Film star and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie said on Wednesday she was moved at how Lebanese families were opening their homes to Syria refugees, after Beirut ruled out setting up camps for them.
“I was very moved today to meet again with the Syrian families. And to meet them here, not in a camp, but in homes where they are welcomed and protected,” the Oscar-winning star told reporters in Beirut.
“I know the Lebanese people themselves are dealing with their own problems, their own economy, so it is all the more more meaningful that they are so generous and kind and I hope the world acknowledges that.”
The Lebanese government has ruled out the possibility of establishing refugee camps amid fears that the crisis in neighbouring Syria could spill across its borders.
Already, areas of northern Lebanon where a large number of refugees have concentrated have come under shelling from Syria.
“Camps are always the last alternative, so if the refugee issue can be accommodated without having to establish refugee camps, this is a very welcome development,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.
“The assistance is coming. Shelter is a serious issue but there are plans to deal with it. If the numbers continue to grow, the plans will have to be revised.”
Jolie, herself a mother of six, recounted her visit to three Syrian women who had made the harrowing journey to Lebanon alone with their children.
“They were very, very emotional but so grateful and wanted me to express their gratitude to the Lebanese people,” Jolie said.
She also visited a Save the Children-sponsored school to visit young refugee children restarting their education after missing out for two years because of the violence.
They “are now being reintegrated and are very very happy to be back in school,” she said.
Asked if there was one thing she hoped to accomplish on her trip, she said: “Just to reach out to the families and spend time with them so they know they are in our hearts.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres accompanied Jolie and called for international support to help Syria’s smaller neighbour cope with the influx of refugees.
“Lebanon kept its borders open; the Lebanese kept their houses open and kept their hearts open to their brothers and sisters coming from Syria, and this is an example to the world,” Guterres said.
Lebanon currently hosts 66,000 registered Syrian refugees, while many more may be living in the country unregistered, Fleming said.
Jolie visited refugees in homestays, but Fleming noted that many more were staying in schools and other public buildings.
“Now that the school year is starting this has become an issue and we’re proposing alternate sites for them, or to be able to give them cash so they are able to rent rooms or small apartments,” Fleming said, noting that vouchers could also ease the burden on host families and local economies.
“We have huge numbers of families who are hosting refugees for nothing, which in the long term is very unsustainable,” Fleming said.
The UN says more than 1.2 million Syrians, more than half of them children, have been displaced inside the country while an estimated 250,000 refugees have sought shelter in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.