The Refugee Crisis

December 28, 2011
December 28, 2011.
According to UN reports, the Syrian government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters has left nearly 5,000 dead since the uprising began in mid-March. Thousands of Syrians have crossed the borders of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan to escape the violence. Many face deteriorating conditions and are denied refugee status. As a human rights lawyer and president of the Lebanese Institution for Democracy and Human Rights, Nabil Halabi has been working closely with Syrian refugees, researching and documenting their conditions.
With no foreseeable improvements on the horizon, the refugee situation is increasingly urgent. NOW Lebanon sat down with Halabi to discuss his concerns for the future.

What is the extent of your work with the Syrian refugees? How long have you been working with them?

Nabil Halabi: This is not the first time I’ve worked with refugees; I’ve worked closely with Palestinian refugees in the past. I’ve been working with the Syrian refugees since mid-May. We try to connect them with relief organizations and offer advice. We also help any individual who has been subject to any kind of violations.

What is the current number of refugees, on record in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan?

Nabil Halabi: In Lebanon, there are currently 5,500 Syrian refugees—most of whom are in the North; around 4,000 in Jordan; around 6,000 to 7,000 in the camps in Turkey. There are other Syrian activists who are not present in the camps. They are in Istanbul and Antakya. We don’t have the exact number of Syrian activists because they haven’t registered. It’s important to note that whenever there is a military assault against civilians, the number of refugees increases in these countries, especially on the borders. For example, many in [the southwestern Syrian city of] Daraa fled to nearby Jordan, same with Homs and Tal Kalkh near Lebanon and in Edleb near Turkey.

What do they take with them?

Nabil Halabi: They take identification papers if they can. They usually only bring with them the most important things. Sometimes they flee without proper shoes because there would be a fierce assault and their lives would be in jeopardy.

They are mostly families. A single family could include the mother and the father and between three and eight children.

What are the refugees’ main concerns?

Nabil Halabi: They’ve fled from death and murder. Their concerns in Lebanon are safety, and attaining necessities like food and medicine. They are also concerned about education. It is important that their children resume their studies.

They also want protection from possible abduction. Many refugees have been transferred to the Lebanese judiciary. This violates the law on refugees because it is unacceptable to detain a refugee if he does not have legal papers or if he has illegally crossed the border. Some opposition activists among the refugees were also subjected to abduction by armed members. We know that members of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence entered Lebanon and kidnapped some activists.

The refugees in Turkey also need protection. They need to be able to move freely outside the camps. The Turkish government is not allowing this except on a small scale, using the excuse that they fear for the refugees’ security.

In regards to Jordan, three days ago I was informed that the [Jordanian] government prevented children from entering schools without providing any reason. There are also no tents in Jordan. It is similar to the situation in Lebanon except that there haven’t been any detentions. Jordan also says [these measures] are to protect the refugees. [We knew about this] through some institutions in Jordan. This is a new decision and no explanation was provided. If it is true, [the decision] needs to be reviewed.

What are the refugees in need of most?

Nabil Halabi: The most important thing is safety. Each government should provide the refugees with daily food, clothes, furniture and medical care. Governments are supposed to work with UNICEF regarding children and their needs. Children should be allowed to resume their studies and be provided with psychological and social [help] after what they’ve witnessed [in Syria.]

Many refugees have also requested help from the Jordanian and Lebanese governments in terms of work assistance, so they can provide for their families. They fear arrest. There is also a constant fear that someone is waiting for them on the border, ready to kill them. They are in need of stability and many of them feel the only way that will happen is if the Syrian regime falls.

Many refugees that initially fled later returned to Syria. What happened to them?

Nabil Halabi: On May 25, we had a total of 10,000 refugees. It was during this time that Tal Kalkh and other areas near the border with Lebanon were being stormed [by Syrian security forces]. The number later decreased and many refugees were arrested, leaving some families not knowing the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.

In Turkey, the number of refugees reached 12,000. Many of them returned, especially after opposition members and the Free Syrian Army were able to control many areas in Edleb. As a result, many were able to return because it was under the protection of the defectors.

In Jordan, some activists left to other countries like Egypt, the UAE and Europe. The first people that went to Jordan were activists from Daraa who fled detention. Later, many families including those in Homs fled to Jordan simply because many tribes in Jordan are close to tribes in Syria. For example, some Bani Khaled families in Homs fled to their relatives in Bani Khaled in Jordan.

We know that there are refugees in Wadi Khaled. What about in Beirut and Bekaa?

Nabil Halabi: There are [Syrian] refugees in Beirut, though few, they are mostly Kurds. Syrian refugees face a clear danger and are subject to serious threats in Beirut because of the obvious presence of the political parties in support of the Syrian [regime]. The fact that there are members of the Syrian opposition in Beirut makes them in need of more protection. The Kurds usually flee to areas like Bourj Hammoud because the majority of them have relatives already living there. The same goes for Dora and Beirut. The refugees are also present in Aarsal, northeast Bekaa as well as Tripoli and Areeda.

In Jordan, refugees are present in Ramta, Irbid and in an area called Mafraq. In Turkey, camps are in Antakya. There are refugees in [other areas], but they are mainly in Antakya.

It seems as though Turkey has been providing the best care for these refugees. What about Lebanon? 

Nabil Halabi: That is correct. The best place for the Syrian refugees is in Turkey and the worst is in Lebanon. In Turkey, they are abiding by international standards. There is a specific place for the refugees where they provide food on a daily basis at the expense of the Turkish government. The [Turkish] government is making a clear effort [to aid the refugees]. The Turkish Red Crescent is handling medical issues; hospitals in Antakya are receiving the injured without any obstacles. World relief commissions are also working to assist the camps.

In Lebanon—there are no specific or designated places for the refugees to stay. Their survival is left in the hands of the already financially strained Lebanese families in the North and in Aarsal. Other refugees aren’t so lucky. The Lebanese government did not ask for international help. If it feels incapable of helping the refugees, then the government should reach out to the international community—which is ready to provide assistance. The UNHCR tried to provide the refugees with proper documentation and the Lebanese government rejected it. Relief commissions also requested building camps for the refugees in the north, but the Lebanese government rejected that as well.

Lebanon has referred to the refugees as "displaced persons” or "guests.” How does this affect their status in another country?

Nabil Halabi: This is also true in Turkey and Jordan. They claim the refugees are "guests” because they do not want to give the impression that the problem requires international interference. If a [government] recognizes certain [people], there are legal restrictions the government has to abide by.

In Turkey, they consider them "guests” but at least they are providing them with proper care. It does not recognize them as refugees because then they will need to provide them with [legal] papers that would permit them to move freely in the country. Turkey believes this might subject the refugees to kidnappings. The same goes for Jordan.

In Lebanon, they did not recognize them as refugees because the government is an ally of Syria. Instead, the refugees are subjected to harassment and detention.

Has the governments’ inability to classify these Syrians as refugees, affected international organizations from providing aid?

Nabil Halabi: The Turkish Red Crescent and other organizations are currently providing assistance in Turkey. Syrian businessmen - many of whom also have Turkish nationality - are helping refugees, and paying for some medical operations.

In Jordan, the situation is a bit more difficult because the Jordanian government took care of some of their needs in the beginning, but now the refugees are staying with families and relying on them for support. Many local organizations, mainly Islamic charity organizations, are providing assistance to the refugees.

In Lebanon, the Red Cross - along with General Security - transferred injured [Syrians] to Lebanese hospitals. But they are not the ones providing help. Those providing help are medical organizations. The Medical Islamic Institution, for instance, is strongly visible in the north. The Turkish NGO, IHH, has sent aid to refugees in Lebanon along with countries like Qatar and Kuwait which provided food, clothes, blankets and other necessities.

Lebanese Prime Minister Mikati has ordered the governmental Higher Relief Council (HRC) to work with UN organizations to provide humanitarian assistance. Has there been any progress?

Nabil Halabi: Prime Minister Najib Mikati was clearly concerned about the [Syrian] refugee crisis and personally intervened to address certain cases, such as the detention [of refugees]. Though the [Lebanese] government’s response has been slow, Mikati himself pushed to facilitate treatment for many injured Syrians, dealing with the situation as a humanitarian issue and not a political one. A main concern among the refugees is the recording of names by the HRC of those that are injured. If potentially leaked, it would subject these refugees to danger, especially if the names [fall in the hands] of people in [the government] who are allied with Syria. So it is important to protect their identity.

What else needs to be done in order to assist the Syrian refugees and prevent the crisis from worsening?

Nabil Halabi: The only way to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis is for foreign countries to acknowledge the Syrian National Council as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Once the SNC gains international recognition and legal legitimacy, they can move forward to address the refugees’ [affairs]. 

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