The Challenges of Managing the Influx of Syrian Refugees
Roundtable Discussion Series
LCPS discussion group recommends six immediate actions on the Syrian refugees:
The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) held a roundtable discussion in collaboration with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) on the challenges of managing the influx of Syrian refugees on Thursday, 30 May 2013, at the Holiday Inn - Dunes, Beirut, Lebanon. The meeting was co-chaired by Mr. Ramzi Naaman, Director of the Central Management Unit (National Poverty Targeting Program for Social Safety Nets) at the Presidency of the Council of Ministers (PCM) and coordinator of the government strategy for Syrian refugees, Mr. Felipe Camargo, Assistant Representative Coordination of UNHCR in Lebanon, and Mr. Kamel Kuzbar, the President of the Relief Association Union for Syrian Refugee Care in and surrounding Saida. Among the 30 participants were ambassadors, municipal councils’ presidents and members, NGO heads, academics, civil society activists, and international organizations’ representatives. After a brief introduction from Mr. Peter Rimmele, Head of The Rule of Law Program in the MENA at KAS and from Mr. Sami Atallah, Executive Director of LCPS, Mr. Atallah moderated the discussion.
The scale of the crisis
Lebanon is facing grave challenges due to the overflow of Syrian refugees into the country. These challenges vary in nature between political, economic, and security-related threats. While the government has officially adopted a policy of open borders and neutrality towards the Syrian conflict, it has failed to deal with the refugee problem. Its response was circumstantial and incidental, whereby no arrangements were made beforehand to deal with this worrying emergency. According to Naaman, the plan that was developed by the government in collaboration with international organizations initially aimed to deal with a projected number of only 200,000 refugees. The problems that Lebanon is facing can be summarized as follows:
- The number of refugees is increasing at an alarming rate: It is estimated that there are currently one million refugees in Lebanon up from approximately 200,000 a year ago. These refugees are scattered over the whole country covering 1,000 towns and villages. According to UNHCR, out of the one million, 420,044 refugees are registered, 90,000 register each month, and 4,000 try to contact the agency on a daily basis. The remaining refugees are unregistered Syrians, seasonal and daily Syrian workers, higher-income groups and other segments of the Syrian population. The total number of refugees is expected to reach two million if a battle for Damascus occurs.
- Refugees have no access to health or education: Many of the displaced Syrians are homeless and poor and they require help in obtaining shelter, food, healthcare, schooling and other services such as water and sanitation in order to survive. In fact, 75% of the refugees are women and children. There is a high threat of epidemic diseases spreading across the country due to the abject conditions refugees live in. According to the Ministry of Health, it is estimated that the annual cost of basic health care coverage for every Syrian refugee is $349, an amount that the treasury does not have. In addition, there is a big gap in urban response, and several irregular settlements are starting to form with no sanitation or access to drinking water. Last year, only 30,000 out of 150,000 refugees attended schools, prompting UNICEF to describe the children as ‘a lost generation.’
- Low skilled wages have decreased: The increase in the number of Syrian refugees has effectively increased the labor supply for unskilled and low skilled workers. This has put a downward pressure on wages and, hence, exacerbated unemployment among the poorer unskilled Lebanese.
- Corruption is hindering the transfer of funds: Among the reasons why the government has not responded to the crisis is a lack of funds. Lebanon has received only $78 million out of the $1.6 billion promised in the Kuwait Conference. It is argued that reasons behind this are political, as the money was transferred to Jordan due to its proximity to the Gulf States. Others have argued that Lebanon’s high level of corruption (ranking 127 on the Transparency International Corruption Index) made international donors shy away from transferring money. However, many countries whose corruption score is worse than Lebanon became recipient of international aid after putting watchdog mechanisms in place.
- Political tension and security threats are rising: Tension among the refugees is widespread, as they come from various different Syrian factions, some opposing and some supporting the regime. Furthermore, the majority of the refugees are Sunnis, bringing demographic and social change and posing serious hazards to the confessional power sharing system in Lebanon – contributing to the divisions and political tension among the Lebanese themselves. In addition, there are increasing security threats around the border areas that threaten stability and prevent assistance from reaching deprived groups. With no response or support, militarization and social crime are increasing and form a serious security threat across Lebanon.
- The refugee crisis is a medium term problem and must be dealt with it as such: Studies show that only one fourth of civil wars last for two years and the remaining 75% last between two and 15 years. With no end in sight, the Syrian crisis may last for a substantial number of years. Furthermore, other studies have shown that 70% of refugees remain refugees for at least five years after the end of the war. With 400 thousands destroyed households and another 800 thousands that are not fit to be inhabited, there are currently at least five million Syrians who do not have a home to return to. In effect, many of the refugees in Lebanon will have stay even after the end of the war. The government is divided on the question whether to build refugee camps (which makes assistance providing easier), as some argue that camps can add social, political and economic costs to the host countries. Additionally, many Lebanese are linked to Syria through family, trade, social, political and geographic ties. As a result, most Syrian refugees live with host families and communities rather than in refugee camps as is the case in Jordan and Turkey. These factors indicate that some refugees might settle in Lebanon and stay after the conflict ends. Therefore, it is essential that the government addresses the refugee crisis not as a short term problem, but rather as a medium term issue.
The discussion highlighted the following key recommendations:
- The government must lead the initiative by coordinating not only with international donors but also with municipalities, municipal unions, and NGOs. It should facilitate and coordinate efforts to deal with the refugee crisis. Since government agencies are too weak to handle this momentous challenge, the government must develop and implement a comprehensive plan in collaboration with local and international actors, and civil society organizations that are specialized in refugee issues and humanitarian intervention.
- Establish a crisis management unit with technical capacities at the municipal union level. The municipal unions (MUs), at the regional level, can act as intermediaries between government, municipalities, local associations, and international organizations to implement the government plan. MUs can respond quicker to local challenges and avoid the bureaucratic and administrative procedures that hinder the government and international organizations. There is a strong need to include them in the conception phase as well as in the implementation phase. Ultimately, they are the actors that have the best knowledge on what is going on in the field.
- Align humanitarian aid with small-scale development effort based on local conditions. A multi-disciplinary technical team at the crisis unit should develop local strategies tailored to the specific needs and local conditions of regions in alignment with the humanitarian effort. Building on the resilience of local communities, there is a need to provide assistance to the Lebanese families who are hosting Syrian refugees. In addition, there is a need to build the capacities of local NGOs in the provision of aid.
- Set up a development fund using the revenues collected by the Ministry of Telecommunication for the municipalities and municipal unions. To address the shortage of funds, the government must distribute the money that has been collected but not distributed to municipalities and municipal unions. It is estimated that there are $1.8 billion in the independent municipality fund. The Syrian refugee crisis ought to trigger serious development in the poorer regions in the country. There should be active expert involvement from the crisis unit in planning developmental projects in line with the central government’s vision.
- Facilitate educational opportunities to the refugees. The Lebanese authorities must facilitate access to schools for all refugees and help them obtain certificates at all levels. Most of the public schools in Lebanon are vacant and have the capacity to take in Syrian refugees. Based on a good example in Saida’s schools, where new sections were opened for Syrian refugees – mixing with Lebanese students in all activities outside classroom hours. The UNRWA has also implemented a good approach, namely extending the academic year to the summer to help the Syrian refugees switch gradually to the Lebanese curriculum in order to help them be prepared for official examinations.
- Develop awareness and information campaigns for the refugee population and host communities. The government should provide support to host communities and refugees through raising awareness. In order to coordinate efforts and facilitate the cooperation between MUs, international organizations and local associations, a communication campaign on refugee reception, refugee rights, and a step-by-step guide to the government’s comprehensive plan covering channels of assistance and hotlines of crisis units should be communicated and promoted through nationwide information campaigns.