More than a year and half after the start of the protests, Syria is still in turmoil. As the situation is sometimes extremely violent many Syrians have decided to flee their country. Neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon have received the highest numbers of refugees. It is difficult to gauge how many people in total have left Syria since the beginning of the unrest last March. Syrians may be moving internally to different locations within Syria, or fleeing to Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan. In Lebanon there are currently 28, 477 registered Syrians. In Turkey, there are 37, 353 refugees.
Dana Sleiman is a Public Information Associate. She works in Beirut for the UNHCR, the main institution in charge of non-Palestinian refugees. She has agreed to tell us about UNHCR’s work in helping to improve the lives or refugees and asylum-seekers.
Lebanon has not signed the 1951 Geneva Convention related to the status of refugees, nor the Protocol adopted by most countries in 1967. How does the Lebanese law deal with refugees ?
Lebanon is not a state party to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor to its 1967 Protocol. Moreover, Lebanon does not have a specific legislation or any administrative practices in place to address the specific needs of refugees and asylum-seekers.
Refugees are subject to domestic law provisions that would apply to any other foreign national. There is no distinction in law or practice between refugees and migrants. The 1962 Law Regulating the Entry and Stay of Foreigners in Lebanon applies to all foreigners, including refugees. It provides for the detention and deportation of people who enter or remain in Lebanon without authorization.
As a result, and while the majority of refugees who enter Lebanon do so legally, refugees who enter the country without prior authorization, or who overstay their visas, are considered to be illegally in the country and are therefore at risk of being fined, detained or deported. This situation characterizes 75% of the population of refugees and asylum-seekers.
In what context did the UNHCR start its work in Lebanon ?
Unlike the UNRWA which has been in charge of Palestinian refugees since 1950 (circa 220,000 individuals today), the UNHCR was established in Lebanon in 1964 to respond to the needs of non-Palestinian refugees or internally displaced people within Lebanon.
The UNHCR has grown considerably over the past ten years due to two main events, the war in Iraq in 2003, and the war with Israel in 2006, which have respectively generated an influx of Iraqi refugees (in January 2012, there were 8,491 Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR in Lebanon) and the displacement of 750,000 Lebanese in 2006. More recently, with the events in Syria, more than 30,000 Syrians have crossed into Lebanon to seek safety.
Who are the Syrians who have sought refuge in Lebanon since the beginning of the crisis in March 2011 ?
There are currently 28, 477 Syrians registered with UNHCR and the Lebanese High Relief Commission (HRC) in Lebanon, and over 9,000 Syrians registered with UNHCR in the Bekaa area. Other families of displaced Syrians are registered with UNHCR in Beirut and its surroundings . These numbers includes men, women and children, with the vast majority arriving to Lebanon from Tal Kalakh and Homs. The distribution between men and women is approximately the same. Most of the displaced Syrians reside with host families and friends in the local community or renting private accommodation. However approximately 350 individuals are accommodated in five abandoned schools that UNHCR and partners renovated for collective shelter in the North : the Al-Rama, Al-Ibra and Al-Mouanseh, Freids and Kashlak schools ; and renovated mosques and collective shelter in the Bekaa. Shelter through host families is the preferred option for UNHCR because it minimizes the risk of exploitation and abuse of the displaced community, limits the visibility of the displaced population and allows for the most ‘normal’ living conditions. Tented camps are only to be resorted to in a case of mass influx or if the local hosting capacity (ie : hosting families, public buildings) becomes saturated.
What are their conditions of departure ? Have there been Syrian interventions in Lebanon ?
Since the beginning of the unrest in Syria, people have been permitted into Lebanon and have been assisted by the government, host families and international agencies. The government continues to allow the displaced Syrians to stay in Lebanon on humanitarian grounds. Recently, however, there has been difficulty entering Lebanon due to more stringent security on the Syrian side of the border, sporadic gunfire in border areas and the presence of landmines reportedly laid by the Syrian military. In addition, there are reports of Syrian military entering Lebanon in pursuit of individuals they consider fugitives. UNHCR continuously liaises with the Lebanese government and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) on security matters as safety for both the displaced Syrians and Lebanese is a priority.
How are they being welcomed by the Lebanese authorities ?
If the vast majority of displaced Syrians have been able to enter Lebanon freely without being apprehended, most of them have not been provided with circulation permits. This explains why there have been some cases of Syrians being arrested for being illegally on Lebanese territory. Yet we have not received any confirmed reports of displaced Syrians being deported to Syria. We are currently reinforcing our relationship with the security forces in Lebanon in order to further improve a secured environment for the Syrians in the north.
The Ministry of Education has ensured that Syrian children are permitted to be enrolled in public schools and the Ministry of Health has worked to ensure they have access to health care. The Ministry of Social Affairs has undertaken joint needs assessments with the UNHCR and psycho-social programmes to meet the needs of the displaced.
What are your main activities ?
The work of some 160 UNHCR staff members is wide-ranging : we distribute food and non food items, we facilitate legal counseling and representation in matters such as issuance of birth and marriage certificates, resolution of rental and labor disputes, protection of basic rights. We also provide health, psychological and educational assistance. Our office covers school fees as well as the distribution of books, uniforms, school bags and educational kits.
A lot of refugees need shelter so we try to find abandoned structures in the north and turn them into collective shelters.
A very solid and coordinated response and positive working relations with the HRC and the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA) were established at the outset to the benefit of the refugees and hosting communities. Since January 2012, 12,177 displaced Syrians were newly registered by UNHCR and the HRC in north Lebanon, while over 9,000 Syrians were registered by UNHCR in the Bekaa. Identification and registration occurs on a daily basis by outreach teams, and UNHCR and the HRC verify the numbers during monthly distributions of food and non-food items. In addition, referral mechanisms have been established to enable the displaced persons to access assistance through specialized partners.
How is your cooperation with the Lebanese state ?
From the beginning of the Syrian influx last April, UNHCR has enjoyed a solid partnership with the Government of Lebanon. We work very closely with the High Relief Commission (HRC)  to register Syrians in the north and coordinate the provision of assistance to the people in need.
Because of the legal impossibility to recognize refugees, those who are Lebanon without a visa or an expired one, are always at risk of being arrested, detained or brought back to the border. The UNHCR has been advocating for reforms regarding this issue for a long time.
We try our best to follow-up on refugees who get arrested for illegal entry or stay. We assist them and advocate for their release. Up until now, we have been able to secure the release of some Syrians.
However it has to be clear that the UNHCR seeks the release of refugees who have been arrested only for illegal entry or stay. The office does not seek the release of those who are serving sentences for criminal activities.
 For more information on the inter-agency response to Syrian displacement in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, please visit UNHCR’s regional webportal at http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php.
 The Lebanese government has set up a High Relief Committee (HRC), chaired by the President, to oversee and coordinate an emergency response. The HRC is composed of Ministers concerned by providing a humanitarian emergency response : Defence ; Public Health, Social Affairs, Interior and Municipalities, Finance, Public Works and Transport, Energy and Water, and Displaced.