Home Economics & Policy The Sisyphean Task of the UNHCR

The Sisyphean Task of the UNHCR

Interview with UNHCR Representative Ivo Freijsen

by Thomas Schellen

What social and economic science often calls a shock event is something that heavily impacts the moment but transpires into much more consequential long-term changes of the previous status quo. These changes can be and usually are both boons and challenges. From early in 2011, a series of popular Arab outcries against calcified and corrupt political realities disrupted the power constellations in numerous MENA countries, with results that gradually changed from initial, immense optimism and passion to a new political and social status quo with widely varying up and downsides in the very same countries. The strongest and most lasting impact of those decade-old developments on Lebanon was the country’s necessary intake of Syrian refugees. In parallel, and causally tied to the overpowering need, Lebanon saw substantive increases in the presence of international NGOs and especially a massive boost of its presence by the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR. Inquiring about the agency’s role and relations with local public stakeholders, Executive sat down with Ivo Freijsen, the UNHCR representative in Lebanon. 

Altercations in south Lebanon have caused the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to climb above 90,000 in February of 2024 as tracked by the International Office of Migration (IOM). The number has hovered between 90 and 100,000 since then, in addition to which there are uncounted thousands of people who have sheltered with relatives, friends, and communities. Is UNHCR involved in providing for the needs of people that have been forced out of their homes in southern Lebanon because of the military confrontations across the southern borders?

IF The answer is yes, as part of a large effort that is government-led. [Acting] in support of national efforts [by the Lebanese] government and national organizations who work closely together with UN agencies and iNGOs, we provide, or help provide, a list of services such as collective centers or psycho-social counseling. We are also involved in provision of materials – we call these ‘critical relief items’ – that people need to better cope with displacement and we have supported local authorities’ disaster response mechanism through [provision of] laptops and other kind of infrastructure. We should also mention that we should not only be concerned about people who are forced to move but also of people in the area who were already in need and may have more needs now; people who could not move or for other reasons took the decision not to move. They are also in a heightened state of vulnerability where we are worried that more money is needed. More money for the whole response community.

Can you give us a number for the value of how much has been provided in the first six months of the situation and how much more would be needed under a scenario of the cross-border conflict’s continuation without further escalation?

IF There are many practical projects in progress that need funding. This is the Lebanon Response Plan [LRP] put together by UN agencies, national and international NGOs for humanitarian assistance to all population groups in Lebanon, including in the south. This document has a very large price tag and funding this endeavor and the agencies that are part of it, is what is needed. Should [the situation] further escalate, then the ability to quickly respond at scale in all the sectors where response is needed, is for us and other agencies completely linked to the amount of resources that [are made available]. 

In talking resources, financial power is the first layer of needed resources but the second layer is probably human capital, meaning experts and aid workers. Would UNHCR have enough human capacity to immediately step up your emergency response if an escalation of conflicts were to happen?

IF Always to a degree. As humanitarians, our DNA is flexibility, agility and [the ability] to re-prioritize. You can always do a bit but then there are limitations and then you need more staff, personnel that we don’t have. We would only have that if a very generous donor says, “I am going to give you lots of staff. They are not going to be super busy but then you are ready.” That hardly ever happens. 

The Lebanese population’s trust in their government is, politely said, not high and after the first eruption of conflicts in October, many Lebanese have been questioning the government’s emergency preparedness, often doubting if their government will be able to help in any emergency. Next, they have been asking if the international agencies will help them. How do you evaluate and answer to this attitude and mindset of the people?

IF The normal arrangement is that a country facing a crisis has a degree of own resources to address a humanitarian crisis or fallout of a situation [such as] a natural disaster, conflict, and internal displacement. But it is also very normal for affected countries’ governments to say “we are struggling here, can the international community come in?” And that is of course the case in Lebanon. 

We have been here for many years and always hope that there is a degree of government ability to engage, [knowing that you as international actor] simply need the government for some things, because they are taking the decisions at municipal and governorate levels, and so forth. It should be an important actor in terms of coordination and then there are other actors. Those can be charitable organizations within the confessional community and national NGOs; then there are international NGOs and the UN. We can already safely say that they are all needed in this case. I am worried that this is getting up to a situation where we are not getting a lot of new [funding] amounts to do the work.

In the spring of 2024 regional and European concerns include a surge in refugee arrivals in Cyprus, as well as streams of forcibly displaced persons from Sudan to Egypt. While these have been high on the EU political agenda for months, it seems that little is being done to prepare for a new outpouring of refugees from Palestine, where many residents of Gaza but also the West Bank must be regarded as displaced persons in the fourth or fifth generation. How does this situation look from your perspective? Is there a risk of new Palestinian refugees, a large proportion of which would have to be expected to seek shelter in adjacent countries, perhaps including Lebanon?

IF If you look at the map it is of course not an easy scenario how Palestinian refugees from Gaza could reach Lebanon. Discussing scenarios of that sort, like coming by sea, would divert attention from much more pressing issues that we all must be concerned with in Gaza. In the Lebanon situation, we already have a lot on our plate and a lot of vulnerable people who need assistance. In global context, it is clear that people will move if conflict and other issues are not controlled. Then the international community has responsibility that countries bearing the brunt of displacement, which to 80 and 90 percent are neighboring countries, are adequately supported. 

Any influx of refugees to Lebanon indeed usually originates in violent internal conflicts just outside of Lebanon’s borders. When the Syria crisis in the early 2010s led to the drafting of the 2014 Syria Regional Response Plan (RRP), then UN high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres stated his concerns over refugees’ access to asylum in and outside of the region and a needed “comprehensive regional strategy”, something like a paradigm of shift in concerted humanitarian and development actions. Has this shift come to pass?

IF It is a document from ten years ago and I would rather look at the situation as it unfolded in the past ten years since then, which is first of all that Syria remains such that people have fled and some continue to flee. If this were different, people would have less need to flee and people would be able to go back. In the meantime, large numbers of people have been able to reside in Lebanon, essentially since 2011, with what we consider to be refugee status – others call it differently – and we continue to call on Lebanon to try and stay the course in a humane and hospitable country where people can not only seek but also benefit from protection. We think it is a large task for the international community to support this effort and to also find durable solutions elsewhere for refugees, which is resettlement, and is always to third countries.

Countries such as Rwanda?

IF You are referring to the UK Rwanda deal. That is a very different arrangement and falls under the domain of externalization. UNHCR issued a statement on what our position is on that deal. In terms of resettlement, we hope that other [UN] member states with such capacity will continue to display what we call international burden sharing or responsibility sharing by making clear to the countries that do all the heavy lifting – and Lebanon falls in that category – that refugees can have other places where they can go and find a new home. 

Would it be correct for me to think that from your position any deal to support Lebanon financially in managing the refugee situation in the country would preferably also include an improvement of the resettlement outlook?

IF I all the time meet donors to thank them for everything they have done and continue to do, and to also make a plea to continue financial assistance to UNHCR and other actors, and show support through resettlement. 

When some people say that resettlement until now has been very small, what do you tell them?

IF Yes, we sometimes get criticized [about the level of resettlement]. I wish it will be more but we as UNHCR are not in a position to put people on a plane and send them to a country that agrees to receive refugees. It all depends on UN member states’ governments, parliaments, and the general public. We have a number of [resettlement] opportunities kindly offered by member states but there is a huge gap between what should happen and what is happening. We have numbers of how much in resettlement is needed versus how much is available and we can only be as convincing as possible, based on meticulous humanitarian arguments and see if member states are willing to change [their resettlement offers].

At past and probably future conferences seeking other funding pledges for the crisis in this country, the funding gap has not been diminishing. The gaps are growing.

IF That is true.

Is then, from the funding perspective, the work of UNHCR in Lebanon a bottomless hole that cannot be filled? That will require to go and beg, ad infinitum, with the international community?

IF We need to, and I think we managed to do, our level best in making sure that what we communicate to the international community is a realistic picture of what the needs are and what [funding] is needed, what we plan to do, and that we do it in the most cost-efficient and prioritized manner. As humanitarians, we should not make the mistake to say, “there is not enough money, so lets stop calling for money or reduce our requirements”. We have an obligation to be needs-driven and then it is up to the international community to see how much willingness and capacity exists to support this. 

Irrespective of the exact size of the funding gap that you almost certainly will have to cope with for this year, do you expect UNHCR Lebanon to never go broke?

IF It depends how you describe broke. We are approaching the middle of the year, and we are 15 percent funded [at time of this conservation at the end of April]. That is not a percentage that I like. We are at a point in a year where you have actually most of the work that you want to do, [on the way] and would like to be at least 50 percent funded, and we are not. FAO [the UN’s food and agriculture organization] and UNICEF [the UN’s children’s fund] had to reduce their aid disbursements earlier in 2024 in Lebanon, cut down on packages, and all that. However, I don’t think we’ll go broke in the sense that there is no funding anymore and we have to pack up and go home. That would send out such a bad signal to Lebanon that an agency that is here to support the government in the difficult challenge is no longer able to support but we are not at that point yet.

Public debates in Lebanon often argue with numbers that are unsecured or even contradictory as to the relative percentages between citizens and refugees in the country, which sometimes seems to detract from the fact that the numbers of needy and vulnerable people of either Lebanese or Syrian identity are far too large. What numbers does UNHCR work with?

IF We have 1.5 million Syrians known to us that we consider as refugees. That corresponds actually with the figure that the government is also using often within the framework of our planning documents like the LCRP and the LRP [Lebanon Crisis Response Plan and Lebanon Response Plan]. There are also other numbers but I do not take responsibility for other numbers, because we do not have them. That should really be put to the government.

And when I ask persons in the Lebanese government, they tell me I should ask OCHA and UNHCR for the numbers.

We can explain the numbers that we can explain. Other numbers need to be explained by others. What we also should say is that we are concerned with Syrians who are considered refuges or potential refugees. If there are also other Syrians here not known to us, that should be clarified by others.

Key numbers, such as the number of economically active people in the country or of non-Lebanese labor with or without work permit, lack levels of accuracy that would allow exact planning of economic stimulus measures or social expenditures. However, there is one often cited number that I want to check with you, namely that 90 percent of cost of healthcare or hospitalization by Syrian refugees has been and is covered by UNHCR or other UN agencies, and that Lebanese individuals would be unable to have such support. Is the 90 percent a number that applies when the cost of an individual Syrian mother’s medical bill for a treatment is concerned, whether a child delivery or another procedure in a hospital?  

Zypern, 17.04.2024: Reise von Nathanael Liminski, Minister für Bundes- und Europaangelegenheiten, Internationales und Medien des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen und Chef der Staatskanzlei.

I want to clarify and confirm that this is not an accurate description. What I can say is that an increasingly small group of Syrian refugees are getting a level of compensation on very serious conditions that we call ‘life or limb threatening’. We struggle with [having] less and less money also in this area, so we are prioritizing. Less and less people get support for an increasingly small number of conditions. What we pay [as share of such treatment costs] is increasingly less and what the refugees themselves need to pay is increasingly large. The generous [90 percent coverage] description that we often hear has never been correct, has not been valid often, and is definitely no longer valid now. 

As we feel for how difficult it is for the Lebanese, it is important to know that a lot of our assistance that we pay to hospitals goes to hospitals that are at the disposal of the whole Lebanese society. We have spent an enormous amount of money on the healthcare system which has frankly been a lifeline for Lebanon in a situation where healthcare has become very problematic. Let’s not make the mistake to start criticizing refugees [for benefiting from international support for their medical needs], because assistance in this and other domains has actually been beneficial for Lebanon in a situation where systems have started to collapse. 

From an economic perspective, I would ask here if you ever paid 90 percent of healthcare treatment costs for refugees in some cases at some point in time, did you pay this to hospitals in Lebanon or for treatments outside, and if you paid it for local treatments, would this not translate into a large amount that benefited Lebanese employees working in the hospitals and healthcare system?

Let anyone who has an assumption or a degree of frustration [about the alleged coverage of refugees’ medical bills percent] just contact us. It is often based on old information. I want to say two more things; first, we don’t think the solution is to say stop [allocation of funds to healthcare costs], because that would actually be counterproductive for the Lebanese and Lebanese institutions. 

[Second], we also will not hesitate to point out that refugees sometimes have specific vulnerabilities. Many surveys show us that refugees are often in a much more vulnerable state or are for example not easily able to get any [medical] insurance. If you are Lebanese and have money, you can pay for [medical] insurance. This is much more difficult for a refugee. 

Let us try and continue to have a factual discussion on this. One other point is primary healthcare. The humanitarian community of UN, national partners and iNGOs, which is primarily here because of the hosting of refugees, is supporting a huge network of clinics and primary healthcare facilities. More than 50 percent of the people who knock on the doors of these facilities are Lebanese.

The 2023 LCRP not only promised holistic and inclusive action with multi-year priorities of balanced protection of “displaced Syrians, vulnerable Lebanese, and Palestinian refugees” but also proposed to hopefully “reinforce Lebanon’s economic, social, and environmental stability”. Is supporting the stability of the Lebanese economy something that you, UNHCR and other UN agencies, are doing?

IF What we do will have positive input for Lebanon either directly or on a secondary level. Things in Lebanon would look different if the humanitarian actors would not come to the fore with the same amount of money. It is not an insignificant amount of money and people [who are given cash assistance] spend it here. The objective of humanitarian assistance and LCRP or LRP is not to overhaul the Lebanese economy. We want to play a supportive role but we have humanitarian objectives, which is primarily to ensure that people suffer less and have larger stability in terms of wellbeing and protection status. But longer-term institutional and economic reform is beyond the humanitarian sphere. It involves the development community and international financial institutions and [UN] member states.

Lebanon has actually been a very good example of what we call integrated programming, where we do not look only at refugees, or only Lebanese, or only victims of the port blast. Especially now through this LRP, this new document.  There are not many countries who are proposing such an integrated proposal and funding appeal. That is exactly what donors want from us: [to have] no longer siloed approaches but to still work within the humanitarian-plus sphere. You always try to contribute to longer-term approaches for more to happen durably in the longer term. And this is often where you need measures that go beyond the sphere of influence of the humanitarian community. [However,] I agree that it does not make sense for us to overpromise [on contributing to economic stability of the country] because this is not our mandate, not our expertise, and often depends on factors that are within political, security, and macroeconomic domains. We can only advocate but do not pull the strings there.

Is being a refugee a crime?

IF Never

Is it a crime if someone calls himself a refugee but is in reality an economic migrant?

IF Our position there is let’s listen to people. Lets not judge from a distance. Only by taking this extremely seriously, by listening to people, will we be able to understand who they are and why they are on the move. You hear us often say that people don’t move because it is easy or fun or because they have a choice, irrespective of what the reasons are. The reasons why people move can be economic or due to more hardcore protection [needs], or combinations. A human-centered, honest, effective approach is what we call for. Let’s not make the mistake that it is only others and people in African countries or the Middle East [who can be forcibly displaced by conflict]. Ukraine reminded all of us [in Europe] how close this can become. In my country, the Netherlands, my own mother was an IDP during the second World War. She could not stay where she was staying and had to move somewhere else in the Netherlands. So this is not so far away or so long ago.

We are worried if we see restrictive measures that are discriminatory and leading just to more vulnerability. This leads to more need, as people are still here. There is more need and more desperation and it is difficult for humanitarian assistance to attend to these needs in a context where we get less and less money. If one sees these measures, one question could be: what are these measures going to lead to and is [such an outcome] actually in Lebanon’s interest?

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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