lower administrative costs and more money going towards direct assistance for refugees.
One approach is merely a semantic switch, which has already gone into affect with the creation of an informal camp in the Bekaa town of Al-Marj, a strategy that appears to be gaining ground among certain factions.
“We set up a refuge center but we called it a welcome center instead of a camp,” said Abdel-Karim al-Moussa, who spoke on behalf of the Saudi International Relief Organization, adding that the organization was planning to open more of these centers.
Several speakers appeared to be laying the groundwork for a much larger donor conference to be held in Kuwait on Jan. 30.