BEIRUT, 3 September 2012 (IRIN) - Progress in terms of providing more and better aid to the steady influx of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is being held back by government indecision stemming from fears that the ongoing violence in Syria may destabilize the country’s fragile politics.
Sectarian clashes in the northern city of Tripoli in recent weeks have left at least 15 dead and 120 wounded, and while politicians on all sides have pleaded for calm, many view the refugees as a security threat.
Gen Ibrahim Bachir, secretary-general of the High Relief Commission (HRC), an aid agency in the prime minister’s office (originally set up to coordinate post-war reconstruction in 2006), said his first priority was “keeping this country safe”.
Tension in Lebanon is high: Michel Samaha, a former minister of information with close ties to Damascus, was arrested on 9 August on charges of plotting bomb attacks in the north, including one targeting the Maronite patriach.
Nevertheless, all major parties seem to have an interest in keeping the situation stable. Some analysts are even cautiously optimistic. Rami Khoury of the American University of Beirut told IRIN: “The major spillover from Syria has already happened, I do not expect much more. We have seen these effects from Syria, like the shootings and kidnappings and this will continue, but I do not think that things will get much worse.”
Syria, which withdrew its army from Lebanon only in 2005, has long treated Lebanon as a client state, and many Lebanese political factions can be characterized as either generally pro- or anti-Syrian government. The March 8th alliance is a coalition of pro-Syrian forces such as the Shiite Hizbullah and Amal and the mainly Christian Free Patriotic Movement led by Michel Aoun. On the other hand, the March 14th alliance, made up of the Sunni Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces and independents, is an anti-Syrian front.
The government has to steer a fine line when implementing its refugee support operations. “We prefer to deal with this problem smoothly and quietly without any problem that might create [a] new civil war in Lebanon,” Bachir said.
Providing refugees with official registration cards or setting up camps would be detrimental, Bachir told IRIN.
Aid workers who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity said areas where Syrian refugees are sheltering in the north are being shelled by the Syrian army (in retaliation for rebels firing on them at night). To enter these areas aid organizations need a permit from the Lebanese Armed Forces, indicating that the government’s priority may be to prevent Lebanese infiltration of the area and the arming of the refugees, rather than ensuring their safety.
Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, so the country is not bound to recognize refugees, whom the government simply refers to as “visitors”. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) confirms that the government is undertaking its own relief efforts and that the border remains open to Syrian refugees.
No stranger to refugees, Lebanon already hosts 455,000 Palestinians in 12 camps. The influx of armed Palestinian groups in the 1970s changed the balance of power among sects and led to an arms race between the different militias, culminating into a bloody civil war (1975-1990) and leaving at least 150,000 dead. Even today, Palestinian refugees are deprived of many of their basic rights in Lebanon, and the refugee camps have grown into slums, reliant on basic services provided by the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA). Clashes between extremist groups from the camps and the Lebanese army occur regularly.
We prefer to deal with this problem smoothly and quietly without any problem that might create [a] new civil war in Lebanon
“The government is afraid that the same might happen with the Syrians, that it will become a lasting thing and people will not go back,” Simon Faddoul, president of Caritas Lebanon, told IRIN.
Many fear that the Palestinian refugee camps could be used as staging posts for the Syrian rebels.
Establishing official refugee camps might put the Lebanese government at odds with the Asad regime in Syria and would be a risk the March 8th government is not willing to take, Faddoul believes. Political interference is affecting relief efforts: until July HRC was not allowed to work in the Beqa’a valley which currently shelters many of the Syrian refugees.
Meanwhile, refugees have started to erect makeshift camps in some locations, but these lack proper sanitary facilities. Aid workers from an international NGO who preferred anonymity told IRIN that the discussion around alternatives to camps, i.e. putting up single non-permanent structures, is continuing - and decisions are needed as winter is approaching.
Wadi Khaled and the Beqa’a Valley, where most of the refugees reside, are among the coldest regions in Lebanon. Fifty-three percent of the refugees in the north have found shelter with Lebanese relatives or in other private houses, according to a recent assessment by the UN Development Programme. But in the Beqa’a, a predominantly Christian and Shiite area, the refugees (mainly Sunnis) do not have the same degree of family ties. While some refugees can afford to rent apartments and rooms in hotels, others live in derelict mosques and schools.
Caritas’s Faddoul told IRIN there could be serious accommodation problems if the refugee influx were to continue. “Numbers are growing very rapidly and space is getting scarce.”
UNHCR Lebanon has registered 41,949 refugees from Syria. However, HRC told IRIN these figures are not accurate, as many refugees came into the country to avoid the worst fighting, but went back, and that many of those registered have been in the country as seasonal workers for a long time. Faddoul also disputes the official numbers, saying many have not registered out of fear their names could be given to the Syrian authorities.
“We all know we have well over 150,000 refugees. We already had 300,000 Syrian seasonal workers in Lebanon before the war. How many of them come from the areas of Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, and how many have now called their families to come to Lebanon? There are thousands more who have rented hotels and apartments. They are not registered because they have the means to survive on their own. How many thousands have come and are living with their relatives? Whether we like it or not, we have to count these people as refugees,” said Faddoul.
HRC is trying to find alternative funding sources for its relief operation, as government money is tight and major international donors do not to channel their funds through HRC. There has been a debate as to whether, and how, the Ministry of Social Affairs might take over some aid efforts, but divisions within the government have thwarted any clear decisions so far, international aid officials told IRIN on condition of anonymity.