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French Version

Refugees in dire need of coordinated relief effort

The people of Lebanon are reacting to the flood of refugees from the South with patience and empathy, welcoming displaced families into their neighborhoods, churches and mosques, but the effort is largely local and a lack of information about the numbers and whereabouts of refugees threatens to overwhelm relief efforts.

"I don't know how long we can last in this catastrophic situation," said Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad, saying it is "almost impossible" to get aid to villages and towns in the South.

"We need aid, but what we need most urgently is the possibility to channel food and medicine," Mouawad told Agence France Presse Tuesday.

The United Nations Children's Fund representative in Beirut, Roberto Laurenti, estimated 500,000 people had been displaced from their homes.

"The situation is both alarming and catastrophic. There are about 500,000 people displaced already. The situation is extreme," he said.

"We are also particularly concerned about the situation of the people who are stranded at home, in schools or in hospitals in the South," which has born the brunt of the massive offensive launched last Wednesday.

A government source working closely with the Higher Relief Council said the government was only housing 60,000 at the moment.

"I think counting people in streets or those staying with friends or taking shelter elsewhere, we cannot assess [the total] until now," the source said. "The figures are going up and up, this not a static situation, from hour to hour things change and so does the number of refugees." The Higher Relief Council is being directed from the office of the prime minister, operating mostly from public schools it has converted into shelters and has opened a 24-hour help line at 01/985 880.

"The government is directing resources to the centers, we're not giving money to NGOs right now," the source said.

The shelters are located in 77 public schools in Beirut, 160 in Mount Lebanon, 25 in the North, 42 in the South, and 13 in the Bekaa. Food, mattresses, and blankets are provided.

At a school in a mainly Christian neighborhood of East Beirut, Hussein said he sought refuge with dozens of other people, two days ago after his home city of Tyre was heavily bombarded by Israeli warplanes.

"People have been bringing us food and helping us. We feel welcomed," Hussein said.

Samia, however, did not feel welcomed by the community and was not satisfied with government efforts.

"We've been staying here for two days and nobody asked us if we needed anything," said Samia, who along with other family members came from a border village to stay with a cousin in Bashoura.

"We asked them [the government] to get us more mattresses but they didn't do anything to help us" she added.

Other initiatives are being launched by NGOs like World Vision, which is housing 4,500 refugees in Ain al-Roummaneh and Nabaa.

The UN is poised to launch a major aid appeal; meanwhile agencies already on the ground are assisting where they can.

"We are treating the displaced people as refugees," said Arafat Jamal, the officer in charge at the UN High Commission for Refugees.

"All inter-UN agencies are supporting local efforts to help displaced persons in need of assistance," he said.

Jan Egeland, United Nations coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, declined to give a figure for any donor appeals, saying: "We're working hard now on assessing lifesaving, humanitarian needs in Lebanon." - Additional reporting by Nada Bakri, with agencies

Beirut 19-07-2006
Meris Lutz
The Daily Star

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