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Towards breaking point

Lack of funding for Syrian refugees undermines UNHCR and Lebanon

by Peter Speetjens

“Late March a Syrian mother of eight stood at my door, asking for help, but I had nothing left to give,” said Elian Nasrallah, a priest in charge of coordinating aid efforts in Qaa – a Christian village in Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley. Qaa has become host to some 10,000 mainly Sunni refugees from Syria, many of whom cross the border with nothing but their clothes on. Yet, in order to get aid they must register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with the nearest offices located 90 kilometers away in Zahle. Without this, Nasrallah and others are struggling to support their guests.

“I asked her to come back after a few days, as I went looking for a sponsor,” he said. “She returned after a week with seven children. It was still very cold in that time – as they had to sleep out in the open, her two-year-old son had died.”

Related article: Mapping the Syrian refugee exodus

Most days at the UNHCR headquarters in south Beirut, at five o’clock there still are some 200 Syrian refugees waiting outside. A sea of plastic chairs under blue parasols aims to ease the wait, while a handful of street vendors sell water and ka’ak. Each time the man in uniform calls out a number, a family or couple shuffles towards the building’s heavily guarded entrance.

To receive emergency aid, a refugee must be registered – a procedure that takes an average of 31 days. “That is long,” admitted UNHCR Representative Ninette Kelley. “But the numbers we face are just overwhelming. In April alone we registered 90,000 refugees. When I first started in Beirut some three and a half years ago, we did a few hundred cases a month.”

Since the Syrian conflict began, the UN has dropped many of the restrictions on Syrians registering, but the process is still laborious as it takes time to register each refugee and determine his or her specific needs.

Currently, there are an estimated 4 million internally displaced people within Syria and some 1.6 million refugees in neighboring countries. Some 460,000 are registered, or await registration, at the UNHCR in Lebanon. The influx has accelerated in recent months – in April last year there were only 13,000 registered refugees in Lebanon. “Some 60 to 70 percent of the refugees arrived in the last four months,” said Kelly. “If this continues at this rate, Lebanon will have a million of refugees by the end of the year.”

According to the International Crisis Group, however, there may already be a million Syrians in Lebanon as many do not register, either because they are working or are staying with friends or family.

Paying up

While the number of refugees is on the increase, the international community has so far hardly paid its dues. In January, the UNHCR called for a regional budget of $1.6 billion in 2013 to assist Syrian refugees. “Some $267m was meant for Lebanon,” said Kelley. “However, that figure was based on a total of 300,000 refugees. Today, we’ve already 50 percent more refugees, while we received but a third of the budget.”

By April 11, the organization had received only $163 million. Major donations stemmed from the United States ($56m), the European Union ($45m), Japan ($22m), and a core of mainly European countries. With the exception of Kuwait, which has already committed $2m and recently pledged another $300m, most Arab countries have so far kept their wallets tightly sealed.

Naturally, this has major consequences for the quality of services provided. “We have no choice but to prioritize,” said Kelley. “For example, we now focus on primary health care. For complex medical interventions we simply do not have the money. Also, the Lebanese government recently pleaded for $5 million to support schools, which are overcrowded due to the presence of so many Syrian children. But, again, we do not have the budget to do so.”

Kelly is full of praise for the some 1,200 Lebanese communities, like Qaa, that – with little or no help from the government – give shelter and more to Syria’s refugees. “I can’t think of a country that, proportionally, has done so much – ever,” she said. “A mayor in the south of Lebanon, where some 60,000 refugees have found a safe haven, told me ‘you speak of refugees, we speak of neighbors, and we are ashamed we cannot do more.’”

Nevertheless, the tension is rising. Lebanese shopkeepers complain about Syrians opening up shops and selling cheaper produce. In Beirut, the streets are filled with Syrian beggars and shoe shiners. Far more dangerous is the fact that the influx of refugees is sharpening Lebanon’s religious and political divide.

“Lebanon is absolutely in crisis,” Kelley concluded. “If there is not more aid soon, I fear the local communities will no longer be able to support the refugees, which entails a huge danger for the mosaic that is Lebanon. Stability in Lebanon will depend to a large extent on foreign political and financial support.”

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Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Brazil.

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