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UNHCR looks for opportunities to improve Lebanese communities while assisting Syrian refugees

by Matt Nash

An end to the Syrian civil war does not seem likely in 2015, meaning that Lebanon will continue to host over 1 million refugees even as the government tries to limit the flow of new arrivals. Executive spoke with Ninette Kelley, representative of UNHCR, about what the government should do in 2015, what impact funding shortages have on meeting refugee needs and on leveraging Lebanon’s private sector.


What recommendations do you have for the Lebanese government on the policy level for 2015?

We hope that we can do something similar to the RACE [Reaching All Children with Education] initiative which boosted Lebanese public education in other areas such as health, so that this crisis can actually create some opportunities and provide more focus and support to institutions who needed it before the crisis, but who really need it now. [We also hope] that support will have a longer projection over several years to deliver benefits to Lebanese as well as Syrians, which would be a win-win for all. That’s what we’d like to see happen.

What do you think 2015 has in store in terms of refugee needs?

What we see right now is that refugees are increasingly exhausting all the personal resources they may have had when they entered [Lebanon] and their level of vulnerability is continuing to increase. So we anticipate that refugees, as they did this year in Lebanon, in any event will continue to live very, very difficult lives. We, as well as our partners, will spare no effort in trying to ensure that humanitarian assistance is sufficient to meet life saving needs. To date, this assistance has truly helped us save hundreds of thousands of lives, but it must continue as we move forward. 

Do you see people who came here in 2011 or 2012, who initially had some sort of savings and didn’t come to UNHCR, now turning to you for assistance?

We do see that but we also see that the number of people living in very insecure shelters is increasing over time because refugees who have been living in apartments can no longer afford them and are moving into more insecure dwellings. That’s perhaps the most visible way I can describe that growing impoverishment.

The government decided in October to be more restrictive in letting Syrians into Lebanon to seek refugee status. What do you think the impact of this policy is going to be over the next 12 months?

The policy they agreed to in the cabinet was really a reiteration of an intention they have proclaimed for some time. They also started to implement it as of August … when entry through the northern borders was quite strict, and in the last several weeks when entry through Masnaa has similarly been very restricted. We have therefore seen a significant reduction, [ranging between 75–100 percent on any given day], in the number of people who’ve approached us asking to be registered. 

[pullquote]We have seen a significant reduction in the number of people who’ve approached us asking to be registered[/pullquote]

The government also decided that if a registered refugee goes to Syria, he or she will not be allowed back in.

Well the government already said last June that anybody who left to go back to Syria would not be able to re-enter Lebanon as a refugee.

So that policy was already in place. I know oftentimes the government says things that don’t actually end up happening.

Well, they’re controlling entry into Lebanon and … we understand that Syrians who are registered [and] go back to Syria [have] their passports stamped to indicate that they’ve gone back and definitely there are restrictions now at the border.

Do they lose their status as registered refugees with UNHCR or do they remain on the books?

What we have agreed with the government is that they give us the names of people they know who have gone back and we bring those people in for interviews to see their reasons for going back [and] whether or not those reasons are consistent with someone who has a need for international protection. We know for example that some people have gone back to check on an aging parent or bring someone [to Lebanon] or help someone get out of a bad situation. But it’s also the case that people are going back and forth for jobs and these aren’t the people who we’re concerned with having on our books. 

Have you removed many people?

We do regularly. Every month we do verification exercises and, since last June, I think we’ve deactivated over 68,000 files. So it’s a regular process within UNHCR.

Is this a fair or humane policy?

What we have seen Lebanon do in the last three to four years has been nothing short of extraordinary, and at a considerable cost to the country. So the government has said: “we feel that with one quarter of our population being refugees and given the enormous economic impact of the Syrian crisis alone, and add to that the increased pressures on our fragile infrastructure and provision of services, we can’t do more.” Put in that perspective, one can understand why they’ve reached that position. We also understand that they are willing to continue to provide access to persons who are in extreme humanitarian need and we’re grateful for that. [We want to] continue to work with them on how to define what that is and to provide greater accountability. 

[pullquote]Every month we do verification exercises and, since last June, I think we’ve deactivated over 68,000 files[/pullquote]

I understand that this year you’re finalizing the documents for the next two-year plan.

Yes. So the plan looks at what the needs will be and how we devise our programs. I think the budget is on for the next year but the strategy … it’s a long term strategy [because], and this is important, we’re trying to provide greater focus on development and resilience to help institutions and local communities deal with the shocks of the crisis in Syria and prevent a further degradation of their service provision. And it’s good. I mean, we’ve got development actors playing a strong role in that — UNDP and the World Bank — and this is a way to show the real link between humanitarian assistance, which also needs to be ongoing, and development assistance that needs to come in to provide much greater support to countries that are hosting this huge number of Syrian refugees.

Both regionally and in Lebanon, your funding appeal — which includes money UNHCR needs but also money the Lebanese government and various NGOs are asking for — is far from being met. What impact does that have? 

When you look at the raw numbers, Lebanon has received more but it [also] has proportionally more refugees or has absolutely more refugees. So the level of assistance, which is close to $650 million, really has been remarkable for the humanitarian appeal but it’s still not in proportion to the needs of the refugees or the hosting countries — Lebanon in this case. So yes, we face a real funding shortfall, which right now is 38 percent in its entirety and 43 percent considering what the agencies ask for and what they receive. What that means is that the level of assistance that we can provide continually needs to be heavily targeted and we’re simply unable to meet all needs, and you see it across all sectors. If you look at shelter for example, we’re prioritizing initiatives that will at least keep refugees safe from the cold and the rain during winter, but even there we’re racing to keep up with the needs.

Is there a lot of corporate social responsibility (CSR) money coming from Lebanese companies?

It’s an area that I know UNDP and other development agencies really want to explore more in the coming years because that certainly [is] an area that we need to tap into. In terms of partnerships with private enterprises on the humanitarian side, we’ve done that through the introduction of biometrics, using private sector expertise to help us introduce iris scan technology [for identification purposes at border crossings]. We’ve also done it in our cash assistance programs with the World Food Programme and food vouchers, [which are administered through partnerships with local banks. This assistance] also injects considerable money into the Lebanese economy. These are ways that we have partnered with the private sector. In terms of providing more robust support to the efforts that are needed here in Lebanon, I think more can be done.

What are one or two glaring opportunities where the private sector can really step in to help out?

On that question I think you have to look at the World Bank and the UNDP because [this issue] is a lot more development focused than humanitarian. For example, we provided plants for high quality olive production, which increases the yield of certain communities in the Bekaa. This is definitely something that provides a benefit to the community, and also a way to try and redress for them the loss[es] they’ve suffered through the Syrian crisis as a whole. If you look at other areas for example, we invested in improvements for an outdoor market in a village in the Bekaa. That has doubled the revenue of that market because of the improvements: the drainage we put in and the stalls we helped them erect. These are great partnerships that could be expanded and I think [our publication “Lebanese Communities in Focus: Supporting Communities Protecting Refugees”] gives a lot of ideas as to where they could be moved forward.

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Matt Nash

Matt was Executive's Economics & Policy Editor and Real Estate Editor from May 2014 to November 2017. He began reporting in Lebanon in April 2007, and his coverage focused on oil and gas, public policy and human rights.

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1 comment

Ahmad Jamal El-Ahmad Merabi March 21, 2015 - 5:06 PM

Hi Matt,
I am the consultant/advisor to the executive director of Relief Systems International, a new humanitarian ngo with specific insight and 21st century solutions to the refugee housing crisis in the Middle East. I would like to get in touch with you to discuss a new program designed to alleviate the Syrian refugee housing crisis, particularly in Lebanon. I have provided my linkedin profile for your convenience. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

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