Thursday, April 10, 2014

Home far off for flood of Syrian refugees

The Global Times
Op-Ed -
By Paul Cochrane

The Middle East is experiencing its worst refugee crisis since 1948 when the state of Israel was created, which led to the expulsion and dispossession of some 3.2 million Palestinians throughout the region. 

Recently the UN registered the millionth Syrian refugee in Lebanon. Every minute another refugee is registered, yet the number of Syrians in Lebanon is way higher than officially acknowledged, given the porous borders and the tens of thousands of Syrians that were already working in the country and could not go back.

The exodus of Syrians since the conflict broke out three years ago means roughly one in four people in Lebanon are now Syrian.

They are everywhere, from mountain villages to makeshift tents in the Bekaa Valley, to extended families sharing a single room in Beirut.

Lebanon is bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis, but there are a further 1.5 million refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq's Kurdistan region, and 6 million internally displaced within Syria.

In addition to Syrian refugees, there are 500,000 Palestinian refugees that have been in Syria since 1948, and are being forced to become strangers in another land once again.

The same is true for Iraqis that fled to Syria following the US-led invasion in 2003, with the number of refugees reaching 1.2 million by 2007, and as of 2013, had dropped to 480,000 refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Iraqi refugees are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with Syria a war zone and Iraq beset by terrorism and violence.

As for Lebanon, there are 280,000 Palestinian refugees living in 12 camps. Lebanon has become a home for the dispossessed, and it is taking its toll, with an estimated $7.5 billion in cumulative economic losses due to the Syrian conflict and mounting socioeconomic instability.

Lebanon is unwilling to allow refugee camps for the Syrians, unlike Jordan and Turkey, as it does not want a repeat of the Palestinian camps that have been here since 1948.

The Lebanese authorities are concerned that Syrians will settle in camps and not return home, even if the conflict ends.

This stance is driven by fear, and it overlooks the fact that Palestinian refugees cannot return home even if they wanted to, whereas at some point, Syrians will be able to. It's when they can go home that's the question, not whether.

More to the point, with Syrians dotted throughout the country, it is proving a logistical nightmare to get aid to refugees; aid that is needed to help alleviate the refugees' plight, while also lessening the socioeconomic impact on Lebanese society.

Refugee camps should be strongly considered as part of the solution, as the Lebanese government will have to adopt a more pragmatic approach to deal with a crisis that is expected to only worsen.

Some 30 percent of the UNHCR staff are now focused on Syria. But that is not enough, especially when pledged donor funds are not honored, nor are all the aid organizations and NGOs working to address the burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

The UNHCR is already making plans to handle potentially up to 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

"We need to know how to react if there is a further inflow of people if the situation in Syria deteriorates further, and what to do if the situation in Lebanon deteriorates," said Shaden Khallaf at the UNHCR in Beirut.

The situation is deteriorating in both countries, especially Syria, and the only real solution is an end to the conflict. But multilateral talks in Geneva have not proved successful, and the conflict has become a proxy war between global and regional players.

Conflicts with major external actors tend to last longer as they provide the materiel to keep the war going, while making it harder to get around the negotiation table.

Add in multiple internal actors, and an end to hostilities seems far off. In Syria's case, there are estimated to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups comprising some 100,000 fighters.

While a third round of talks in Geneva are planned, the region is bracing itself for whatever comes next.

And that means somehow dealing effectively with the multiple waves of refugees, Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian, who seem a long way from returning home

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