Challenges facing refugees in Lebanon— Stories behind the State of the Humanitarian System

This blog is part of a series of articles we are publishing that tell the humanitarian stories behind some of the key findings and lessons emerging in ALNAP’s latest State of the Humanitarian System report.

The world’s refugee population has continued to grow, from an estimated 25.4 million people in 2017 to 27.1 million in 2021. While rates of displacement slowed over these four years, with COVID-19 restricting movement and fewer people fleeing from Syria, Myanmar and South Sudan, those who had already fled remained without long-term solutions. In 2022, rates of new refugees have already increased due to the war in Ukraine. Compared to other aid recipients, refugees are generally less satisfied with the relevance and volume of aid they received. According to our survey, refugees were 30% less likely than other aid recipients to fully agree that aid addressed their priority needs and 60% less likely to express satisfaction with the amount of aid they received. However, refugees reported stronger consultation and feedback efforts from agencies than other aid recipients. This indicates that agencies are able to establish the longer-term presence and basic mechanisms for engaging with refugees, but they often lack the adaptive latitude or financing to meet their complex needs in protracted and often politically constrained settings.

The following case study, featuring in our 5th State of the Humanitarian System report focuses on the persistent challenges faced by refugees in Lebanon as the Syrian refugee crisis entered its tenth year. It highlights how the worsening economic situation impacted the amount and types of aid humanitarian agencies could deliver, as need outstripped funding and high rates of inflation reduced the effectiveness of cash as a modality. It also underscores debates about the impact of targeting decisions on host and refugee community tensions, whether a ‘whole society approach’ can effectively reach the most vulnerable, and how to provide resilient solutions for protracted refugees.

The case study was researched and written by a local researcher in Lebanon. Their name has been withheld at their request to protect their identity.

Lebanon case study: Protracted refugee populations in a worsening host country situation

Lebanon continued to host the largest number of refugees relative to the size of its population, including an estimated 1.5 million Syrians and more than 250,000 Palestinians.¹ The country also faced political volatility and a major port explosion in Beirut in 2020. Severe economic decline, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is estimated to have pushed over 55% of the population below the poverty line.² Between 2019 and 2021, food prices increased by 400%.

Photo credit: ICRC/ Hussein Baydoun

A more precarious situation for refugees

As the Syrian refugee crisis moves into its tenth year, the affected population and the agencies that assist them highlighted three persistent challenges. First, lack of legal status: in 2015, the government instructed UNHCR to stop registering Syrian refugees,³ leaving a third of the current population with no legal status and without freedom of movement or the right to work. Those with legal status had to renew their documents regularly but registration rates declined, exacerbated by COVID-19 closures and financial barriers.⁴ This contributes to the second challenge: a lack of access to income and food. With 90% of Syrian refugee households living in extreme poverty, the majority resorted to negative coping strategies: 90% reported taking on debt, primarily to buy food, while others reported begging and not sending children to school. Third, poverty combined with a privatised and overstretched health system meant that refugees were unable to access and pay for basic healthcare.⁵

Greater pressure on the humanitarian response

The financial data supports what both affected populations and delivery agencies reported: that needs were outstripping the supply of support. The 2021 Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) targeted more than double the number of people for basic assistance between 2019 and 2022, but its budget increased only minimally,⁶,⁷despite rising fuel and commodity prices increasing the cost of project implementation, and a six-fold rise in the cost of the Survival Minimum Expenditure Basket). Funds have not met more than 54% of initial annual requirements since 2013.

Cash and voucher programmes were an established core of humanitarian assistance in Lebanon (in 2021, $165.8 million was provided via cash assistance programmes).⁸ But the financial crisis in Lebanon had required agencies to think twice about how they provided cash: in 2020, only half of cash-assisted severely vulnerable households reported being able to meet their minimum needs. Cash transfers shifted from the plummeting Lebanese pound⁹ ¹⁰, towards ‘dollarisation’ of transfers,¹¹ and following humanitarian agencies’ advocacy, the transfer value of the main cash programme was doubled in late 2021.¹² Yet there were also concerns about the negative consequences of these measures.¹³ Amid fears of further fuelling community tensions, some agencies chose to maintain wide coverage rather than increase payments to those most in need. The economic decline worsened community tensions, leading to a distrust of aid targeting decisions, and a prevalent sense that vulnerable Lebanese had been neglected by the international system.¹⁴ As a result, refugees reported feeling scared and humiliated when they went to receive assistance and withdraw cash payments.

A whole-of-society approach

The GCR advocates a ‘whole-of-society approach’, whereby refugees are integrated into host communities and are able to access the same benefits from development investments, while humanitarian assistance supports existing services to meet acute needs. Lebanon is heralded as an example of this approach, and development actors interviewed for this study praised its ‘inclusive approach’ to working with Syrian refugees since the beginning of the crisis.

‘For refugees, funding gaps and restrictions on long-term programming mean that meaningful resilience building remains unrealised’

However, there was a prevalent concern that focusing on the ‘whole of society’ leaves those most vulnerable behind as funds are spent on systemic improvements to Lebanon’s infrastructure, rather than projects targeted at refugees. For example, interviewees working in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector described how resources and funds had been diverted away from simple and effective projects that would adequately support those most in need. Instead, funding was being spent on large-scale projects without attention to the policy environment, infrastructure or resources that would enable them to benefit the most vulnerable. At the same time, for refugees, funding gaps and restrictions on long-term programming mean that meaningful resilience building remains unrealised. As one INGO worker put it: ‘There’s been lots of discussions about the nexus with development in the humanitarian sphere. We’ve had a lot of such discussions in Lebanon, but can we really talk about moving to durable solutions for refugees given the current context in Lebanon? The context has been very difficult.’

The 5th State of the Humanitarian System Report was published in September 2022. Read the full report on ALNAP’s website: https://sohs.alnap.org.

[1] UNHCR, UNHCR Lebanon: Fact Sheet, September 2021 (Geneva: UNHCR, September 2021). www.alnap.org/help-library/unhcr-lebanon-fact-sheet-september-2021.

[2] Nalia. Ahmed et al., ‘Vaccinating refugees: Lessons from the inclusive Lebanon Vaccine Roll-Out Experience’, World Bank, 18 June 2021. www.alnap.org/help-library/vaccinatingrefugees-lessons-from-the-inclusive-lebanon-vaccine-roll-out-experience.

[3] UNHCR, ‘Refugee Data Finder’. www.alnap.org/help-library/refugee-data-finder.

[4] UNHCR, Protection Monitoring Findings: Lebanon 1st Quarter 2021 (Geneva: UNHCR, 2021). www.alnap.org/help-library/protection-monitoring-findings-lebanon-1st-quarter-2021.

[5] The UNHCR protection monitoring report (2021, www.alnap.org/help-library/protectionmonitoring-findings-lebanon-1st-quarter-2021) states that ‘1 in 5 refugees (20%) are now forgoing needed healthcare and medicine due to a lack of resources (compared to 15% in the previous quarter)’.

[6] LCRP budget requirement for basic assistance in 2019 was $477 million and $530 million in 2022, despite a doubling in people targeted over this period and a 557% increase in price of the Survival Minimum Expenditure Basket since October 2019, according to LCRP 2022. See: Government of Lebanon and United Nations, Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2022–2023 (Government of Lebanon, 2022, www.alnap.org/help-library/lebanon-crisis-responseplan-2022–2023).

[7] With $352 million carried over from 2020 to 2021.

[8] The largest of which is multi-purpose cash assistance, which targeted 294,000 households, of which 239,000 were Syrian.

[9] Nick Newsom, ‘Aid millions wasted in Lebanese currency collapse’, The New Humanitarian, 24 March 2021. www.alnap.org/help-library/aid-millions-wasted-in-lebanese-currency-collapse.

[10] WFP, Lebanon: Inter-Agency — Q3 2021 Basic Assistance Dashboard (Geneva: UNHCR, 2021). www.alnap.org/help-library/lebanon-inter-agency-q3-2021-basic-assistance-dashboard.

[11] WFP, Lebanon: Inter-Agency. www.alnap.org/help-library/lebanon-inter-agency-q3-2021-basic-assistance-dashboard.

[12] Ibid. www.alnap.org/help-library/lebanon-inter-agency-q3-2021-basic-assistance-dashboard.

[13] Ibid. www.alnap.org/help-library/lebanon-inter-agency-q3-2021-basic-assistance-dashboard.

[14] UNHCR and UNDP, Regional Refugee & Resilience Plan (3RP) Regional Strategic Overview 2021–2022 (Geneva/New York: UNHCR and UNDP, 2020). www.alnap.org/help-library/regional-refugee-resilience-plan-3rp-regional-strategic-overview-2021–2022.

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