Lebanon opposes Syrian refugee camps as crisis grows

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There are already more than 125,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 78 percent of them women and children, according to U.N. figures, though activists say the real number is much higher, and thousands continue to stream across the border.

Some 30 percent 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 destabilizing 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 neighboring Syria drags on, some 20,000 new refugees arrive in Lebanon each month, according to the U.N. 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 percent funding gap in its Lebanon program for Syrian children, and other agencies seeing similar problem.

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.

Hezbollah 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.”

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