BEIRUT — On average every week, 11,000 new Syrian refugees arrive in Lebanon. As the flow of those fleeing Syria’s civil war shows no sign of abating, the top U.N. refugee official in Lebanon says Western countries must relieve the pressure and admit more Syrians.
Ninette Kelley had just one year as the representative of the U.N. refugee agency in Lebanon before the civil war erupted in neighboring Syria, triggering huge waves of refugees needing shelter, food and medical assistance. Nearly three years into the crisis, she admits one of the biggest fears is that spillover sectarian violence will engulf Lebanon, too.
“In regard to the spread of insecurity in Lebanon given that many of the divisions that are being played out in Syria also erupt from time to time and sentiments are very strong for and against Syrian factions, I think that is the great fear of Lebanon and I think it is a great testament to the country that it hasn’t exploded more than it already has,” said Kelley.
If new arrivals continue at the current rate, a million Syrians will have registered as refugees in Lebanon by the beginning of March. That represents a 25 percent jump in the country’s total population, straining Lebanon’s economy, its education and health systems and roiling its fragile sectarian politics.
Kelley says Western countries must help.
“We are encouraging other countries in the world to come forward on a number of different programs. One is to relax their visa restrictions vis-à-vis Syrians. Two is to facilitate family reunification for Syrian refugees to join family members that may be in other countries. And three is to expand resettlement programs and humanitarian admission programs," she said.
Of all the challenges facing refugees in Lebanon, Kelley says the biggest is shelter.
“Shelter is a huge challenge. We have 65 percent of refugees renting something kind of accommodation and many of them are doubling and tripling up in a single-bedroom apartment. And then we have over 30 percent of refugees who are living in very insecure situations - tents, unfinished buildings, garages, warehouses," said Kelley.
Forty-five-year-old Saha, who fled the Syrian city of Homs five months ago, is one of those in insecure accommodation. She, her daughter and son, and his son’s wife and baby live in a tiny makeshift one-room house in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli. She does not know where she will find next month’s rent money - $200 - or another $100 owed on last month’s rent.
“The owner is a gentleman that reminds us of the money but doesn’t push us too much. The owner has said he wants the money by next month. He says you are Syrian refugees and I really hope you find a way to pay me the money,” said Saha.
Saha is not alone - most refugees cite housing as their number one problem. The U.N.’s Kelley has been pressing the Lebanese authorities for months to agree to the building of managed refugee camps, but says it has been hard to secure agreement.
“All policy decisions have to be reached by consensus and that is very difficult to obtain around the Cabinet table.”
Negotiations are painstaking and protracted, but Kelley said she is not giving up.