Syrian Refugees Stream into Lebanon’s North

This article was published by the Interdependent on 17-02-2012

“I want to return as soon as possible,” Abu Hamzeh tells me from his hospital bed in Tripoli. The young man, just 25, fled Syria for Lebanon more than two months ago. He’s recovering from bullet wounds to his thigh and shoulder, inflicted by a sniper who fired on Hamzeh while he was leading demonstrations in his hometown, Homs, the epicenter of the Syrian uprising.

Since fighting erupted in March 2011, UNHCR and the High Relief Council in Lebanon have registered 6,133 Syrian refugees like Hamzeh. Most are gathered in the country’s north, along the border. Many fled after seeing loved ones injured or returned in body bags. And few share Hamzeh’s eagerness to return to what is increasingly not just a political battle, but also a humanitarian nightmare.

Across the border, the situation for new refugees isn’t easy. Lebanon is struggling to deal with the thousands of refugees who have streamed in. The majority are confined to the country’s poorest regions, like Wadi Khaled, where all but 200 live with host families. Others have been housed in three local schools around the valley.

Many of the refugees from the Syrian border towns of Talkalakh and Homs have family ties in Lebanon. The border between the countries used to be so porous that residents would cross daily to buy subsidized Syrian fuel, bread and cigarettes. These days, such traffic has virtually halted due to the heavy security presence on both sides, including newly planted landmines on the Syrian side.

For now, the refugees cannot leave the area. Their disputed legal status-the government refuses to recognize them as refugees-makes it impossible for the refugees to move around in search of work or a better future. Instead, they’ll rely on aid and try to find work in the already strained local economy. Under the umbrella of the Lebanese government, UNHCR is providing food, education and medical assistance, as are a slew of NGOs and local partners.

Educational benefits for all

More than 60 percent of the refugees from Syria are children. After the summer, when it became clear that they would not make it home for a new school year, UNHCR lobbied with the Ministry for Education to allow the children to enroll in local schools. The UN agency secured grants for 500 Syrian children, covering tuition, school fees, uniforms and stationery. But that number represents only a quarter of the refugee children now in Wadi Khaled.

Another problem was timing, says Dana Sleiman, a public information officer for UNHCR. “Many [of the children] only registered after the November deadline for enrollment. We are now lobbying the ministry to enroll them.”

Even if they do enter the classroom, curriculum is another challenge. The Lebanese and Syrian systems differ, and many children-especially those who weren’t in school back home-need help to catch up. Save the Children Sweden has begun providing special classes for students who have fallen behind. These are also open to Lebanese children living in the area, according to Alain Ghafari, who heads the UNHCR programs in the North.

Ironically, this is just one way in which the local community is actually benefitting from the influx of refugees. As Syrians have streamed over the border, aid agencies have followed them. The Wadi Khaled region is one of the poorest and least developed regions in Lebanon, so the assistance is welcome. Although the majority of assistance is temporary, including staples things like food, hygiene kits and baby kits, other projects are more lasting. UNHCR, partnered with the Danish Refugee Council and Save the Children Sweden, is building a public library and playgrounds for children.

“The programs are mainly targeting the Syrian refugees, but it’s always inevitable that you should take into account the needs of the local community” says Ghafari. “This particular region needs a lot of development, as there is no proper infrastructure, there are not enough jobs, their situation is not really very good, especially to cope with this crisis.”

Another poor region now bracing for an influx of refugees is the Bekaa Valley, already host to at least 2,000 Syrian refugees. Most are living in similar circumstances to Wadi Khaled; they have been taken in by family members or friends. The government, and consequently UNHCR, are not conducting any activities in the Bekaa Valley, but Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour told local media Al-Shofra that his office is still trying to assess the refugees’ needs.

Just visiting?

Despite the aid that has flowed into the region, the local economy in Wadi Khaled is struggling to absorb the increasing numbers of refugees, particularly since the government has yet to issue the refugees registration certificates so that they can search for employment elsewhere. Syrian residents in the North “continue to feel frustrated at their lack of mobility and consequent inability to find temporary work,” according to UNHCR’s latest update on the situation.

“I call it a big jail,” says Wael Al-Kaldy, about the situation in Wadi Khaled. He is assistant CEO of the High Council for Syrian Refugees, an NGO set up to deal with the refugee crisis. “It’s a political problem,” he admits.

As a non-signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, Lebanon has always had a difficult relationship with displaced populations. The country already houses a large Palestinian population, which the majority of politicians do not want to formally absorb since it would skew the precariously balanced ratios of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized sects. Perpetually in legal limbo, the Palestinians have long fallen under the auspices of UNHCR, where they live segregated from the Lebanese population without the right to work.

The Syrian refugees pose a similar problem. They are overwhelmingly Sunni, and there is no guarantee that they will leave when the troubles in Syria are over. Outside the Al-Ibra school, which houses a number of refugees, someone has scribbled out the word “refugees” and written the word “guests” underneath it-the term the Lebanese government uses to describe the Syrians who have fled.

Yet how long these guests will stay remains unclear. “People are fleeing because they are afraid of the situation. I don’t think people will return until the situation is stable and it is safe for them to return,” says Ghafari.

On Monday, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that the Security Council’s inaction had “emboldened” the regime. Violence has been increasing in the country; more than 300 people have been killed in Homs alone since the Syrian army started a large scale assault 10 days ago, Pillay said.

“When I left, it was a partial war,” says Hamzeh. “Now it is a full-out war. It was bullets, now it’s tanks and bombs.”

The article can also be found here: http://theinterdependent.com/120217/syrian-refugees-stream-into-lebanons-north

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