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UN Refugee Agency Heading to Beirut

The U.N. refugee agency is gearing up for a multi-million dollar operation to help tens of thousands of people displaced by the current crisis in Lebanon. The UNHCR says the first members of an initial 11-strong emergency team arrives in Damascus, Syria on Thursday. From there they will go to Beirut to prepare the large-scale humanitarian operation.

The 11 UNHCR team members are specialists in crisis management. They are flying in from all parts of the world, but mainly from countries in the region, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

U.N. refugee spokesman Andrej Mahecic says the team will begin a detailed needs assessment after they arrive in Lebanon. He says their findings will be crucial in setting up the rest of the humanitarian operation.

Mahecic tells VOA that emergency mobile teams already in Lebanon have begun making some preliminary assessments. He says they have been making contact with people who have fled their homes, helping them to get shelter and food.

"We have colleagues who are monitoring the situation on the border between Syria and Lebanon," he said. "There is a steady flow of people, mostly what appears to be Syrians who were on temporary work in Lebanon. However, there are some Lebanese, but mostly those with some sort of contacts in Syria and most of them are staying with family and friends. Some 640 families are in schools helped by the Syrian Red Crescent. At this stage we are discussing how we can assist them."

The United Nations estimates as many as 500,000 people have become displaced since the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah erupted over a week ago. It says most of these people are living with family and friends. But as the conflict continues, it warns many more people are likely to become homeless and will be in need of international assistance.

Mahecic says the UNHCR has stockpiles of emergency relief supplies in Jordan and Syria. Thus, goods such as shelter items, plastic sheeting, tents and blankets can be brought into Lebanon immediately.

He says the UNHCR will provide shelter and humanitarian assistance to refugees crossing into Syria and other countries as well as to people who are displaced inside Lebanon.

"Certainly, the issue of protection will be the great focus, particularly when we talk about the refugee outflow which may be seen across the border in Syria or perhaps in Cyprus," he added.

The U.N. refugee spokesman says the plight of some 20,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Iraq, is of concern. He says some of these frightened people, including stranded migrant workers, have demonstrated outside the UNHCR office in Beirut asking to be put on a boat to Cyprus for safety.

He says the humanitarian operation will be expensive and UNHCR's needs will be included in an appeal for Lebanon the United Nations is expected to launch in the coming days.