The influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon which started in 2011 following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war has created a serious problem not only for Lebanon but for the refugees themselves. Lebanon currently has the largest number of refugees per capita in the world, with one refugee per four Lebanese. The stress on Lebanon’s health and social services has been considerable and demands urgent and practical solutions.
Crowded conditions in the camps encourages the spread of respiratory and intestinal infections, particularly among children. Chronic conditions are common among older adults, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic respiratory infections. Essential medicines for chronic conditions are frequently lacking. A high prevalence of depression and cognitive disorders are frequent among elder refugees.
Although both the Lebanese government and the Lebanese people have shown considerable understanding and willingness to help, the problems created by the influx of refugees have reached such a dimension that it has strained the relationships between the Syrians and the Lebanese and also between their governments.
The statistics are numbing. The UNHCR estimates that 1 million Syrian refugees have been registered in Lebanon in 2016. However, this figure is probably underestimated, since the UNHCR has stopped registering new refugees since May 2015, and does not include individuals waiting for registration.
More recent estimates identify 1,500,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This number includes 31,502 Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria. Although the majority of Syrians now living in Lebanon are Arabs, various ethnic and religious minorities are included among them, such as Syrian Armenians, Syrian Turkmen, and Syrian Kurds.
According to the UNHCR, Lebanon never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. That convention establishes that a refugee who belongs “to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” should receive appropriate assistance.
If it had adhered to this convention, Lebanon would have been obligated not only to provide asylum to refugees but to also allow them with the right to access courts, elementary education, and travel documents. Even if it was not obligated to do so, however, the Lebanese government has tried to assist Syrian refugees within the limits imposed by the magnitude of the problem. Currently, however, they must begin to resume a normal life, hopefully back in their own country.
As Bashar al-Assad seems to be regaining control of the country, refugees have been returning to Syria, in some cases with aid from the government in Damascus. This move has been supported by the Lebanese government, which claims that it is unable to provide assistance to such a large number of refugees. The UNHCR, for its part, disagrees, and advises against the return of Syrian refugees because of the dangerous conditions still prevailing in Syria.
In the meantime, several NGOs have been providing assistance to the Syrian refugees. Among those NGOs are Medair, a Swiss NGO, Anera, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Solidarités International, CARE Canada, the Syrian American Medical Society, Islamic Relief USA, and Caritas Lebanon. Although their work is invaluable, the need is overwhelming. In this regard, the UNHCR is an agency with 68 years of experience in dealing with refugee needs and should have a pivotal role in any future assistance.
Given the multiplicity of organisations channelling aid to the Syrian refugees, what is needed is more coordination among them, and for the foreign governments that participated in this war to step up their aid and give the refugees a future of hope to regain a decent way of life. The Syrian war is a foreign governments-fuelled disaster that should have never happened.
César Chelala is an international public health consultant and winner of several journalism awards.