Syrian Refugee Crisis: life inside Lebanon

Ninette Kelley, UNHCR's representative in Lebanon, on what it means to be living as a Syrian refugee there.
By: /
December 17, 2014

This week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in coordination with dozens of government ministries and NGOs, launched a Lebanon Crisis Response Plan for 2015-2016; a plan detailing the services and funding needed to support the small country that has taken in more Syrian refugees, proportional to its size, than any other country in the world. And it has done so nearly overnight. Syrian refugees now make up one quarter of the population.

As head of the UNHCR in Lebanon, Canadian Ninette Kelley leads the operations on the ground. On the phone from Lebanon this week, she tells OpenCanada that Syrians no longer speak of a future back at home, as they once did. “Right now it’s basically a race for survival,” she says, with a hint of desperation in her voice. “I cannot convey to you the desolation that you witness every day.”

In this interview, she explains what it means to be living as a refugee in Lebanon, the severe strain it has had on the country, and what the international community, including Canada, can do better. “[Do not] forget these people who rely on international support in order to survive. They are going to be the ones that need to rebuild Syria when the war is over so we have to invest in them,” she says.

How has the situation changed since you started working in Lebanon?

I moved to Lebanon in 2010. At that time we were a small office of 65 staff, with a refugee population of just 9,000 and a very small budget. Today we’re the largest [UNHCR] operation in the world. We have over a million refugees, five offices throughout the country and considerable challenges.

What does that means on the ground, especially since the crisis began around 2012?

In 2011, we were receiving refugees but they were mostly 5,000 to 10,000 at the end of that year. It was still very small. There was a sense at that time that these people were here temporarily; that they would move home very quickly; that the conflict in Syria would be resolved.

In December, 2012, by then we had a 139,000 refugees. So it was really in 2013 to 2014 when the refugee numbers started to explode. We received almost a half a million refugees in each of those years. In the last two years, up until September, we were registering 10,000 refugees every single week. And to give you a sense of that, that’s the equivalent of the number of asylum seekers that come to Canada every year. Lebanon is one-third the size of Vancouver Island.


Can you paint a picture of the border crossings where refugees are coming through, and where they are going?

You have a very small country with just about 4.4 million people. Most refugees come across on the Eastern border; they come through the country regularly. They have moved into towns and villages across the country. In some towns there are more refugees than there are Lebanese. There are 1700 localities where refugees live. And the longer the crisis goes on, the deeper their vulnerability and the poverty of their circumstances.

Most refugees who come now have been displaced more than once inside Syria. Their lives have really been ripped apart. They’ve lost family members, their homes, their livelihoods. They’ve had to run from one place to another inside Syria, coming to Lebanon was really a desperate act. The refugees that have been here for some years have really exhausted all their savings; most refugees rent accommodation. In March, we did a survey that showed that most refugees were living in apartments often overcrowded with several families and very basic. With some 30 percent that were in very vulnerable accommodations such as tents, warehouses, unfinished buildings, animal sheds. Today, that’s closer to 50 percent.

So the needs are really staggering. We have 400,000 refugee children, which exceeds the number of Lebanese children who are in the public school system. Most Lebanese children go to private schools, about 30 percent go to the public system, but now there are Syrian children in need of an education and they simply cannot be accommodated. We are able to get maybe one third of the Syrian children into formal schools which means two-thirds of the kids here are denied an education. We try to scramble to find alternatives for them. It’s a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.

If most are going into cities and towns as opposed to big camps, what does that mean for UNHCR’s logistical challenges in providing services?

They are eased some what by the fact that Lebanon is a small country so uniquely we and our partners are able to reach refugees in all locations. That is often not the case when you are in a country that has vast terrain. Having said that, it is a challenge, it can take hours to get one from one village to another and having people spread out does make provision of assistance somewhat difficult.

At the same time there’s another unique aspect of this program and that is we have tried to deliver a lot of services through public institutions and public services which means that humanitarian money can also go to strengthen the provision of those services. Lebanon’s public services and infrastructure were very fragile before the Syrian crisis but now it is even more strained because of the Syrian crisis. The country has experienced severe economic shocks, plus one quarter of their population now are refugees, so we need to do a lot more to provide support to public institutions and also local communities.

Last year the international community invested $93 million into projects at the local level — water reservoirs, electricity, generators, sanitation systems— but it’s a fraction of what is needed. So it’s a country that is really staggering and it needs a lot more international support and a lot more visibility.

What they have done here is extraordinary. I mean, you’re sitting in Canada; just image what the response would be if Canada received an influx of several hundred let alone over a million refugees in a country that’s just twice the size of PEI [Prince Edward Island].

Is the appeal to both foreign governments and private aid?

Mostly we are supported through international governments; bilateral support to respond to humanitarian need. But we’ve just launched another Lebanon Crisis Response Plan which is trying to cast the net wider and draw more development support so that we can help to stabilize this country; help it withstand the great crisis and the great pressure that its under.

Can you elaborate on ‘development support’?

Support to the ministry of education, for example; trying to accommodate Syrian children into their schools. We’re also seeing services for Lebanese deteriorate given the demands on the public purse. The same would be true for healthcare. There is a lot that could be done to invest in healthcare systems here in Lebanon that would benefit not only refugees but also Lebanese poor — is a subset of the population which is growing due to the crisis. Water and waste infrastructure here is very, very weak, only eight percent of sewage water is treated. Now you add 25 percent to your population, you can imagine it becomes even a greater disaster.

There’s all sorts of measures that are deserving of more support and what we’re trying to tell the world is please don’t forget this small country — certainly I’ve never seen anything like it in my life — a country that has done more proportion to its size… There simply is no country in the world that has many refugees as portion to its size than Lebanon.

To be clear, Lebanon has become less accommodating in terms of how many refugees it is letting in?

The government instituted a policy which had three components: the reduction in refugee numbers; the strengthening of security and communities; and as well as [providing] more support for Lebanon. One of the measures they took from that is to put greater controls at borders, so what we have seen is the number of refugees coming into Lebanon, at least the number of registrations, has declined by 75 percent in the last two months.

So does that mean just more IDPs in Syria?

This has been a feature of government policy in the region for some time; Lebanon did it much later than other countries. It means that many Syrians who seek to flee Syria are unable to find a safe point of entry. And you’re seeing the number of people displaced internally in Syria is now 7.5 million. Half the population is in need of humanitarian assistance. Which is also speaks to the fact that without a solution inside Syria these numbers will continue to grow.

What is the status of the World Food Programme in Lebanon right now, which was suspended due to lack of funds?

They got emergency funding which enables them to continue through December and, in this appeal that we’ve just launched, they are appealing for more funds so that they can sustain their program in the New Year.

Just how crucial is that program?

Extremely. They provide food support to 900,000 persons here in Lebanon. Seventy-two percent of refugees need assistance in order to meet their daily food needs so without that, that has implications at every level of their lives — the most basic self sufficiency but also there are security implications. It’s grave.

You have worked with refugee organizations for quite a while, including Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board. Have you been closely watching Canada’s response to this crisis in particular?

Canada’s been very generous in this response. In fact it’s a very generous donor to UNHCR globally; I think it’s in our top 10 donors to UNHCR. Its contributions are generally unrestricted in that it allows us to put the money where the needs are most. It’s also been very supportive of the Syrian response. I know in 2013 that the Canadian contribution was $22 million and just somewhat less than that in 2014. So in terms of humanitarian assistance the Canadian government has been very much up there with other donors in providing assistance.

At the same time, its also provided places for people to be resettled. And Canada as a resettlement country is one of the more flexible countries in so far as it does respond to cases of urgent need and relatively quickly so all of that is something that we very much value.

Now we have come out with an appeal to increase resettlement quotas — countries that are traditional resettlement countries but also to ask non-traditional countries to come forward. We set the target at 130,000 places by 2016 right now I think were on track to meet 100,000, which is a very positive development. But we are advocating loudly for greater resettlement places as well as relaxed visa restrictions and to provide for family reunification, educational opportunities, that sort of thing.

Canada pledged to resettle 1300 by the end of 2014, however it has been reported that only some 450 have been resettled and only part of that number was through government sponsorship. Would you then say Canada is doing its part in terms of the number of resettlements? Could it do more?

We ask all countries to do more in terms of resettlement. One thing to keep in mind is that resettlement is a lengthy process so we would submit several thousand submissions every year but the actual departure of people often don’t happen until the next year, so there’s often a delay; you can’t match number for number. But in terms of how Canada measures in respect to others countries, I can’t speak to that, that’s more for our global resettlement program. But I can say that our advocacy is pretty clear: we’re asking countries around the world to do more.

What do you expect for 2015 when, if anything, the crisis seemed to have worsened in 2014, would you agree?

I would say so, yes. What I expect to see is significantly more hardship, more desperation, more lives that are shattered. More futures destroyed. I cannot convey to you the desolation that you witness every day. It’s really sad and it’s something that we’d like the world to know more about, in order to animate more successful solutions to the Syrian crisis.

It must take a toll to see such a drastic change in such a short period of time.

It’s what you see, in terms of the lives of the people you are trying to help. Today I met with a family where three of the children have a genetic bone disorder. They were getting treatment inside Syria but it has completely stopped since they had to flee. Their dad was taken was taken prisoner for a year and two months. The family didn’t know where he was.

It’s just these stories, these endless stories, of great heartbreak and tragedy.

And here are children still not in school because the places are not enough to accommodate everybody. So it really cries for creative approaches for how we provide humanitarian assistance but also to try to encourage the world not to forget this area and not to forget these people who rely on international support in order to survive. And they are going to be the ones that need to rebuild Syria when the war is over so we have to invest in them.