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Is There an End to the Tragic Fate of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon?

The influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon that started in 2011 following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war has created a serious problem not only for Lebanon but the refugees themselves. Lebanon currently has the largest number of refugees per capita in the world, with one refugee per four Lebanese. The stress on Lebanon’s health and social services has been considerable and demands urgent and practical solutions.

Crowded conditions in the camps favor the spreading of respiratory and intestinal infections, particularly among children. Chronic conditions are common among older adults, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory infections. Essential medicines for chronic conditions are frequently lacking. A high prevalence of depression and cognitive disorders is frequent among the elder refugees.

Although both the Lebanese government and the Lebanese people have shown considerable understanding and willingness to help, the problems created by the influx of refugees has reached such a dimension that it has strained the relationships between the Syrians and the Lebanese and also between their governments.

The statistics are numbing. UNHCR, the UN Office for Refugees, estimates in 1 million the number of Syrian refugees who have been registered in Lebanon in 2016. However, this figure is probably an underestimate, since the UNHCR has stopped registering new refugees since May 2015, and doesn’t include individuals waiting for registration.

More recent estimates identify 1,500,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This number includes 31,502 Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria. Although the majority of Syrians now living in Lebanon are Arabs, various ethnic and religious minorities are included among them, such as Syrian Armenians, Syrian Turkmen and Syrian Kurds.

According to UNHCR, Lebanon never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. That convention establishes that a refugee who belongs “to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” should receive appropriate assistance.

If it had adhered to this convention, Lebanon would have been obligated not only to provide asylum to refugees but to allow them with the right to access courts, elementary education, and travel documents. Even if it wasn’t obligated to do so, however, the Lebanese government has tried to assist the Syrian refugees within the limits imposed by the magnitude of the problem. Now, however, they must begin to resume a normal life, hopefully back in their own country.

As Bashar al-Assad seems to be regaining control of the country, refugees have been returning to Syria, in some cases with aid from the government in Damascus. This move has been supported by the Lebanese government, which claims that it is unable to provide assistance to such a large number of refugees. UNHCR for its part disagrees, and advises against the return of Syrian refugees because of the dangerous conditions still prevailing in Syria.

In the meantime, several NGOs have been providing assistance to the Syrian refugees. Among those NGOs are Medair, a Swiss NGO, Anera, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Solidarités International, CARE Canada, the Syrian American Medical Society, Islamic Relief USA, and Caritas Lebanon. Although their work is invaluable, the need is overwhelming. In this regard, UNHCR is an agency with 68 years of experience in dealing with refugees needs and should have a pivotal role in any future assistance.

Given the multiplicity of organizations channeling aid to the Syrian refugees, what is needed is more coordination among them, and for the foreign governments that participated in this war to step up their aid and give the refugees a future of hope for regaining a decent way of life. The Syrian war is a foreign governments-fueled disaster that should have never happened.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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