BEIRUT: Prior to discussing the Syrian refugee crisis with Lebanese officials, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton began her two-day visit to Lebanon with a visit to a local non-governmental organization on the front line of the country’s humanitarian response. Early Tuesday morning, Ashton stopped by the AMEL community and education center in the Hezbollah stronghold of Haret Hreik in Beirut’s southern suburbs. The center, with which the EU has worked since before the Syria crisis, provides various services to 975 Syrian as well as Iraqi refugees in Lebanon.
“AMEL is a good example of humanitarian work that aids refugees and brings together Lebanese and Syrian communities,” EU spokesman Michael Mann told The Daily Star during Ashton’s visit to the center, adding that the purpose of her trip to Lebanon was to support stability in the country and the government’s efforts in dealing with the refugee influx.
In addition to assisting refugees, AMEL also aims to help Lebanese families who have been particularly affected by the war in neighboring Syria. And with 23 centers across the country, its reach stretches far beyond Haret Hreik; AMEL also provides aid for residents of Mount Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and the south.
Through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the EU has provided funds to help support refugee women and children in particular, helping to better their livelihoods by providing an accelerated learning process and recreational activities.
The European Union is the UNHCR’s primary donor, with the need for funding based on studies performed by the agency, spokesman Dana Sleiman said. The UNHCR is currently in its fifth appeal since 2012, mostly due to the overwhelming number of refugees fleeing Syria.
A growing priority, though, is providing aid to the large number of Lebanese families hosting and aiding the refugees, the majority of whom have settled in Lebanon’s poorest regions.
“We do not only help Lebanon through providing aid for Syrian refugees, but through [providing aid] for the Lebanese people as well, particularly host communities,” said Diego Escalona, head of the operations section at the Delegation of the European Union to Lebanon. “What country can support refugees that are equivalent to 25 percent of its population? It is an enormous matter. We need to find solutions that help [Lebanon] adapt to such a situation,” he added.
With the large number of refugees in the country, Lebanon has taken on more than it can handle.
There are currently more than 535,000 Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration with the UNHCR as well as some 60,000 Palestinians who have fled Syria, meaning there are officially almost 600,000 refugees in the country as whole. However, there are also many refugees who have not identified themselves to any U.N. agency as yet.
AMEL founder Dr. Kamel Mohanna emphasized that what the organization was providing was very little in comparison to what was actually needed. With the country in the midst of a crisis, he reiterated Escalona’s bid to help the Lebanese communities, not just the refugees, calling the situation “catastrophic.” Mohanna also voiced concerns that the regional community was not doing enough in terms of providing aid and helping maintain stability in a precarious Lebanon.
“ Lebanon is now facing a political, economic and social crisis,” Mohanna said. “We appeal primarily to the EU to help find a political solution, implement refugee relocation programs, as well as consider the idea of refugee camps both in Syria and in Lebanon.”
With many more refugees expected to enter the country, it won’t be long before half of the population in Lebanon is Syrian, Mohanna added.
There are mounting concerns for refugee health and the spread of disease due to deplorable living conditions and lack of medication, not to mention psychological problems emanating from distress, depression and fear. Many refugees have been unable to find housing and shelter thus far, and young girls are being forced into early marriages and prostitution as the only means for survival. All of these issues have to be dealt with, because more refugees are on their way, Mohanna said.
“This has never happened before in [Lebanon’s] history. We are proud of our people’s generosity, but the conflict has been happening for over two years, and it will probably last longer,” Mohanna added.
The conflict in Syria has also affected Lebanese security, with rockets falling on the Lebanese side of the border and clashes regularly breaking out in the northern port city of Tripoli.
When asked what measures would be taken if the security situation in Lebanon worsens, Mann, speaking prior to Tuesday’s outbreak of violence in the southern city of Sidon, declined to comment, saying only that he hoped that would not happen.
For now, the European Union is holding talks with its international partners and doing all it can to bring a peace conference in Geneva to fruition, while providing aid to the neighboring countries.
“The EU’s position is very clear in terms of wanting to avoid a spillover. We completely support Lebanon’s disassociation policy,” the bloc’s spokesman said.