Syrian Refugee Crisis: Expecting the Worst
By: Nasser Charara
Published Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Refugees from Syria continue to pour into Lebanon, and the government has no clear plan on how to provide for them. International aid agencies predict that the numbers are likely to at least double.
A coalition of relief agencies have calculated that $488 million will be needed to fund humanitarian operations for the Syrians who have been displaced to the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
The figure is based on a relief plan which predicts the total number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries will reach 710,000 by the end of the year.
The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon was estimated at 64,000 on 12 October 2012, based on those registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency. A further 30,000 are awaiting registration – making a total of almost 100,000 registered refugees.
A similar number were displaced to Turkey, reaching 88,000 by September 27. The largest number of refugees are in Jordan with 81,000 refugees registered in Amman by the end of September, and an additional 21,000 awaiting registration. A further 34,000 Syrians have fled to Iraq.
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, around 304,000 have fled to neighboring countries. These numbers do not include those who were displaced inside the country, estimated at two-and-a-half million people, including half a million Palestinian refugees. They are all in dire need of humanitarian aid.
Lebanon Has No Plan
While UNHCR has indicated that “the Lebanese government, unlike Jordan and Turkey, has not initiated a plan to set the ceiling for its demographic, political, social, and economic capacity to absorb Syrian refugees.”
In Jordan, the army joined the government in implementing a plan to absorb refugees and meet their humanitarian needs, without impacting the sovereign security of Jordan – under the slogan “homeland first.”
They established the Zaatari camp in the desert to ensure the containment of refugees, intending not to impact the delicate balance of Jordanian society. This ensures that the responsibility for those refugees remains an international matter.
In Turkey, Ankara set a cap for refugees at 100,000 people. Any overflow will be directed to camps set up inside Syrian territory along its borders.
UNHCR figures on the displacement of Syrians to Lebanon – based on registration centers around the country – show that 24,000 refugees entered the country during September alone. Around 78 percent were women and children.
They entered mostly through illegal crossings, especially in the regions of Wadi Khaled and Akkar on the northern borders with Syria. Host villages in these areas have also witnessed regular shelling from the regular Syrian army.
Tripoli has seen the arrival of around 450 new refugees every day. In the Bekaa, there are between 300 and 370 new daily arrivals. A new unit is being established in Saida after estimates that indicate the presence of 10,000 refugees who arrived to the area only last month.
In a letter inviting Lebanon to attend a meeting of Syria’s neighbors, the MENA office of the UNHCR claimed that “it is difficult to estimate the real number of Syrian refugees crossing into Lebanon. Internal UNHCR estimates, however, indicate the presence of around 200,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon.”
This would mean that Lebanon is hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees. Even according to the official number, Lebanon has absorbed around a third of the refugees. If the figure reaches UNHCR estimates by the end of the year, Lebanon will be hosting around a quarter of a million Syrian refugees.
In meetings with Lebanese officials, the UNHCR commended the country’s hospitality, especially its respect for international obligations to protect refugees and not repatriate them. But documents issued by the UNHCR in September indicated that the agency had several criticisms concerning Lebanon’s handling of the issue.
The UNHCR said that the Lebanese government decided to allow the renewal of residency permits for Syrians, without requiring them to leave Lebanese territory.
Those who entered illegally are still finding it difficult to move around inside Lebanon. UNHCR “is advocating for the regularization of registered refugees.”
An update on the UN inter-agency response to the crisis during September indicated that “finding a solution to the pending issue of secondary health care coverage remained a top priority.”
It criticized Dar al-Fatwa [Lebanon’s highest Sunni religious authority] which had “notified hospitals that they will no longer be contributing the remaining 15 percent of fees, which is normally left for the patient to pay.”
According to information on the UNHCR website, the coalition of relief agencies includes UNICEF, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), Caritas-Lebanon Migrants Center, and the World Food Program (WFP). They “distributed food vouchers, food kits, hygiene and baby kits to over 40,000 people (8,000 families)” in September.
In its latest correspondence, UNHCR informed the Lebanese government that it valued its efforts and insisted on its keeping the current policy of not deporting Syrian refugees.
It promised to call on UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees) to aid Palestinian refugees who are displaced inside Syria, to prevent them from coming to Lebanon.
It admitted that the real figure for Syrian refugees in Lebanon has reached 200,000 people, far exceeding the official figure of around 80,000.
It called Syria’s neighbors to a meeting in Geneva to develop a common understanding on the mechanisms for dialogue, cooperation, and the humanitarian response to the influx of refugees. This would be based on applying universal principles governing refugee protection.
Furthermore, it recommended a regular monthly meeting of Syria’s neighbors to coordinate absorption policies with the UNHCR.
One main point of contention remains: who will receive the international aid allocated for the displaced? Will it be the NGOs who will be conducting the work, or the host governments? The UNHCR prefers the first option.
UNHCR’s MENA office is warning of a major influx of Palestinians from Syria to Lebanon in the near future.
Around 500,000 of the two-and-a-half million displaced within Syria are Palestinians who were completely or partially displaced, out of a total of 680,000 Palestinians resident in Syria. A third of those are in urgent need of assistance from the international community, or they may be forced to leave the country in a month’s time.
Due to the seriousness of such an eventuality, and particularly following Jordan’s decision not to receive Palestinians displaced from Syria, UNHCR intends to call on UNRWA to provide them with emergency aid.
This is aimed at preventing a demographic shift of Palestinian refugees, especially toward Lebanon. Ever since the Ramadan clashes in and around the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus, almost 90 percent of those displaced (12,000 persons) have headed to Lebanon.
The Palestinian camps in Lebanon are feeling severe strain after having absorbed thousands friends and family members from Syrian camps into their already cramped and ill-serviced quarters. Tensions between the Palestinians in Lebanese camps and the UNRWA are already high given the inadequate response to their worsening situation.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.