Number of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon to hit 1 million

Young Syrian girls playing cards in one of the tents within al-Jarrah camp, March 7, 2014. (Photo: The Fdz)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Thursday, March 13, 2014

In a couple of weeks, one million Syrian refugees will have been officially registered in Lebanon by the UN refugee agency, a milestone coinciding with the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising. As the conflict in Syria continues with no end in sight, the challenges in Lebanon for the refugees and those attempting to support them continue to mount.

Between the end of March and early April, the UNHCR is expected to officially register one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The burden on Lebanon, a tiny country of around 4.5 million, is unparalleled. It hosts the largest Syrian refugee population in the world, with numbers expected to dramatically increase as long as the conflict across the border persists.

In Lebanon, the authorities do not recognize the status of refugees. Therefore, much of the support and services for Syrian refugees falls heavily on non-governmental organizations like the UNHCR, which coordinates with various international and local partners.

The logistics and infrastructure behind this effort is colossal.

“This is the largest registration process in the world, and the most complicated,” the UNHCR resident representative in Lebanon, Ninette Kelley, explained to Al-Akhbar.

“When you consider that last year 700,000 Syrian refugees were registered and assisted in some form or another, it's nothing less than a huge achievement by the humanitarian community working with the Lebanese,” she added.

According to data released by the UN refugee agency on March 6, a significant number of registered Syrians refugees were located in and around the areas of Zahle (16 percent), Akkar (10.6 percent), Baabelk (10.4 percent), Baabda (7.5 percent), and Tripoli (6.8 percent), among other places.

“[And] with refugees scattered over 1,600 locations in Lebanon, being present and having regular access is a huge challenge,” Kelley added.

This challenge is further compounded since the numbers are only increasing.

“In a lot of emergency situations, [refugee numbers] come in with a bang and then taper off over time. Here it hasn't. We continue to register on average about 12,000 individuals a week. The demands on services and on the fragile resources continue to exist,” she stressed.

To make matters worse, the funding for all agencies – including UNHCR – was marked at “only 14 percent” from the appeal that was made last December.

Despite the massive restrictions UNHCR faces, its reputation – with other international organizations – have been somewhat negative for those on the ground. Syrian refugees perceive international organizations as ineffective in their capabilities, rife with bureaucratic lag, and insensitive to basic needs.

The camp of the deprived

A Syrian family in the al-Jarrah camp, March 7, 2014. (Photo: The Fdz)A Syrian family in the al-Jarrah camp, March 7, 2014. (Photo: The Fdz)

A few kilometers away from the town of Chtaura in the Bekaa Valley, not far from the town of al-Marj, lies the informal settlement of al-Jarrah, known by its residents as “The camp of the deprived.”

Al-Jarrah, established two years ago, holds more than 800 men, women and children, many of whom escaped from Homs and its surroundings, packed tightly together in about 130 makeshift tents. More people arrive with each passing week.

The settlement is sprawled along farm land, near to a cluster of Lebanese houses. Each resident pays hundreds of dollars a year renting the space, scrapping money from whatever work they can find or relying on dwindling savings.

“We are trying to cope as much as we can, but we've barely received enough help,” Jihad, a Syrian father of three girls and one of the organizers of the settlement, told Al-Akhbar.

"It's become tiresome.”

Jihad's viewpoint is commonly articulated not only by others in al-Jarrah, but elsewhere in settlements scattered throughout Lebanon.

In addition, when projects are implemented, they seem to fail almost immediately.

To support this particular accusation, Jihad showed Al-Akhbar a water filter provided by UNICEF. According to him, the filter was not working the moment it was installed, and residents attempted to contact the organization to notify them but were not taken seriously for months.

“One UNICEF person finally came after a long time, and she was startled to find out we were right!” he said, with a light chuckle.

In another case within al-Jarrah, Ghazi, who has two children, claimed that he and his family have yet to be registered or given assistance since their arrival more than a year ago.

“I've been calling and going to UNHCR and other organizations for help. It's maddening,” said the father. “And when I talk to the staff, who are mainly Lebanese, it's like they are laughing at me or not taking me seriously.”

Ghazi shared a recording with Al-Akhbar of a call he made to a UNHCR office in Zahle, in order to inquire about his status.

In the recording, Ghazi can be heard speaking to a male individual at the office. While Ghazi attempted to explain his situation, the officer spoke in a harsh tone, promptly transferring the call to another person who barely spoke Arabic. Ghazi was then told to make his way to the office in order for his case to be examined.

“That was about a month or two ago. I went and now I am still here waiting,” he said.

Local vs. international efforts

When asked what organizations were making positive impacts in the camp, Jihad quickly pointed to rows of new tents being constructed on the sidelines of the settlement.

“See those over there, the wood and materials all come from a group called Eyes for Syria. They are a bunch of volunteers – Lebanese and Syrian – who came and helped build parts of the settlement with us. They were quick and they are still here helping us,” he said.

According to Jihad, the local group also brought in an oven for baking bread that was placed at one end of the camp. Another local organization, Sawa4Syria, also had set up a social and educational center for the residents to use.

“They are doing more than the UNHCR. I have so much to say; I swear, if the head of UNHCR was here I wouldn’t hold back,” Jihad said.

In comparison to the larger work conducted by UNHCR and other international NGOs, the gaps have gradually been covered by local efforts over the past three years – with varying degrees of success.

Sawa4Syria, for example, was established in Tripoli with the initial arrival of Syrian refugees into Lebanon during the first year of the uprising. Young men and women, many of whom had known each other in university, began work by getting supplies and products to distribute.

Composed of Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians, Sawa4Syria today has around 50 members, providing support for 3,000 Syrian families in the country.

Since it's modest beginnings, Sawa has transformed from a group distributing supplies to a more concrete organization with different branches and departments – setting up programs for children, women, human rights education, and other forms of humanitarian work.

“We are not completely supportive of the UN's work, [but] we can not hold them entirely responsible. They were overwhelmed by the amount [of refugees]” Nael Bitarie, Sawa's projects manager, said to Al-Akhbar.

“At the same time, there should have been a plan at the beginning for an emergency situation like this. There are a lot of needs not being covered by the UN – families whose aid were revoked, which was a disaster for us working on the ground. The way they conduct things can be fatal. It takes too long for things to get done,” the 27-year-old former Yarmouk refugee camp resident added.

“We want clarifications on why there are these continued limitations by the UN and why are people still living in such dismal situations in the camps in Lebanon.”

“I don't want to diminish the possibility that there are people who have difficulties, but when you look at our programs and how extensive they are, and all the efforts we are doing to outreach and bring people in for registration, it's pretty impressive,” Kelley remarked, when asked about these issues.

“This is not to say we should not follow up on those who may have fallen through the cracks.”

“With over 3,000 people registered every day, clearly registration is happening. Our average wait time is around 22 days. Plus assistance is provided to them while they wait,” she said.

Kelley further clarified that last year, due to a shortage and delay in funding, UNHCR and other organizations were forced to move to a system that heavily targets those in greater need. This caused at least 30 percent of Syrian refugees to not receive the food vouchers they used to a year ago.

“It's also the case that sometimes there is an opportunity to maybe not accurately describe what has been provided because there are still unmet needs. So if you have an opportunity, you are going to say more,” she said, referring to an example of a settlement she visited recently whose residents claimed that they were not receiving water, but in fact were visited by a water truck a few days prior.

Bitarie, on the other hand, felt that Sawa was much more efficient than UNHCR and its partners.

“We have not contacted the UN for joint projects or work, because we don't like to work with such a huge organization because the inherent malaise within them would spread to us. We feel that we can do things faster without bureaucratic lag,” he said.

“We are from the society, and are more in tune with their needs. We go to the tents, sit down with the residents, have coffee, and listen to them. We don't think it requires such complicated actions, it's very clear what they need.”

“This bureaucracy is fatal, so we prefer to stay away from the UN unless we really need support for a project,” Bitarie said.

It is a tactic that Kelley cautioned over.

“I'll tell you what we've learned from doing this for a long time: If you don't do it right, if you don't make sure that you are putting tents at a certain distance, or making sure there is enough latrines, adequate lighting, if you don't have a camp organizing structure, then your improvements may be short lived or a duplicate of other efforts or may put the refugees at risk,” she said.

“In each field location, we have coordination across every single sector, across every field, with all partners in the area to make sure we address gaps as fast as possible. Are some partners slower than others? Perhaps. Do we make errors or get delayed? Maybe,” the UN representative said.

Lebanon: “An example to the world”

One essential element for Bitarie in solving much of the obstacles facing relief efforts is for the Lebanese government to recognize the status of refugees.

“We only hold the Lebanese government responsible on a more general level, rather than a material level. If the Lebanese government took a decision to recognize the existence of these people as refugees, and opens up more avenues for support, than I think most of the major problems and worst humanitarian cases would be dealt with,” he said.

He stressed it's not a matter of money, because “there are millions of people who are ready and are paying funds to help Syrians.” However, he was quick to add that Sawa could not place the blame entirely on the Lebanese government since “it can't even adequately support their own citizens.”

The key support, for Sawa, came from the Lebanese public. Without them, Bitarie noted, Sawa wouldn't have been able to exist and continue its work.

“We are all in this together – Syrians, Palestinians, and Lebanese,” he said.

Similarly, Kelley spoke positively of what Lebanon has provided for the Syrian refugees so far.

“I have never seen a country, including government authorities, do so much proportional to its size than this country. Refugees have been welcome in Lebanon, and have been cared for in a manner that humbles me,” she said.

Shrugging aside the matter of recognizing refugee status, Kelley added, “The important thing for us is the question of are people being protected. They are here. Whether they call them displaced persons or refugees, what this country has done should be held up as an example to the world.”

Nevertheless, the work continues and is expected to become even more challenging as time goes by for both Sawa4Syria and UNHCR. Each are adapting and transforming, learning from previous mistakes, and are trying to expand their reach as much as they can. They are both pivotal for the survival of refugees in the country, and the loss of either one would be a catastrophe for relief efforts.

Ultimately for the Syrian refugee, all that matters in the end is that they return to their homes once the conflict is over.

“All of us want to go back,” Jihad said without hesitation. “We don't want to stay here. Syria is our home and we want to go back to rebuild.”

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