Syrian refugee influx outpaces aid in Lebanon
BEIRUT | Lebanon has more refugees in need of humanitarian aid than international agencies can accommodate, and the situation worsens daily as Syrians enter the country to escape civil war.
Refugees account for one-third of Lebanon’s 4.43 million people, straining the finances and resources of the host country and aid agencies such as the World Food Program and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“The latest numbers are that 70 percent of refugees in Lebanon are very vulnerable, which leaves 30 percent not receiving aid,” said Dana Sleiman, UNHCR spokeswoman in Lebanon. “For assistance, I am only talking about food, hygiene and baby kits.”
More than 2.5 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq since the start of the popular uprising against President Bashar Assad in March 2011, according to the UNHCR. About half of those refugees are children.
“These host countries are already deeply stressed and poor, and now they have to carry the burden of an increased population,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center whose work focuses on the Syrian crisis. “They can barely provide for their own citizens, so add a population increase and it creates one big problem here.”
Carrying their few possessions in their hands and on their backs, families of refugees huddle in tents, abandoned buildings and other empty spaces, and set up living quarters in places that often lack running water, electricity and other basic services. The cloth and nylon dwellings create cities of thousands that stretch for miles across the sandy, rock-strewn desert.
Concerns about sanitation, medical care and education run second in urgency to those about food, water and shelter.
Over the past three years of the Syrian civil war, the annual UNHCR budget has increased from $13.5 million to $362 million to help meet the growing need. Still, those funds will not reach every refugee.
The World Food Program and UNHCR in July conducted a vulnerability assessment to determine who would receive aid, Ms. Sleiman said. Those who are most vulnerable and have the greatest need receive the most assistance.
“We want to help everyone, but there are many factors involved such as the amount of aid we received for a given year. This causes us to make painful decisions very often,” she said.
International distribution efforts sometimes leave refugees without food. In Lebanon and Jordan, the World Food Program has started a replacing paper vouchers with plastic payment cards. Each member of a family who is not excluded from the program receives a $30 monthly allowance on a card to buy goods at participating stores.
Of the World Food Program’s 1 million registered refugees, 700,000 are receiving aid — and 300,000 are not.
“We excluded those who have potential to earn money or have another source of income,” said Laure Chadraoui, communications officer of the World Food Program. “We target those who are vulnerable such as children, women and the elderly.”
Ms. Sleiman said those who are denied aid can appeal. The UNHCR has visited 30,000 families in Lebanon, and 23 percent were given aid.
Wissam, 26, recently arrived from Aleppo with his 15-year-old wife and their infant son. He receives $60 monthly on a food aid card for his wife and child. The World Food Program has excluded him from the distribution system because he has the ability to sustain himself and find work.
Though he said he understands why he is excluded, Wissam questions the system.
“I can understand, but at the same time it isn’t easy,” he said. “I hear in the news that the U.N. is getting a lot of funding, so I don’t know where this money is going.”
Even when aid is available, access to the people who need it can be blocked. Ms. Chadraoui said the World Food Program can help only 4 million of the 9 million displaced people inside Syria.
“Security has always been an issue since international agencies don’t go there for security reasons. The Syrian army constantly shells the area, and the refugees are left without any protection,” said Carol Malouf, founder of Lebanese for Syrians, an aid group that operates mainly on the Lebanese-Syrian border. “We operate two camps and support a local clinic in Arsal. Funding is a challenge, as numbers of refugees have doubled since the [Assad] regime launched the Qalamoun offensive [in November].”
In Jordan, Syrians have become the country’s largest refugee population, with more than 1.2 million registered. Many reside in the Zaatari and Azraq camps.
Raghad Tayyan, a student at the University of Jordan and a volunteer at Syria Bright Future, works in the camps to help those who may have been overlooked by other organizations.
“A lot of refugees are not being assisted. It’s really hard for people to find an organization that would really help them,” Mr. Tayyan said. “Many organizations only get the names of refugees and promise them that they would have help, but they never do, which leaves the refugees depressed because they’re being fooled.”
For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the urgent need for food, water and shelter takes priority over concerns about sanitation, medical care and education.