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Abu Faour: Refugee camps inevitable

  • Abu Faour: Lebanon cannot handle the refugee burden alone.

BEIRUT: Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour said his ministry was doing everything within its power to cope with the Syrian refugees, but the establishment of camps was becoming an inevitable solution to the growing humanitarian crises.

“The capacity of local authorities to host [refugees] has almost depleted ... we should be realistic,” Abu Faour told The Daily Star in an interview this week.

Successive waves of Syrian refugees fleeing violence at home since the conflict in Syria began have nearly depleted the slim resources of the Lebanese government, prompting it to seek help from Arab states and the international community.

Abu Faour explained that the number of Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon had exceeded 200,000, including 20,000 Palestinians who came from Syria. Many of the displaced Syrians are being hosted by families in the north and the Bekaa Valley. According to the U.N., the number of Syrian refugees will exceed 425,000 by June.

In a bid to allay the concerns of some Lebanese factions over establishing camps, Abu Faour said that any camp established could be easily removed once the situation returns back to normal in Syria.

“That’s why we will not make pre-fabricated houses or construct houses ... any camp can be dismantled anytime,” he said.

“The Lebanese government should expect that every Syrian and Palestinian refugee coming from Syria will return to his home once calm returns to Syria or to the area from which he came,” Abu Faour said.

The Cabinet approved a plan earlier this month to meet the needs of the refugees and address the socio-economic and security repercussions of their stay.

To implement the strategy, the Health, Education and Social Affairs ministries along with the Higher Relief Committee need $180 million. For their part, U.N. agencies need $190 million.

“These [funds] will meet the demands of 200,000 refugees for one year, but now the number of refugees has exceeded 200,000 ... so the numbers we have estimated have become obsolete,” Abu Faour explained.

The Social Affairs Ministry will also present to Cabinet a plan to cope with a dramatic influx of Syrian refugees that Lebanon could harbor if the situation deteriorates further in Syria.

“We and the UNHCR are preparing an emergency plan because we always expect that at any moment, huge waves of refugees could come from Damascus or other areas,” he said. “We are searching for areas to designate as reception and transfer areas.”

Abu Faour said that the Social Affairs Ministry would soon start registering refugees, a task currently handled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“We and the UNHCR have established a joint mechanism because the criteria that UNHCR adopts [to register refugees] in other countries may not apply to Lebanon,” he said.

“We will receive a grant from UNICEF to hire some people to carry out registration, once we get the grant, we will begin registration,” he said, adding that the UNHCR would continue to register as well.

Abu Faour described the situation of Palestinian refugees coming from Syria as disastrous:

“It is disastrous on the human and social level. Yesterday, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General [Filippo Grandi] informed me about a family of 10 or 12 members that are sleeping in a corridor, with no light.”

He said that UNRWA has the responsibility to provide relief to Palestinian refugees coming from Syria, adding that UNRWA would receive some of the funds that donor states provide.

A delegation from the Arab League will visit Lebanon over the weekend to assess the situation of Syrian refugees ahead of a conference in Kuwait which will be held on Jan. 30 to raise funds for Syrian refugees.

Abu Faour ruled out the possibility that donor states would fail to provide Lebanon with sufficient funds.

“We are placing all our hopes on the Kuwait conference ... we received positive signs from Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” the minister added.

“The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon has already asked the Saudi Relief Committee to implement a mechanism to coordinate [assistance] with the Lebanese state through the Social Affairs Ministry,” he said. “Early signs are positive.”

While the Social Affairs Minister remained steadfast in his belief that the conference would result in sufficient aid being provided to assist Lebanon, he expressed concern over the outcome if the opposite occurs later this month:

“There will be a problem [if this happens], not only financial ... Lebanon cannot handle this issue alone. If aid was not provided, this means that the Arab and international communities have not only abandoned Lebanon, but the refugees as well.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 26, 2013, on page 2.
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