HALBA, Lebanon — Thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are urgently seeking temporary shelter similar to the camps set up in Turkey and Jordan, but with its troubled history of refugees, Beirut and the UN reject the idea.
“If no camp or emergency solution is provided, families will end up sleeping on the streets, or returning to Syria,” said Ayman Al Hariri, a Syrian activist in Lebanon’s northern province of Akkar, where tens of thousands of refugees are currently based.
“Nobody wants to live in a camp, but most cannot pay $200 to $300 rent each month (155 to 235 euros). It would also help organise aid,” said Hariri. “Right now it’s chaos, and the most vulnerable families pay the highest price.”
There are already more than 125,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 78 per cent of them women and children, according to UN figures, though activists say the real number is much higher, and thousands continue to stream across the border.
Some 30 per cent of those who fled the conflict are relying on families in the north to host them. The rest struggle to put a roof over their heads, and say temporary accommodation is desperately needed.
But Lebanon’s existing Palestinian refugee camps have seen repeated outbreaks of violence — the presence of Palestinians was a major destabilising factor during the 1975-1990 civil war — and the authorities are afraid of encouraging Syrians to settle permanently.
Many Lebanese Shiites and Christians believe the new influx may upset the delicate sectarian balance in a country of just four million, with most of the Syrian arrivals Sunni Muslim, like the Palestinians.
“We don’t know where many of the Syrians are living,” Said Al Halabi, the mayor of Halba in Akkar province, told AFP. “If they had a camp, it would be easier to keep order.”
As violence in neighbouring Syria drags on, some 20,000 new refugees arrive in Lebanon each month, according to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Lebanon, Robert Watkins.
The United Nations and the Lebanese authorities are assisting local communities hosting Syrians, while aiming to promote development.
“The policy of the United Nations, and in coordination with the government of Lebanon, is that it is not advisable at this time,” Watkins told journalists in Halba, when asked whether new camps might alleviate the refugees’ plight.
“Camps create many more problems than they solve, and they are also incredibly expensive to maintain,” he added.
The severe funding shortage over the Syrian humanitarian crisis is a major concern for the United Nations, with UNICEF facing a 57 per cent funding gap in its Lebanon programme for Syrian children, and other agencies seeing similar problems.
‘Sweeping the problem under the carpet’
Meanwhile, with bitter memories of the armed presence of Palestinians from the mid-1970s onwards, many ordinary Lebanese oppose the camps, including in the northern city of Tripoli.
“If we had camps, the Syrian refugees would do what the Palestinians did. They’d become emperors on our land,” said 28-year-old Sharif Al Naimi, who sells watches in Tripoli.
Fearing a replay of the Palestinian problem, the government is also firmly opposed to setting up camps for the Syrians.
“There is no discussion whatsoever of opening any camp,” said Michel Moussa, a pro-Damascus Lebanese MP. “We do not believe a camp preserves anybody’s rights.”
Despite its attempts to remain neutral over the conflict, Lebanon’s political parties are deeply divided over the Syrian crisis.
Hizbollah and its allies, which hold the majority in government, support the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, with the March 14 movement led by former premier Saad Hariri backing the 20-month revolt.
A 27-year-old Syrian vegetable seller in Tripoli believes Lebanon’s political divisions explain why no long-term solution to the refugee problem is in sight.
“Most people arriving in Lebanon are women and children, and they come with hardly any money or belongings. How are they expected to take care of themselves?” said Abdo, who travelled to Lebanon from the embattled Aleppo countryside five months ago.
“A camp is a good idea. But Lebanon is so torn about Syria that the government does not care if people sleep in the cold. They just want to sweep the problem under the carpet.”