The forgotten refugees: Tales from the displaced Lebanese population
As Lebanon and the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) struggle to deal with the impact of the more than 1 million Syrian refugees registered in the country, they have come under increasing criticism of lack of support from refugees who hold Lebanese nationality.
“If we only had Syrian nationality the UN would take an interest in us,” said Faisal Khairiddine, a Lebanese national born and raised in Syria, describing the different way the UNHCR and Lebanese authorities treat dual nationals in comparison with other people displaced by the Syrian war.
Khairiddine told Asharq Al-Awsat he had fled to Lebanon, where his parents were born, more than two and a half years ago after the government bombardment of Homs. He now lives in a room paid for by Hezbollah in Hermel, being unable to afford alternative living arrangements.
Prior to the outbreak of the conflict, there was a vibrant Syrian–Lebanese community in Syria, particularly in the border regions of Homs and Tartous. This community of Lebanese origin but with long-term ties to Syria—the majority of whom hold dual Syrian and Lebanese nationality—have found themselves in an increasingly difficult position as the violence in Syria has progressed, with authorities in both countries refusing to take responsibility for them.
On Thursday, UN Secretary-General Bank Ki-moon circulated a report highlighting the growing humanitarian problems in Lebanon. As “the smallest and most vulnerable of Syria’s neighbors,” Lebanon is hosting the largest number of refugees, said the report. Earlier this month, the UNHCR reported that 1 million Syrian nationals had officially registered as refugees in Lebanon, a country of just 4.5 million people—but there are likely hundreds of thousands more Syrian refugees who have been unable to officially register for refugee status.
A large majority of this Syrian—Lebanese community have been forced to flee their homes, particularly with fighting between government forces and rebels now taking place close to their traditional enclaves in Syria. The UNHCR, which provides a monthly financial stipend to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, reports that the number of Lebanese evacuees from Syria may reach 50,000 by the end of the year, with refugees of dual Syrian and Lebanese nationality finding themselves viewed as outsiders in both countries.
Issam Bleibel, the deputy mayor of Hermel, 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the Syrian border, told Asharq Al-Awsat that 470 Syrian–Lebanese families were present in the city, the majority from Homs. “The situation these evacuees find themselves in is much worse than that of the Syrian refugees, particularly as they do not receive any kind of help and are left to their own devices,” he said.
The majority of Lebanon’s 1.29 million Syrian refugees live in camps around the country. But Lebanese nationals are ineligible for camp housing regardless of their circumstances. Instead, they live in rented accommodation, mainly in Lebanon’s border towns.
Abeer Matar, a dual Syrian–Lebanese national born in Al Qusayr, says she was forced to flee Syria with her husband and two sons when her home was destroyed.
She told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We lived in Hermel for around a year and a half, but when the security situation deteriorated, we were displaced again to the Sin El-Fil area of Beirut, where we live today in a small house we can barely afford.”
Just like Khairiddine, Matar also expressed disappointment about the lack of assistance from the Lebanese authorities.
The UNHCR provides aid for Syrian refugees who are registered with its offices around Lebanon, but it has no obligation to register displaced Lebanese nationals.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, UNHCR spokesman in Beirut Joel Eid said the Syrian–Lebanese evacuees are covered by specific programs implemented by the UNHCR in cooperation with 60 associations, and that many Syrian–Lebanese do receive aid on their arrival in Lebanon.
Eid said the recent call for funding by the UNHCR will specifically include assistance for the approximately 50,000 Syrian–Lebanese refgees currently present in the country, in addition to the approximately 100,000 Palestinian refugees who have been affected by the crisis.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also undertaken effort to help Lebanese evacuees.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, ICRC spokesperson in Beirut Samar Al-Qadi said aid is being provided for Syrian–Lebanese evacuees in Hermel, as well as in Bint Jubail, in the south of the country. She acknowledged that the dual Syrian–Lebanese nationals are facing a very difficult situation and that this may get worse in the future due to the lack of any real assistance from the UNHCR.
Qadi said that the ICRC is doing its best to provide the Syrian–Lebanese community with as much assistance as possible to make up for this short-fall. “We coordinated with the UNHCR when large numbers of Syrian refugees began to arrive in Arsal in Lebanon from from the Yabroud area of Syria.”
But, lacking adequate support, it may be that many of the refugees will feel forced to return to war-torn Syria. Matar insisted her family is prepared to return to Syria if and when the war moves away from their home in Al-Qusayr: “We cannot afford to keep living in Lebanon, but we are waiting for the situation in Syria to improve.”