Syrian refugees welcomed to Lebanon amid political tensions

As their country’s civil war drags on, thousands of Syrian families continue to flee the incessant violence for safety in neighboring countries. Yet in many places where they have taken refuge, the struggle to survive remains a daunting challenge.

As of January 17, more than 650,000 Syrian refugees throughout the region had either registered with United Nations officials or have their registration pending, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than one-third of those were in Lebanon, where a total of 212,445 refugees have already registered or begun the registration process with UNHCR.

Those numbers don’t include everyone, however. Some refugees, unsure of the political landscape, have tried to keep a low profile.

“We haven’t registered yet because when we arrived, we were warned that if we did so, we wouldn’t be able to return to Syria, and we thought we’d be here for just a short time,” said a woman whose family lives in a makeshift tent at the edge of the Bekaa Valley town of Jeb Jennine. She asked not to be identified, saying they had crossed the border into Lebanon without presenting any papers, and now feared deportation.

“Yet now when we call UNHCR to try to make an appointment, they don’t answer the phone. And you’ve got to talk to them on the phone to begin the process. Our neighbors who registered have received vouchers for food and warm things for winter, but we haven’t. We had to borrow a blanket from another family for our children, and at night we just sleep closely together to stay warm,” she said.

Humanitarian needs amidst fractious politics

The refugees are also difficult to count in Lebanon because the government has resisted building large camps for them as in Turkey and Jordan. Instead, most Syrian refugees here are staying with friends or relatives, or renting space in crowded buildings or rustic encampments.

Formal refugee camps are a non-starter in Lebanon, where a sizable population of Palestinian refugees has lingered in “temporary” camps since 1948. The presence of armed factions among these Palestinians contributed to the 1975-90 civil war. And many Lebanese have resisted the assimilation of the Palestinians, who are mostly Sunni, in order not to upset the fragile sectarian balance in their own country.

With Lebanon’s political culture closely linked to Syria’s political factions, no one wants to import the violence that has torn apart cities like Homs and Aleppo. At the same time, there’s broad support for a humanitarian response to the families fleeing the civil war. That tension creates a delicate political balancing act.

“There’s a power struggle in Lebanon, and nobody can agree on something like this,” said George Antoun, the Beirut-based Middle East regional director for International Orthodox Christian Charities, a member of ACT Alliance. “Lebanon doesn’t control its borders, and it has a long and porous border with Syria. People fear a refugee camp might become a base for Syrian militants, or a place that could be attacked by a certain faction within Lebanon, and that would create conflict. It would be hard to prove who attacked the camp, and it could bring Lebanon back to civil war.”

With no change in sight in Syria’s protracted war, refugees will continue to flow across the border. UN officials say Lebanon will have 425,000 Syrian refugees by June. As more refugees arrive, their needs for living space and services will put the country’s capacity to host them to an even greater test. That’s why Lebanon appealed to the Arab League for $180 million in emergency aid during a meeting in Cairo on January 13. The Arab League agreed to dispatch a fact-finding team to study the situation.

The ACT Alliance response

Working with UN agencies and other members of ACT Alliance, the IOCC is assisting the Syrian refugees with blankets, heaters and winter clothing. The organisation also works inside Syria in cooperation with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East to deliver emergency relief items, as well as provide critical psychosocial support to families struggling to survive the harsh winter.

In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the IOCC has provided 2,000 expectant mothers and women who recently gave birth with special personal care kits filled with important basics that are often forgotten and difficult to ask for in a society where women’s needs are not discussed. Each “dignity kit” contains feminine hygiene products and personal care items such as bath towels and new undergarments.

“Providing protection and humanitarian assistance to vulnerable groups such as women with young children is integral to our ongoing relief efforts,” said Mark Ohanian, the IOCC director of programs. “They need someone to support their well-being so that they can continue to support their families.”

**Article by Paul Jeffrey