In Ramzi Naaman’s first nine months as head coordinator of Lebanon’s Syria response plan, Lebanon’s government collapsed, the number of refugees grew exponentially and violence escalated in many parts of the country. In these circumstances, designing a response plan is becoming a challenge.
Should the response to the refugee crisis be treated urgently and separately or under a general poverty relief plan for both Lebanese and Syrians?
When you talk about an ‘urgent’ relief plan, you are talking about a period of two to three months. In 2006, Lebanese sought refuge in Syria for 33 days. When the war was over they came back. But now we’re talking about people who have been here for two years, and might stay here for another two years or more; especially when you know that you have 1.8 million completely destroyed housing units in Syria — that’s 1.8 million families that have no homes to come back to.
[There is] a huge number of people that has surpassed by far Lebanon’s capacity. You see that you have 45 percent of the Lebanese villages containing more Syrians now than their original population. For instance, a village that had 100 Lebanese citizens now has 2,000 Syrians. Won’t the Lebanese citizens be scared? First, this is a foreign presence. Second, the Lebanese are starting to suffer from an economic condition, because they now have competition since the Syrians are looking to make a living. This is building up a lot of tension in the villages.
Since there is no government, does that mean the response plan is struggling?
So is the government’s plan currently enough to control the crisis?
We are talking about the plan, but there is another side to the story, which is political commitment and how serious this is. How serious are we? Us, we are serious. But remember that you are in Lebanon, in a country that is politically oriented, the country of crises. Politicians in Lebanon are not technical people: they look at benefits, elections, Parliament, before they look at the crisis that they’re in. We said in the beginning that the crisis should be their priority before anything else. All ministries must perceive the crisis as one emergency cell. No single ministry can solve this crisis.
Do many Lebanese have the impression the government is not doing much about the Syrian issue?
Why that impression? The government is working. The public hospitals are full. The public schools are full. It is designing programs for Syrian students, and they are receiving education. The government is taking them into social centers and providing them with services, [and it] is organizing activities and projects in the villages in an effort to absorb the tension.
How could aid funding be better organized?
That’s the question, because, until now, we haven’t suggested a mechanism yet. Now we are working on what we call a Trust Fund. The idea is that this fund is under the government’s responsibility along with an international partner which is concerned in the issue, so they would be doing a sort of supervision so that everything is exposed… This multi-national trust fund is going to be managed by the World Bank with the Lebanese government.
Why does the Lebanese government have limited control over aid to refugees? Are you unable to gain the trust of international organizations?
Remember that aid is linked to politics. At the end of the day, Jordan is in a much better political situation to make use of the money; it is a friend to the West and the Saudis. So most of the money that came to Jordan came under that pretext, basically, to stabilize Jordan and support the king. On the contrary, the government of Lebanon has been labeled as the government of Hezbollah. So, even though we insisted on keeping politics on the side, and dealing with the situation from a humanitarian perspective, everybody still insists that we are the government of Hezbollah. At the end of the day, we haven’t seen a penny because of that. That’s a prejudice against the Lebanese government.
Now, with all the pressure that we’re exerting, on our friends, especially Western countries, that first, this is not a Hezbollah government; and second, the situation has escalated so dramatically, and it does not suit anybody if Lebanon falls apart. That’s why they are trying to pump money, but of course with very limited resources. When we’re talking about $100 million or $150 million, even though it sounds like a big number, it’s nothing, it’s a drop in the ocean when I’m talking about $1.7 billion [needed], from now until December.