Lebanon: Political consensus over establishment of formal Syrian refugee camps remains elusive

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A Syrian woman sits next to her children sleeping on the street in Hamra Street in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on August 29, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Anwar Amro)

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Lebanese government waited three years to try and regulate the sudden and massive influx of Syrian refugees. The lack of proper management of this issue added to the pressure and tension between Lebanese and Syrians. But the recent events in Ersal and the backlash against Syrians in terms of attacks and kidnappings finally made the Lebanese government take notice of the situation.

Until now, no one knows what the government is going to do. It remains unclear whether or not it is going to set up refugee camps to curtail the problem of scattered refugee settlements. Amid conflicting statements by different ministers, it appears that there is no clear agreement on the issue.

The statement by the minister of social affairs, Rashid Derbas, that indeed there is a government decision to set up camps for Syrian refugees along the Syrian-Lebanese border constituted a major shift in policy and puzzled everyone, from ministers to organizations, refugees and the average Lebanese citizen. It was clear in the past that the option of building refugee camps was opposed by various political parties.

The government has finally decided to do something because the situation is intolerable and the developments in the past few days amounted to a direct warning to officials that things are spiraling out of control.

Derbas pointed out that since May, all political parties agreed that there are safe areas along the Lebanese-Syrian border where they can set up camps. None of the political forces expressed opposition. However, international organizations opposed the idea at the time out of fear for the safety of the refugees arguing that these areas are still unsafe. Today, things have changed according to Derbas. There is going to be a settlement in certain Syrian areas where the fighting has stopped. Therefore, he argued, we must take a proactive step and set up temporary camps in preparation for the return of the refugees to their cities and towns. “If we fail to take this step now, we are going to do it in two months because there are changes and settlements afoot,” Derbas added.

Initially, they are going to set up two camps. One between al-Masnaa and Jdeidet Yabous and another one between Abboudieh and Dabousieh. They are currently studying the geographical and logistical possibilities as well as energy and water resources in addition to the necessary funding.

Member of the ministerial committee dealing with the question of Syrian refugees Minister of Labor Sejaan Azzi confirmed that “the decision to set up camps for Syrian refugees was taken at a cabinet meeting held on May 23, 2014.” The cabinet meeting resolutions stated that: “It was agreed that the minister of foreign affairs and emigrants will proceed to establish safe camps in Syria or in the buffer border zone between Lebanon and Syria in collaboration with other parties and relevant agencies internationally, regionally and locally.” Azzi added: “After the events in Ersal and the emergence of a security threat posed by the scattered refugee settlements, we decided in the committee to begin implementing the decision. We will establish two camps as an experimental first step that will be expanded later.” Azzi pointed out that the government wanted to set up camps six months ago but disagreements between the different political parties prevented them from proceeding.

The minister of public health, Wael Abu Faour, said that “Minister Derbas mentioned the issue of establishing camps to inform everyone as we had discussed the question of setting up refugee camps along the border a while back.” Abu Faour announced that work on these camps will start soon and the first one is going to be in the buffer zone in al-Masnaa.

There is obvious disagreement among the ministers. Minister Mohammed Fneish stressed that “no government decision was taken to establish camps. Opinions and ideas were proposed and we are still waiting for a report by the committee charged with following-up on the issue of the refugees to discuss what will be proposed.” Fneish believes that the only solution is for the refugees to return to their country as there are now safe areas where refugee camps could be built.

Derbas revealed that the minister of foreign affairs and emigrants, Gebran Bassil, assured the committee that Hezbollah agreed to establishing camps along the border area. That is why “the project will start as soon as the studies are done.” He did say, however, that if there is no political consensus around this issue, if one party opposes it, then it will stop immediately.

Meeting humanitarian needs

Derbas argues that we should deal with the question of the refugee camps from a humanitarian and not a political perspective. These camps will ease the tension between the Lebanese and the Syrians and will provide the refugees with decent and humane conditions as they will consist of prefabricated houses and not tents because tents are dangerous and winter is upon us.

Besides, the camps will serve as a border station for the return of the refugees to their hometowns when the battles are over. He added: “The presence of 1,400 camps without any kind of security surveillance is a danger in and of itself. That is why it is necessary to begin, as soon as possible, building medium-sized government-sanctioned camps that could fit about 15,000 refugees and we will not allow the establishment of any camp without the knowledge of the government.” Derbas argued that the government “neglected this issue and was late in organizing the camps because it thought it is a question of a few thousand refugees who will be displaced for a few months. It turned out, however, that the number of refugees has exceeded a million and this is their third year in Lebanon.”

The idea of setting up camps with prefabricated houses was proposed two months ago by the International Humanitarian Relief organization, which is about to finish its project “We are Returning” in Ersal. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon expressed its willingness to coordinate with the Lebanese government if the issue is proposed in a serious manner. Until now, the government has not given the UNHCR any proposal in this regard. Public Information Officer for UNHCR in Lebanon, Dana Sleiman, said “the goal of the UN refugee agency is to support the government and we will discuss in upcoming meetings the necessary steps and measures to establish camps if we see a serious initiative by the government.” The refugee agency, however, is still worried about the danger that the refugees in these areas could be exposed to.

The idea of setting up camps with prefabricated houses was proposed two months ago by the International Humanitarian Relief organization, which is about to finish its project “We are Returning” in Ersal. Opening the camp was delayed by the battle in the town. It is expected that the refugees will live in it in 40 days. It consists of 165 mobile homes and fits about 900 people in the first phase. Coordination is ongoing with the Ersal municipality, however, and not with the government. Therefore, this camp could be the first experiment in Lebanon unless something on the legal and security level happens that could stop work on it.

The launching of a trust fund

The multi-donor trust fund was launched yesterday. Its first project was announced and it aims to support Lebanese communities hosting Syrian refugees by signing a 10-million dollar grant earmarked for the municipalities most strained by the refugee crisis as refugee numbers have exceeded 1.5 million.
The World Bank manages this fund and it is financed by contributions from a number of donor nations. The total financial contributions have reached $30 million so far. Norway provided the first contribution, followed by Finland. Yesterday, France signed the administrative arrangements with the World Bank to transfer 7 million euros as its contribution to the fund.

The first project allocated to the municipalities seeks to maintain basic services, provide critical infrastructure and promote social cohesion. It will help host communities address urgent priorities in services such as water, sanitation, roads and community activities.

Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil stressed Lebanon’s commitment to fulfil its obligations towards Syrian refugees. However, the financial support provided remains less than Lebanon’s needs. According to World Bank estimates, Lebanon needs about $1.6 billion to cope with the crisis and maintain a minimum level of basic needs for citizens and refugees.

Khalil said that all the administrative procedures to launch this trust fund and its mechanisms have been completed after the cabinet finally approved them, making this fund a legal trust integrated with other official agencies in a way that guarantees the delivery of aid to Lebanon and the Syrian refugees residing in it. France confirmed that it will continue to urge its partners and the international community to actively contribute to the International Support Group at its upcoming meeting to be held in New York on September 26 on the sidelines of the UN’s General Assembly session.

President of the Council for Development and Reconstruction Nabil Jisr said the council is trying to get additional money to finish the work it started. He pointed out that there are projects on the cabinet’s agenda provided by Kuwait, the Arab Fund and the European Union that need to be voted on.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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