Syrian refugees in Bekaa camp, Lebanon. Photo: OCHA / D. Palanivelu / June 2013.

“If we reach a tipping point, Lebanon could also implode”

This week, Lebanon experienced its worst terrorist attack this year when a double suicide bombing reportedly killed 43 people and wounded 239. The bombs targeted a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut. Hezbollah factions have been fighting ISIS in neighbouring Syria alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“This is a tragic cowardly attack with a high number of casualties,” said the UN Humanitarian head in Lebanon, Philippe Lazzarini. “Lebanese Leaders from across the political spectrum have united in condemning it, and today was declared a day of mourning throughout the nation. This attack shows that Lebanon’s unity, stability and security need to be supported and shielded at all times to prevent the spill over of the war in Syria into Lebanon.”

The attack risks further destabilizing a country that already struggles with political and economic insecurity, while hosting over 1 million refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria — a testament to Lebanon’s incredible hospitality, said Lazzarini. A few weeks prior to the attack, Anna Jefferys from OCHA had spoken to Lazzarini to discuss what Lebanon needed to shore up the resilience it has always shown in the face of regional and internal insecurity. Here are his ideas:

Lebanon is hosting a huge refugee population. How is it coping?

Lebanon has welcomed 1.1 million Syrian refugees, as well as 360,000 Palestinians and some Iraqis, meaning one in three people living in Lebanon is now a refugee. This shows the incredible hospitality of Lebanon. Over the past five years of conflict in Syria, Lebanon never closed its border and it never expelled people. But this comes at a price. The World Bank estimates the direct cost of the refugee population over the past three years has been US$7 billion to $8 billion. The economy is stagnating for the first time in years, and the refugee presence is straining the Government’s capacity to provide basic services.

Most of the refugees are hosted in the most impoverished regions of the country: in the Akkar district in the north and in the Bekaa valley. For the most part, people have welcomed refugees, but their anxiety about the future is mounting. What does the influx mean? How much will it modify the demographic balance of the country? The anxiety also pertains to refugees.

This abandoned parking garage in Saida, Lebanon, is home to hundreds of Syrian refugees. Photo: UNHCR / E.Dorfman / August 2013.

How are refugees coping, given many of them have been living in camps for years now?

The Government has regularly stated that Lebanon will not be a long-term resettlement country, which is causing increasing levels of despair among refugees. Ninety per cent of Lebanese refugees are now dependent on food aid, and this dependence is rising while we are observing donor fatigue. By the end of this year, we expect the appeal to be just over 50 per cent funded. As a result, refugees are increasingly impoverished and are adopting increasingly risky coping strategies to survive, such as child labour, early marriage and increasing indebtedness.

What are the work options for refugees?

The Government has instated a policy requiring all refugees to have a US$200 resident’s permit, which will call on all of them to either register as a refugee or to work. One third of all Lebanese youths are unemployed, creating fear that Syrian workers will have to compete with Lebanese. The upshot is that this policy de facto renders the presence of the majority of refugees illegal, as most of them will not be able to afford a permit.
In reality, most Syrians in Lebanon work in construction or agriculture. Before the conflict, up to 500,000 Syrians worked in these sectors in Lebanon — sectors that the Lebanese did not traditionally work in, but this is not how it’s perceived.

The policy makes refugees more exposed and more vulnerable to harassment and exploitation. It restrains their mobility, as they will not be able to cross checkpoints if they are not registered.

With no job prospects, worsening living conditions and a mounting fear that ISIS will recruit their children, more and more refugees are trying to head to Europe. There is an all-pervasive fear that despair might lead some to be tempted to join ISIS.

A good indication of the level of anxiety and disarray in the country, among not only Syrian refugees but also Palestinians and impoverished Lebanese, is that more Lebanese are also joining the migration to Europe, heading to Turkey to buy false Syrian passports and attempting the crossing.

Rami, a 10-year-old refugee, sticks his head out from his family’s tent in Qob Elias, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Photo: UNHCR / S. Baldwin / November 2013

Has Lebanon felt the impact of increased global scrutiny on refugee needs?

When the refugees hit Europe, there was a huge wake-up call and we heard announcements of new pledges. But we still don’t know how much of this is new money and how much will actually trickle down into programmes. Already, the World Food Programme has had to reduce its cash vouchers from $27 to $13 per person. Recently, new pledges have brought them up to $20, which is a start. Winter is approaching and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, says its winterization programme will most likely be funded. But overall, as we enter our sixth year of conflict, the refugees’ living conditions have deteriorated.

What are the UN’s priorities in the face of these struggles?

The UN is shifting to a comprehensive response that addresses all humanitarian needs in Lebanon, including those of refugees and host communities.

The big push now is to support the country’s peace and security at a time when Lebanon is very vulnerable and the economy is severely weakened. There is a common understanding — on the part of the World Bank, the European Union, the United Nations and others — that this country needs political, socioeconomic, peace and security support to stabilize it and stop it from sliding further down into crisis. Lebanon is always seen to defy gravity. It is extraordinarily resilient, but it is in no one’s interests to test this resilience further. If we reach a tipping point, Lebanon could also implode.

The political situation is very fragile. There has been a presidential vacuum for 500 days now, and many ministries are barely functioning.

How can ministries deliver basic services in these conditions?

Some ministries are working. For example, the Ministry of Education has worked hard alongside donors and UN agencies to enroll Syrian children into Lebanese schools. We enrolled 160,000 children in the 2014-2015 school year, and the target for the 2016 school year is 200,000. But this still leaves behind 200,000 children in need of education. That is the lost generation and it is a disaster in the making.

What are your top messages?

We tell Member States: don’t decrease your aid to Lebanon, but also look to additional financial instruments that can promote socioeconomic stability. Investment is needed in the form of bonds, concessionary loans and investment in infrastructure in the regions that need it the most. And at the same time, Member States need to share the burden of hosting the refugees and resettling.

In the meantime, while we need to be sensitive that we do not do too much to promote a long-term stay for the refugees, people have to understand the fear this causes as the crisis touches the very heart of the Lebanese identity. Nonetheless, refugees need access to the labour market. This would be a win-win for both the Lebanese and the refugee population.

Bekaa refugee camp, Lebanon. Photo: OCHA / D. Palanivelu / June 2013.