Lebanon Cooling toward Syrian Refugees

Lebanon Cooling toward Syrian Refugees

Partly out of fear, partly out of frustration, Lebanese assistance to Syrian refugees is waning.

Bordering on Syria, Lebanon fears incursions from jihadist groups like the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front of the al-Qaeda network. The Syrian conflict could easily spill across the border into Lebanon.

Some incursions have already occurred. Al-Nusra has threatened to execute nine Lebanese soldiers and policemen held hostage in retaliation for the pro-Assad involvement of Hezbollah Lebanese Shiite militia in the Syrian conflict.

The Maronite priest, Paul Karam, President of Caritas Lebanon, told Fides News Agency, “Some time ago a Lebanese bishop attempted to take up a collection to help Syrian refugees. Well, he could not collect any money. People said, ‘Enough, we are through helping.’ For many people, aid to Syrian refugees has become grounds for accusations and reproaches for the work of Caritas.”

Lebanon’s geopolitical position places it at the center of conflict. “We are right between Syria and Israel,” says Fr. Karam. “We could be a country at peace but unfortunately we suffer the political and military designs decided elsewhere.”

There has been a gradual erosion of the Lebanese sense of solidarity and charity toward Syrian refugees, says Karam, caused, in part, by the renewed fighting in the Bekaa Valley between anti-Assad Syrian militants and the national army.

“Among the people,” Karam says, “many repeat, ‘We welcomed them, and they have betrayed us. The police came and found weapons in their fields. Now we do not want to help the Syrians.'”

The situation is dismal. “The new Middle East drawn from these strategists of chaos is a fragmented region,” laments Karam, “always drowned in ethnic-religious conflicts, where there is no place for Christians.”

Earlier this week, Lebanese General Security reminded Syrian refugees who are there illegally that they have until December 31 to settle their residency status, after which they will be charged a fine.

This morning Syrian refugees in south Lebanon came in droves to settle their residency status before the upcoming deadline. Dozens of Syrians stood in line outside the security agency’s headquarters in the southern towns of Nabatieh, Tibnin, and Jezzine amid tight security measures.

General Security is issuing, free of charge, a special, nonrenewable, six-month residency permit for Syrians who have entered the country illegally and a normal six-month permit for those who have overstayed their legal residence.

“The refugees could either return to Syria or stay here,” a General Security source told The Daily Star.

Syrian refugees registered at the the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon have surpassed 1.1 million, but Lebanese officials estimate the total number of Syrian residents in the country to be about 2 million, about 20% of the total population.

Of these refugees, many are children. A report released by “Save the Children” said that Lebanon’s education system is under “extreme pressure” to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee children looking for schooling. As of now, four out of five Syrian children who fled the war to Lebanon are out of school, according to the report.

The UNHCR has taken in $189,359,246 for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, more than for any other nation included in its Syria regional response plan. The UNHCR considers this less than half of what it needs.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese government is considering setting up “shelters” for Syrian refugees as it considers whether to introduce new measures to prevent more Syrian nationals from entering the country, according to a senior government official.

The shelters would be established under the supervision of the UNHCR and the Lebanese government, said Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs Rashid Derbas. Derbas said that the final decision on setting up the shelters would be made during Thursday’s government session.

Unlike Jordan, Iraq. and Turkey, Lebanon has no official refugee camps, in part because of Lebanese fears of what signals it could send to the Syrian government. About half of the refugees live in rented housing, while the other half are in nomadic camps or hosted by families or local communities.

Approximately 700-900 unofficial refugee camps are in Lebanon, accommodating less than a fifth of Syrians there.

Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim, said his country opposes the establishment of Syrian refugee camps on Lebanese territories. “Syria is a large country and can accommodate all its sons,” he said.

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