Lebanon has decided to set up two camps for Syrian refugees for the first time along its border with war-torn Syria, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas told AFP on Thursday.
The move comes despite long-standing reservations among many in Lebanon over establishing such camps, for fear they will encourage Syrians to stay in the country or threaten its security.
There are already more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which has a population of just four million people.
Many are already living in informal tented settlements on farmland or empty fields in parts of the country.
Derbas said the decision to establish the two camps had already been approved and that government representatives were meeting on Thursday to discuss implementing the plan.
“The Council of the Ministers has taken a decision to set up camps for Syrian refugees, one in the Bekaa valley in the Masnaa area and one in the Abda area in northern Lebanon,” Derbas said.
“Estimates are that each camp could accommodate 10,000 people,” he added.
The refugee influx has put massive pressure on the country’s limited resources and contributed to rising tensions in a nation with a delicate sectarian balance and bitter memories from a 15-year civil war.
The issue of refugee camps in Lebanon is particularly fraught because of its experience with the Palestinians who flooded into the country after the creation of the state of Israel.
Those refugees and their children have remained in camps in the country, and armed Palestinian groups played a signficant and deadly role in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.
The dispersal of Syrian refugees throughout the country has created its own pressures, and Derbas has several times advocated establishing camps.
He said Thursday’s meeting of government representatives would set up a study on “implementation of the project of establishing camps” as well as a funding mechanism for the proposed sites.
The camps would have prefabricated homes for the refugees that “can be dismantled and taken with them when they move to Syria”, he added.
In a statement, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said it was ready to cooperate with the project.
“In regard to the present proposal, we stand ready to work with the Minister of Social Affairs on reviewing possible sites and assessing their feasibility as requested,” it said.
But it warned that the “overriding imperative” in selecting a site should be security.
“This includes making sure sites are in areas that are not prone to floods or erosion so as to support structures needed to accommodate refugees,” the statement said.
“It also means that the locations must not be vulnerable to being compromised by armed elements which can threaten refugees and their hosts.”
The conflict in Syria has regularly spilled over into Lebanon, with the border region often particularly volatile.
The fighting has also stoked existing political and sectarian tensions in Lebanon, where many Sunnis back the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and many Shiites support his regime.