As part of Executive’s ‘10 Ways to Save Lebanon‘ issue, we asked leading experts from a range of fields to put the case for one major policy for the country. In this article, UNHCR Representative in Lebanon Ninette Kelley urges different ministries to work together to develop a unified strategy for Syrian refugees, including making a decision about establishing formal refugee camps.
In early June 2011, I visited Wadi Khaled, the small mallet-shaped piece of land that juts out of the northeast corner of Lebanon, bordering Syria on its three sides. It was here that over the course of the preceding three months some 2,000 refugees from Syria had entered.
Most had come from Tal Kalakh — fleeing a swift and firm response to growing unrest which was slowly starting to spread throughout Syria. The refugees had left their battered village, fallen homes and even family members, seeking safety across the nearest border. The majority were staying with Lebanese families in villages throughout Wadi Khaled and in other parts of the northern region of Akkar. When asked when they thought it would be safe to return home, both refugees and hosts were quick to reply that it was just a matter of weeks or at most months.
On that particular day, Naji Ramadan, then mayor of Machta Hamoud, told me of his worry that the water supply in the village could not keep pace with increasing demand. Already shortages were being felt. He asked for the UN to help and we provided water trucking to the village: a temporary solution for what many predicted was a temporary problem.
Worse than predicted
Today the refugee population in Akkar has grown to 94,244, while nationally it has risen from just over 125,000 at the close of 2012, to over 930,000 and is growing by some 12,000 persons every week. Refugees are spread throughout 1,600 localities in the country — and in many the Syrian population now outnumbers Lebanon’s own.
The frequent refrain is that Lebanon cannot cope. What is astonishing is that it has so far, but the cost has been high. It can be measured in many ways: loss of trade, tourism, consumer confidence and investment, as well as falling wages and the rise in government expenditure, all while the demand on public services and subsidised goods increases. Public services, which were challenged before the crisis, are particularly impacted — as schools struggle to accommodate tens of thousands of refugee children, and primary and secondary health services buckle under the strain of additional demand. Fragile water, sanitation and waste management systems simply cannot cope with the increased pressure the arrival of so many refugees has wrought. Missile strikes, car bombs and suicide bombers within Lebanon have increased in frequency — fraying nerves as the fear of the spread of the Syrian conflict looms near.
Many lament the lack of sufficient international assistance to help Lebanon deal with a crisis not of its making and far out of proportion to its size. While more international assistance is indeed critical, the government must take steps to attract humanitarian and development aid, and give confidence to donors that the assistance will have the desired impact.
Responding to the crisis
Looking over the considerable achievements in the past three years, as well as the gaps, one can point to three important areas which will need to be focused on to help Lebanon cope with the crisis.
Firstly, Lebanon cannot be expected to carry the cost of meeting the enormous humanitarian needs of refugees from Syria. Most flee after having been displaced more than once within Syria. They arrive having endured great deprivation for sustained periods of time, with few personal belongings and having suffered enormous personal losses. Last year the international community donated over $881 million for the humanitarian response in Lebanon, including funds to help meet the most urgent needs of refugees (food, shelter, health, protection and services for women, children and the disabled), as well as backing to Lebanese institutions at the front line of the crisis and support to hosting communities (wells, water, sanitation and waste management facilities, community centres, etc). This year they have been asked to do the same and more. This support is crucial — the lives of refugees depend on it and Lebanon cannot manage without it.
Secondly, now that a government has been formed, Lebanon must decide how best to manage the current crisis in the near and immediate future. In 2012, the Prime Minister set up an inter-ministerial committee, with the Minister of Social Affairs as the coordinator. Yet for most of last year, when over 700,000 refugees fled to Lebanon, different ministries for the most part coped relatively autonomously — as the political differences that pulled the government apart in April 2013 made coordinated action between them impossible.
And while individual ministries were critical in managing the situation, crucial policy issues, which required a coordinated government response, were left undecided. Determining an appropriate mix of shelter options, including modest but more formal settlements, is becoming more and more urgent. Planning across ministries in case of a greater influx or internal displacement is very much needed. Improving border processes, and provision and renewal of residency coupons is key to ensuring the government is able to know who is in the country and who is returning. An empowered administrative structure to coordinate across ministries, with the international community alongside it, would improve the response, mitigate the negative impact and engender more confidence in donors.
Finally, as the World Bank assessment last year made clear, the large and growing negative impact of the Syria crisis on Lebanon needs to be promptly addressed, and this goes far beyond what can be expected from humanitarian funds. The subsequent Lebanese government’s ‘Roadmap of Priority Interventions,’ which built on the findings of the assessment, deserves to be supported. With its combination of immediate, medium and longer-term measures, the Roadmap provides a critical starting point for developing and supporting the interventions that Lebanon so badly needs.