In Lebanon, safe refugee spaces are urgently needed

In Lebanon, safe refugee spaces are urgently needed
Comment: Although the Lebanese government may be reluctant to provide formal, sustainable support to increasing numbers of Syrian refugees, this is exactly what needs to happen, writes James Denselow
4 min read
26 Sep, 2016
Refugees in Lebanon are misguidedly seen as islands of dependency and despair [Anadolu]
Earlier this month the Lebanese prime minister warned governments gathered at the United Nations that his country was at risk of collapse due to the pressures of refugees. It is a remarkable fact that the small nation of Lebanon hosts more refugees per capita than any other country on the planet.
Yet the country has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor has it been willing to allow UN agencies to set up formal camps in the country, fearing this could lead to permanent resettlement or something similar to the situation that exists for tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.
However, without official spaces in which to operate, the ability to provide humanitarian support to Syrian refugees is severely constrained. Meanwhile, many Syrians fear forced resettlement to Syria as was recently suggested by the Lebanese labour minister.

This is a fear that will surely lead to increased societal tensions already exacerbated by local security concerns that have triggered hate crimes, and the imposition of curfews on Syrians in parts of the country.
A new and better protected space is needed for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This could be achieved through a treaty, or a similar agreement with the UN that would allow them to set up more sustainable refugee spaces and would ultimately be aimed at best serving the needs of both the Syrian refugees and the host population.
There are an estimated 1.1 million Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon, a country with a population of around 4.5 million. According to recent UN data, some 70 percent of Syrian refugees are living below the poverty line and are "highly vulnerable to external shocks and reliant on humanitarian assistance to survive".
With the right leadership and imagination, the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon could be an asset to the country rather than a burden
It is completely understandable that Lebanon - a country that hasn't had a president in over two years and has a recent history of civil war, is reluctant to be seen to be the resettlement option for these 1.1 million Syrians. This reluctance has led to the assertive push back against the formalisation of refugee camps for Syrians. However, over five years into the conflict there is a need for a rethink.
The London Syria Conference in February raised $12 billion in pledges, the largest amount ever raised in one day in response to a humanitarian crisis. A great deal of the focus of this resource was for channeling money to host countries who are not getting enough support. With the right leadership and imagination, the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon could be an asset to the country rather than a burden.
What would a more formal, recognised and protected space for Syrian refugees mean?
It could mean that agencies - from the UN down to local Syrian or Lebanese NGOs - are better able to provide more sustainable sanitation infrastructure (including piping and water-pumping stations). This would be instrumental in improving the local environment, refugee health and reducing the chance of public health risks.
There are an estimated 1.1 million Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon, a country with a population of around 4.5 million
It could mean a more reliable chain of supply, and improved logistics in these areas - thanks to a managed and registered population - could help reduce aid duplication and corruption in the system.
Instead of being seen as islands of dependency and despair, the refugee communities could establish new working relationships with local Lebanese communities with international aid money as the driver for benefits for all. Ensuring that refugees are able to work, access education, run their own affairs and are generally empowered, could make these spaces beacons of hope and a reminder of what Syrians are capable of.
So what leadership and imagination would be needed to make this happen?
President Obama's Refugee Summit this month has been another reminder of the global scale of the challenge and has seen governments pledge to give more money, and to resettle more people. However, in host countries such as Lebanon, much of the funding is spent on overly expensive emergency aid delivery, due to the constant informal presence of Syrians in the country.
We must do more.
Each of the major host countries in the region – Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – could have a UN Commissioner appointed to bring this new approach to reality, with buy in from the highest levels to ensure that political obstacles can be overcome. I realise this is an optimistic and ambitious account of what could happen, but in the absence of any political solution to the conflict, there must be a commitment to adequately resourcing a suitable response to its fallout.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.