Interview: “We need support… perhaps for the next five years.”

16 July, 2013
June 2013, Bekka, Lebanon. A Syrian refugee child at a settlement in northern Lebanon. Her family arrived from Syria earlier this year. The majority of the more than 600,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon are under 18 years of age. Credit: OCHA/D.Palanivelu
June 2013, Bekka, Lebanon. A Syrian refugee child at a settlement in northern Lebanon. Her family arrived from Syria earlier this year. The majority of the more than 600,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon are under 18 years of age. Credit: OCHA/D.Palanivelu

More than 600,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon since the start of the Syria crisis in 2011. By the end of the year, Syrian refugees could make up an estimated 20 per cent of Lebanon’s entire population, says Humanitarian Coordinator Robert Watkins.

Mr. Watkins, who oversees the work of the UN agencies and humanitarian organizations assisting refugees and host communities affected by the crisis, talks about the serious humanitarian consequences of the Syria crisis for Lebanon and the region.

Q: What is the impact of the Syria crisis on Lebanon and the region?

A: There are so many concerns and it is hard to know where to start. We are obviously concerned that we will not be able to meet the needs of the ever-growing refugee population in Lebanon. It is growing at a faster rate than our ability to provide assistance and that’s the immediate over-arching concern.

Within that, there are specific concerns such as health and shelter issues. In the summer, we are very concerned about the spread of water-borne diseases because of the lack of sanitation and hygiene in many of these settlements for refugees, which have risen quite spontaneously.

 1.7 million
  people have fled Syria

 34 per cent
  of refugees from Syria are in Lebanon

 75 per cent
  are women and children

 50 per cent
  are under 18 years of age

 > 1,200 areas
  across Lebanon host refugees

 1.2 million
  Lebanese affected by refugee crisis

 1.2 million
  projected number of refugees in Lebanon by end of 2013

In the early stages of the humanitarian operation, UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) was able to find accommodation for people. Initially, most were hosted by Lebanese families but that is gradually diminishing, as host communities are increasingly unable to cope with the growing numbers of refugees. UNHCR then started rehabilitating or renting public buildings. Now we are seeing the proliferation of settlements where people are living in very rudimentary tents.

We are concerned about the Government’s ability to cope with this crisis. Its resources and capacity are over-stretched trying to deliver services to the refugee communities. Having about 580,000 refugees in their home is adding a huge stress on the economy here. The countries in the region are joined politically, economically and historically so when one is in trouble, it affects the others.

Q: How are the international and humanitarian communities helping Governments in the region cope with the crisis?

The UN system has been able to mobilize huge support from donors. On one hand, this is very encouraging, but on the other hand; it can’t go on forever.

There has been great financial support from donors but many of them are coming under a great deal of stress now, because of the global financial situation and because the demands of the crisis have become so large with no apparent end in sight. We need support, not just for the rest of the year, but perhaps for the next five years. Even if the crisis were to end tomorrow, the consequences will be deep and long- lasting inside and outside Syria.

In Lebanon, we know that the majority of Syrian refugees want to return home, but we also know that the longer the conflict goes on, the more time it will take for the conditions to be in place to allow the refugees to return home. We don’t know what kind of security situation there will be and we don’t know if parts of the population would be forced to move to other areas of the country because of sectarian divisions. It’s a huge unknown but I can say with some certainty that we are now still at the acute phase of the Syria crisis and the consequences are going to be long-term for Lebanon and the region.

Q: You have visited refugee and host communities many times over the past two years. What have some of the families shared with you?

A: They tell me about their very strong desire to return home. This is the message that we have to keep conveying to the Government of Lebanon because they are so afraid these people will stay. It’s important to remind them that the refugees are here not because they want to be here; they are here because it’s one of the few places they can get to that is safe.

There are many stories of families being divided, husbands and sons being left behind either to fight the battle or to defend the home and the property. That’s why we see a refugee population that is 75 per cent women and children. There are also many personal tragedies of family members being killed while fighting, or being executed. And people having to gather the few belongings that they could carry and take them across the border.

I’m concerned about the tensions between refugee and host communities. (But) despite these tensions, the Lebanese people have been very welcoming. They know very well the suffering caused by conflict and displacement and in fact, some took shelter in Syria during the 2006 conflict and can really empathize with the Syrian refugees.

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