News Analysis

Sunday 31 August 2014

Elke Leidel: Over 15 million people cannot return their homes anymore

As we mark World Refugee Day, Elke Leidel of Concern Worldwide writes from Lebanon where more than one million refugees have fled the Syrian war

Elke Leidel

Published 20/06/2014 | 11:40

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A boy stands on rubble at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the al-Maadi neighbourhood of Aleppo June 20, 2014
A boy stands on rubble at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the al-Maadi neighbourhood of Aleppo June 20, 2014

Sometimes it is easy to miss the signs of the refugee crisis here in Lebanon.

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There are no large-scale tented settlements, no typical refugee camps. You can walk the streets here and at a glance, everything seems quite normal.

However, beneath the veneer of normality is an escalating issue of displacement, over-crowding and increasingly scarce resources. Some 50,000 refugees continue to cross into Lebanon from Syria every month. Every refugee family needs to find shelter and many use their only savings to rent whatever is affordable; usually concrete garages with no plumbing or electricity. Others seek shelter in abandoned buildings or in makeshift accommodation in open fields.  With the refugees now increasing the population of Lebanon by a quarter, tensions are rising between communities and newcomers as resources become scarcer and infrastructure stretched.

The refugees I meet here in Lebanon did not want to come here. They would have lived in circumstances similar to our own; they had jobs, houses, land, friends and family back in Syria. Yet they were forced to flee when bombs hit their homes, when fighting came to their streets, when their communities were fractured by violence. They came, and still come, to Lebanon with whatever they can carry. Often this is just the clothes on their back and the money in their pockets. There are now some 1.1 million refugees registered here with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Sadly, this scenario is not unique to Lebanon.

Forced displacement is increasing globally. There are now more than 15 million refugees around the world who have fled their country of origin to seek protection elsewhere. In addition, more than 33 million people have been displaced inside the borders of their own country; in 2013, in Syria alone, 8.2 million people became displaced, refugees in their own country.

They are unable to go home, they are cowering from the war, they are cut off from help and many of them are in desperate need for medical assistance.

I was pleased to hear that UN Resolution 2139 was passed in February of this year; this Resolution calls on all parties in the Syrian civil war to permit free access to humanitarian aid. It is vital that humanitarian agencies be permitted access to those in need in order that we may help those worst affected by the war.

As a humanitarian working with Concern Worldwide, I welcome Ireland’s announcement earlier this week of an additional €2 million to support Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and the communities who are hosting them. I still strongly urge the international community to increase its support and funding to assist the millions of refugees who need help. The money which has been pledged in assistance to Syria and neighbouring countries to date must be honoured immediately. 

Alas, as with many crises in the past, pledges make great PR but are not always delivered on.

At present, only 20% of the $6.5 billion requested by UNHCR for international aid for the crisis has been received.

Moreover, let us not overlook Europe’s legal obligations under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.

We are obliged to give protection to refugees and to uphold the principle of non-refoulement; not expelling or returning refugees to territories in which their life or freedom is in danger. It is essential that all European countries play their part. UNHCR have noted that the 25 developed countries that currently accept refugees for resettlement only offer places for approximately 10% of the estimated 800,000 refugees who have been identified as in need of immediate protection.

I would like to call for our political leaders to step up efforts to achieve a political solution to the Syria crisis.

Although organisations such as Concern Worldwide can meet some of the humanitarian needs of refugees in the area, the only truly sustainable solution for the millions of people affected by the Syrian crisis is a political one. The underlying causes of the ongoing conflict must be addressed. If they are not, the numbers of refugees and displaced people will continue to grow here in Lebanon – and in South Sudan, Iraq and elsewhere - and their desperation will increase.

Today, World Refugee Day, is a time for us all to reflect on the growing number of refugees globally and to extend our solidarity. Most importantly, let us pay tribute to the courage and resilience of the almost 50 million people caught up in various crises and conflicts. These unnamed and unacknowledged survivors, who with great dignity go to extraordinary lengths to keep their families safe and together, deserve our admiration as well as our assistance. 

Elke Leidel is Country Director for Concern Worldwide in Lebanon

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