With each passing day, the ticking time bomb of displaced Syrians in Lebanon seems closer to exploding.
On the face of it, everyone is part of the problem. On July 26, 2013, Ninette Kelley, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon, held a joint press conference with Luca Rends, country director for the UN Development Programme, at UNHCR headquarters in Beirut. Both presented alarming numbers on the Syrian refugee crisis that also pointed to its exacerbation and further deterioration.
As of July 19, UNHCR had registered some 530,000 displaced Syrians, with approximately 96,000 more in the queue. Their figures are increasing at a steady pace, but on the other side, the capacity of Lebanon to take in more of them is almost zero. At this point, it will already require $530 million to tackle the tragedy that has resulted in 600,000 Syrians being displaced. The concerned international parties have provided a mere 26% of this amount so far.
From the perspective of Lebanese governmental institutions, the assessment is even more disastrous. It is believed that the number of displaced Syrians is in fact double the figures publicly mentioned due to undocumented infiltrations across the border, the inability of the individuals to register with the UNHCR, and displaced jihadist, extremist fundamentalists and various other armed opposition members clandestinely using areas of Lebanon for rest and to logistically regroup and stock up before heading back to battle in Syria. This is due to the lax security situation along the Lebanese-Syrian border, in part due to the inability of both countries to control that part of their territory and because some Lebanese are militarily involved in the war.
Lebanese officials have noted a number of other factors aggravating the Syrian displacements in Lebanon. In addition to the failure of the state to take control over its territory, there is the welcoming environment for the extremism of some of the Syrians, either in Palestinian refugee camps or fundamentalist Sunni-dominated areas willing to host “fellow jihadists.” In this context, it suffices to note the battle Sunni Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir waged against the Lebanese army on June 23 and 24. After the army prevailed, it was revealed that 34 Lebanese and 60 Syrian individuals had been arrested, in addition to other jihadists of varying Arab and Asian nationalities.
This “invasion” of Syrians displaced to Lebanon should be understood beyond the obvious tragedy, lying somewhere between the actual mass displacement and the fragility of Lebanese sovereignty. Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs Wael Abu Faour said Syrian refugees were distributed across more than 1,400 locations in the country, in addition to 278 randomly established camps.
Two weeks ago, the UN Security Council was focused on the issue, holding a series of multilateral meetings to discuss the repercussions. A former Lebanese minister currently serving as an adviser to a prominent Lebanese official took part in the meetings. The Lebanese official, who requested anonymity, said he had returned to Beirut pessimistic, and told Al-Monitor that during the discussions, he had presented a comprehensive and detailed explanation of the problem and then put forth the steps necessary to help Lebanon avoid further catastrophe:
First, donor countries must commit to the financial assistance announced at the Kuwait conference held January 30.
Second, Arab countries should be encouraged to host a specified number of displaced Syrians.
Third, implementation of the specialized international organizations’ mechanisms should be accelerated to resettle those accepted as refugees in third countries.
Fourth, the parties involved in the Syrian conflict should be encouraged to let displaced Syrians return to their home regions, if there is stability there, or to other areas of Syria already stabilized, essentially as internally displaced persons.
Fifth, the international community, like the parties involved in the Syrian conflict, should accelerate reconciliation efforts or at least move toward settling the mechanisms of a truce, cease-fire or conflict management in a way that mitigates the burdens of the crisis.
The Lebanese official said that the discussions made clear that there is no chance of realizing these requests. In terms of financial aid, it is a foregone conclusion that assistance is dependent on the political interest of the donor countries rather than their ability to pay or the enormity of the humanitarian crisis. This was illustrated when Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates pledged $12 billion on July 9 and 10 to support the new, militarily imposed regime in Egypt, while $500 million has yet to be given toward the displaced Syrians in Gulf and Western countries, despite the strain on some countries to host the refugees.
Egypt had previously allowed a number of displaced Syrians to enter, but has since begun to tighten its grip on them under the pretext of their possibly being supporters of the former Muslim Brotherhood regime. Germany announced in March that it will temporarily host 5,000 displaced Syrians, in an initiative that seems to remain the only one of its kind outside the Middle East.
The Syrian crisis is expected to continue for years, but in the meantime, international organizations are insisting on not amending the mechanisms of refugee resettlement until the dust settles in Syria and the feasibility of those filing for asylum to return to their country is verified.
The issue of parties involved in the Syrian war not allowing citizens to go back to Syria appears to be related to using this card to put pressure on Lebanon, or on certain parties in Lebanon, or to make use of the displaced Syrians themselves — the majority of whom are Sunnis — in Lebanon. Herein lies a real tragedy in the plight of the refugees.
The last impression the Lebanese official brought back with him from New York was that there will not be a Geneva II conference, an end to the Syrian war or solutions to the displaced Syrians. The message? Figure it out for yourselves.
Jean Aziz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Lebanon Pulse. He is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese TV station. He also teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon.
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