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Lebanon opposes Syrian refugee camps as crisis grows

Lebanon, backed by the UN, rejects establishment of temporary shelters for Syrian refugees, leaving thousands of Syrians without a roof over their hesds

AFP , Thursday 22 Nov 2012
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Thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are urgently seeking temporary shelter similar to the camps set up in Turkey and Jordan, but with its troubled history of refugees, Beirut and the UN reject the idea.

"If no camp or emergency solution is provided, families will end up sleeping on the streets, or returning to Syria," said Ayman al-Hariri, a Syrian activist in Lebanon's northern province of Akkar, where tens of thousands of refugees are currently based.

"Nobody wants to live in a camp, but most cannot pay $200 to $300 rent each month (155 to 235 euros). It would also help organise aid," said Hariri. "Right now it's chaos, and the most vulnerable families pay the highest price."

There are already more than 125,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 78 percent of them women and children, according to UN 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 destabilising 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 neighbouring Syria drags on, some 20,000 new refugees arrive in Lebanon each month, according to the UN 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 programme for Syrian children, and other agencies seeing similar problems.

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