Creating new perspectives since 2009

The journey of refugees hosted by a small nation with a big heart

March 29, 2014 at 12:59 pm

The Syrian refugee crisis has evolved into one of the most dramatic human tragedies of our times. Over four million Syrians have been displaced within Syria and more than two million have fled the country and been registered with UNHCR throughout the region. One quarter of the Syrian population has been displaced and today over 40 per cent of Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance, whether in exile or within the country.

Countries neighbouring Syria are facing extraordinary challenges. In Lebanon alone, close to a million Syrians have registered with UNHCR and the government estimates that an additional half a million Syrians are residing in the country. The numbers rise by over 11,000 registered refugees every week and projections suggest that there may be over one and a half million Syrian refugees in Lebanon by the end of year. This is in addition to 270,000 Palestinian refugees resident in Lebanon prior to the crisis and, according to UNRWA 51,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria are also currently in the country.

This year UNHCR marks 52 years of partnership with Lebanon. Established in 1962, UNHCR’s then small office worked with the Government in receiving and meeting the needs of refugees who came to Lebanon in search of safety: persons whose lives had been overturned by violence and persecution and who could not receive protection from their own countries.

Over the decades, the Office remained small until the Iraq crisis in 2003 which saw millions of Iraqis displaced by war – many thousands of whom sought sanctuary in neighboring countries. As important as this history is, it simply is no match for the demands made on Lebanon in recent years due to the conflict in Syria. This country, who announced to the world during the Iraqi crisis that it simply could not cope with the 10,000 refugees that it hosted at that time, has now had to bear a much greater challenge.

Violence in Syria initially provoked a modest outflow of refugees in 2011, which gradually grew in volume in 2012 – when that year closed with 175,000 refugees from Syria in Lebanon. This accelerated in 2013 as the war engulfed large parts of Syria – such that over 700,000 more refugees came to Lebanon. Today the number is 900,000 who have approached UNHCR to be registered. No country has been more affected than Lebanon, and no country has shown greater hospitality.

The size of the crisis has been matched by Lebanon’s remarkable generosity. Despite the severe economic impact on Lebanon brought on by the Syrian crisis and exacerbated by the refugee influx, Lebanese communities have mobilised to help provide Syrian refugees with safety and assistance. Tales of the difficulties faced by refugees are also accompanied by countless stories of Lebanese opening their homes, sharing their space and their limited resources with refugees in ways that are a testament to the best of the human spirit.

At every level of society the response has been a stellar one and unprecedented in scale. Refugees have crossed into Lebanon and been hosted in communities throughout the country. International and national humanitarian agencies have worked hand in hand with local and national institutions to ensure that basic needs are met. In 2013, the largest humanitarian funding appeal in history was launched to address the humanitarian needs within Syria and neighboring countries. This appeal was a collaborative effort of humanitarian agencies and governments. Nowhere has that collaboration been more solid.

Lebanon, the country the most politically fragile – and whose stability is severely tested by the Syrian crisis, has not only provided safety to the largest number of refugees in the region but has also drawn together Ministries and communities across the political divide, in designing humanitarian strategies and actions. With generous support from donor countries, last year’s funding appeal was 70 per cent funded. This enabled hundreds of thousands of refugees to receive immediate life-saving care including food, shelter and health assistance. It also included millions of dollars of support to host communities in needed areas such as health, community services, education, water, waste management and sanitation.

The experience so far also speaks to two imperatives. Foremost is the need for a political solution in Syria, without which thousands will continue to die; the exodus from Syria will carry-on; hopes for the future of Syria’s children will be lost; neighbouring states will be overrun and the stability of the region in greater jeopardy. Secondly, international assistance will remain critical to protecting and assisting refugees. This includes providing vital support to neighbouring states that have to bear the costs of the crisis; costs which are clearly disproportionate to their capacities.

At the turn of the New Year, the Government of Lebanon, UNHCR and over 60 humanitarian agencies issued a sixth revised appeal for Lebanon for over US$ 1.89 billion. This appeal is today six per cent funded. Donors have provided considerable support for humanitarian programmes in Lebanon. Solid partnership across the government, humanitarian and civil society will continue to be needed to both highlight needs and generate donor confidence in the effectiveness of our collective action. Without more funding, 70 per cent of refugee children currently out of school will remain without formal education this school year; more and more refugees will find themselves in insecure dwellings unprotected from the rain, wind and snow, refugees at risk of sexual and gender based violence will not be able to access the safety they need, and communities across Lebanon will suffer dramatic decline in already weak water, sanitation and waste management systems to the detriment of the health of all.

Lebanon cannot manage without more robust international support, and refugees cannot live without it.

The author is the UNHCR Representative in Lebanon

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.