Lebanon News

Worsening Syria violence displaces the wealthy and well-connected

Cars with Syrian license plates have filled the streets of Beirut and other regions of Lebanon. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

ALEY, Lebanon: Randa and her five children gathered some belongings and left their Damascus home near Syrian President Bashar Assad’s palace Thursday night.

Along with several other family members, they traveled by night along the Beirut-Damascus highway, crossing into Lebanon at the now heavily guarded Masnaa border post before turning off into the scenic mountain town of Aley.

Here the family is renting a spacious furnished apartment in the Dynasty Suites complex. The bedrooms and kitchen are large and there’s also a salon.

As internecine conflict casts an increasingly long shadow over Syria, even well-off and more insulated people like Randa have had their sense of security stripped away and are choosing to weather the conflict abroad.

“They are killing children, they are killing women, they are killing young children – they don’t care, they are just killing,” says Randa, who would only give a fake name.

Furnished suites and three-star hotels in Beirut, Aley and Bamdoun have seen a sizable bump in their occupancy rates, while expensive cars with Damascus plates are a much more common sight on the streets of the capital.

Thousands of people have made the journey from Syria to Lebanon over the past week.

Their flight was sparked by a precision strike against the regime at the country’s security headquarters. Syrian television reported the defense minister, the brother-in-law of Assad, the intelligence chief and another general to have been killed.

The country was shaken to its core and people who had long considered themselves removed from the conflict have begun to feel that they could no longer escape the violence.

In the days following the attack, upper class Damascus families queued their expensive cars at the Lebanese border crossing, joining people from rural areas as they flee Syria.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said last week that an estimated 18,000 people have passed through the Masnaa border post over two days, while border officials told The Daily Star the total number of people crossing into Lebanon might have been as high as 30,000.

The UNHCR is currently helping around 30,000 refugees, but some organizations estimate the total refugee population to now be as high as 90,000 after the latest influx of people. Precise numbers are growing increasingly hard to come by.

“People with political affiliations have felt that maybe they could hold out a bit longer,” says Daryl Grisgraber from Refugees International, an independent refugee organization.

“I think it’s important to remember [that] these people are refugees, and the fact they have resources available to them doesn’t mean they don’t need protection,” Grisbrager says.

While expensive restaurants and beaches may temporarily be filling up with Syrian families, refugee experts say that shouldn’t distract from their status as an at-risk population.

Many civil conflicts have seen wealthy displaced people reduced to poverty after prolonged violence and continued instability exhausted their resources. Often what begins as a temporary trip turns into an extended or permanent relocation.

“Even for refugees with means, even those who are able to bring resources with them, those resources will at some point run out,” she says.

Grisbrager says aid bodies and governments should take responsibility for people who don’t have a government to provide them with aid.

“Protection needs affect everyone regardless of the socioeconomic aspect of their status,” she says.

UNHCR has aid workers at the border who try to keep track of the daily influx of Syrians into the country fleeing the conflict. But with many families not in need of immediate aid and a daily flow of traffic both ways across the border, keeping track of the exact number of people displaced by the violence is nearly impossible.

“Many are staying in hotels and rented apartments in Beirut, that’s what we are trying to verify [the numbers],” says Dana Sleiman, spokeswoman at UNHCR.

The organization at the moment is focused on providing assistance to people in desperate need of shelter and food.

“I don’t think these [wealthy] people will approach us – maybe if they eventually run out of resources they will need to live in Lebanon,” Sleiman says.

When refugees have an immediate need they are encouraged to come to register with the UNHCR, she says.

In Aley, Randa says her husband has decided to remain in Damascus, confident that he is in little danger. But Randa and the rest of her family plan on staying in Lebanon at least until the end of Ramadan or until the conflict shows signs of improving.

With daily gunbattles and army defections, few analysts see few signs that this will happen anytime soon.

Randa says she is afraid for her husband and worries that the border may eventually close.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 25, 2012, on page 3.




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