Lebanon is considering placing restrictions on Syrian refugee arrivals to the country as it struggles to cope with over a million people who have already crossed its border due to the conflict next door.
The announcement came Wednesday after a meeting at Baabda Palace chaired by President Michel Sleiman, who discussed the issue with top security officials and government ministers.
“The president headed a meeting to discuss the issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon ... as well as the possibility of limiting the number of refugees arriving from safe areas [in Syria],” said a statement issued by Baabda Palace.
The meeting was attended by caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, caretaker Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour, General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim and other officials.The statement offered no elaboration on how Syrian “safe areas” would be defined, or how the restriction might be implemented in Lebanon.
Previous discussions of stopping refugees from entering Lebanon have generated strong objections from the international community, whose members say such an action violates international norms. Lebanon relies mostly on international aid distributed by the United Nations to help Syrians in the country, while private charities and other groups are also active in the relief effort.
A spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told The Daily Star anyone fleeing violence in Syria should be allowed entry into the country.
UNHCR official Dana Sleiman also said that putting a ban on refugees arriving from “safe areas” would be somewhat irrelevant, given that the majority of Syrian refugee arrivals in Lebanon are fleeing immediate violence.
“Most people registering [with UNHCR] are from places where it is no longer safe ... They are not people coming here by choice,” she said.
She also voiced concern that the imposition of such a restriction by the Lebanese government would likely prove “difficult to manage logistically” due to Lebanon’s long and largely unmarked border with Syria.
Lebanon is the only country bordering Syria to have kept its borders totally open to all persons fleeing Syria. But the cost for caring for refugees and tensions between host communities and refugees have also prompted officials to raise the issue of border closings in the past. Jordan and Turkey have tighter control over refugees entering their countries and where they can go.
According to the statement, the meeting also addressed “means to confront the burdens of the surge of Syrian refugees into Lebanon and the increasing social, security and health problems in Lebanon due to the influx of refugees.”
Lebanon has made an appeal for hundreds of millions of dollars to help the nation support the refugee community, in addition to the millions in aid the U.N. is providing through international donors.
Experts consider Lebanon’s refugee aid programs considerably underfunded for the number of people in the country.
The latest figures from the UNHCR indicate that over half a million Syrians have sheltered in Lebanon after fleeing violence in their country. But the figure covers those who have registered with the UNHCR and those who are waiting to register.
Government officials, aid workers and experts believe that the refugee figure is higher by an additional several hundred thousand people, and it does not include the tens of thousands of displaced Syrians in Lebanon who are well-off or otherwise supporting themselves, and not relying on humanitarian assistance.