Lebanon News

Aid workers ready for refugee increase

Syrian refugees in Lebanon. (The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: Aid organizations have prepared to receive thousands of Syrian refugees in the wake of last weekend’s violence in Homs, but it’s unclear exactly how many refugees have entered Lebanon.

Aid workers operating in the north and east of the country say they have only seen a slight increase in the number of people looking for help, compared to the reports that said several thousand refugees entered Lebanon.

Helmi Mekaoui, from Medecines Sans Frontieres, said his office in the Bekaa village of Arsal reports that 35 families sought aid last weekend.

“We haven’t seen something tremendous, like thousands and thousands,” Mekaoui said.

Medecines Sans Frontieres and other leading aid organizations operating in the country say they are in the process of procuring housing and bringing in more supplies in case a major influx does materialize.

On Sunday, politicians and aid workers reported that up to 2,000 Syrian refugees entered Lebanon, fleeing the siege in Homs as the Syrian government cracks down on a yearlong uprising in the country.

But reports on the number of people who actually entered the nation vary widely. Politicians and aid workers quoted a variety of numbers and some have said many Syrians have already returned home.

Aid organizations in Beirut say they have received reports of many Syrians staying in the no-man’s-land on the porous and poorly demarcated border, and then returning home.

Similar figures were reported by aid organizations operating in the Wadi Khaled region of Akkar, one of the main refugee areas in the north.

Save the Children aid workers in Wadi Khaled have reported only a modest increase in demand for assistance, despite the reports of several thousand people entering the country.

“It seems that some of them reverted back again immediately,” said Sanna Johnson, a regional director for Save the Children in Lebanon.

Johnson said teams are on their way to Tripoli and Wadi Khaled to report back on the number of new families staying in those areas.

Officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the body responsible for refugees in the country, say they are unable to comment on how many refugees have actually entered the country.

“We have sent our team up to the north,” said Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for UNHCR in Beirut. “We are in the assessment stage in order to come up with the official number.”

Aid groups say there is a steady demand for items such as housing, blankets and food from families fleeing the violence in Syria, and announce their readiness to implement emergency plans in the event the number of registered refugees does spike.

The National News Agency reported Tuesday that around five Syrians entered the country Tuesday and were hospitalized, while Khaled Arsan, 25, died after being admitted to hospital.

There are around 7,000 registered refugees in the north of the country, according to UNHCR’s latest report.

But the UNHCR also says there is a growing population of Syrian refugees living south of Beirut, totaling around 4,000 people, who the organization is monitoring and looking to offer aid to.

UNHCR’s refugee statistics widely vary from estimates offered by activists and local aid organizations.

Syrian refugee leaders say the number of refugees in the country is two to three times larger, at roughly 17,000 people, than the U.N figures.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 07, 2012, on page 3.

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