Australian Visit Highlights Syrian Refugee Problem in Lebanon

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Article Summary
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr calls for an end to the fighting in Syria and support for Lebanon.

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon — Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr lauded the “extraordinary generosity” the Lebanese people have given to the more than a million Syrians living in the country because of the raging Syrian civil war. Underscoring the seriousness of the war to Canberra, it was the first visit by an Australian foreign minister to Lebanon in over a decade.

Carr visited a makeshift refugee tent camp housing up to 70 people in the Bekaa Valley.

Such camps are dotted throughout the Bekaa, a local who provides bread to the tent camp told Al-Monitor.

The camps have been established without official assistance from the Lebanese government, often by Syrian and Lebanese activists.

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Carr’s visit highlighted the growing humanitarian crisis emanating from Syria’s civil war, as well as the dangers facing Lebanon, which is struggling to cope with the influx of refugees.

More than 1 million Syrians now reside in Lebanon, making up 20% of the total population, Luciano Calestini, a UNICEF official accompanying Carr on the visit, said citing Lebanese government estimates. Close to 500,000 of them are registered with the UNHCR.

The humanitarian community is expecting the number of registered refugees in Lebanon to double to 1 million by the end of the year, causing a “frightening” scenario for a small country already plagued with its own internal issues.

This warning was noted by Australia’s top diplomat.

“The world’s facing a catastrophe here, and I think we’re coming close to the point where we think anything is better than the humanitarian crisis, especially if the fighting intensifies further,” he said to a group of journalists in the Bekaa.

Of particular concern is Lebanon’s struggling capacity to cope with the growing number of refugees, with Calestini warning that the public education system is one institution facing particularly grave challenges as more Syrian children arrive.

“We know there are at least 200,000 school-aged children from Syria in Lebanon,” he said, adding that 32,000 of whom have been enrolled in the Lebanese public education system, with another 15,000 making their own way to schools. “That’s based on the most conservative estimate.”

The number of school-aged Syrian children is expected to double to 400,000 by year end, the UNICEF official said, which would surpass the number of Lebanese school-aged children currently enrolled in public schools.

“The normal Lebanese public school intake is 300,000, which means Syrian children would actually number more,” Calestini explained to Al-Monitor.

“We’re extremely concerned at the Lebanese educational capacity to absorb such numbers, and what that would mean for hundreds of thousands of Syrian children and the prospects for an education, which is a fundamental right.”

The poor sanitary conditions of the tent camp are also posing a serious health risk to the refugees, with children currently suffering from an outbreak of scabies.

The tent camp, situated in plain view of mountains that border Syria, is lacking key medical supplies, with no education provided to the children. 

The squalid condition of the tent camp is representative of the greater challenges Syrian refugees in Lebanon face. The Lebanese government has yet to endorse establishing refugee camps on its territory, with President Michel Suleiman instead proposing in April to setup refugee camps inside Syria under UN protection.

The enormity of the challenge was not lost on Carr, who conceded that the $78 million Australia had provided to the Syrian relief effort since 2011 was “woefully modest compared to the needs.”

“We’re going to have to galvanize the world to pay more attention to not only ending the fighting in Syria, but to looking after Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey bearing the brunt of this great shift of population.”

It was a call echoed by UNICEF, with Calestini urging a “much larger institutional approach from the international community to support the response.”

While humanitarian agencies in Lebanon were grateful for foreign funding, “the growing scale of the crisis is outpacing the resources that are being allocated to respond,” Calestini said.

Australia, which holds a seat at the UN Security Council, had consulted the United States and Russia on the need for humanitarian assistance, Carr said while criticizing the inaction on the relief front in Syria. “I find it extraordinary that while the world contemplates a Geneva II and engages in talks between the US and Russia, and looks toward an outcome there, we can’t at the very least get an agreement on medical convoys, to get medicines into the country.”

Carr said Australia would “redouble efforts” at the United Nations to achieve a pact to allow desperately needed medical supplies to enter Syria. “The first priority of course is to get a cease-fire, but while we’re negotiating that, I again put on the table Australia’s desire to get a pact to see medicines arrive in the country and hospitals protected, and doctors and nurses guaranteed safety.”

The views presented here in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the editorial position of Al-Monitor.

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Found in: united nations, us, unhcr, un, syrian, syria, russian, russia, lebanon, australia

Antoun Issa was a news editor for Al-Monitor's Beirut bureau. On Twitter: @antissa

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