Posts Tagged With: Akkar

Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories (by Estella Carpi, August 2015)

Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories. The Syrian Kurdish Exodus and the Lebanese Akkaris.

Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories. The Syrian Kurdish Exodus and the Lebanese Akkaris.

August 20, 2015

Social Science Researcher at TRENDS Research & Advisory

Migrants are definable as people who spontaneously choose to leave their country and build a better life elsewhere. Before their departure, migrants are therefore able to ask for information about their destination and what opportunities they may have there. Moreover, they remain free to go back to their home country whenever needed or desired. The United Nations defines a ‘migrant’ as an individual who has resided in a foreign country for longer than one year regardless of the causes, voluntary or involuntary, and the means, regular or irregular. Nevertheless, at the international level, no universally accepted definition for “migrant” exists.

Conversely, refugees have no other choice but leaving their country because they are persecuted, tortured, being their life somehow jeopardised if they remained in their home country. In specific, Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. In such cases, the very reasons behind refugee influxes are political and human rights, safety and security, rather than individual and collective economic upgrading. People’s departure is mostly unexpected and unplanned due to warfare or natural disaster. Their journey towards the so-called “host-countries” is full of risks, yet in relentless search for protection and safety. In most cases, refugees, unlike migrants, cannot return unless the political and social scenario back home changes in their favour.

If those described above are the de facto and legal defining conditions according to which we are supposed to distinguish a migrant from a refugee, the latest flows of people on the move throughout the Middle East point to a less clear-cut category of mobile populations. In the cases of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, and Lebanon, which will be discussed later, the 1951 Geneva’s Refugee Convention has not been ratified by the governments: thus, until the time individuals seeking refuge do not receive their official status from UNHCR[1] (or UNRWA[2] in the case of Palestinians), they are to be legally considered asylum seekers or forced migrants. Even once they obtain the official documentation, refugees fear repatriation and detention, in that UNHCR and UNRWA simply clinched bilateral agreements with most of the Middle Eastern governments hosting the newcomers, as they are not signatories to the 1951 Convention. This explains the chronic indoor life that many refugees, other than the Palestinians, lead to be able to reside in the Middle East.

Yet, international law’s regulations and the orthodox language of the human rights campaigns seem to create more confusion in addressing changing and blurred mobile groups of people, by engendering a gap between real needs, rights’ achievement, and programs meant to addressing social and political issues on the basis of forced and non-forced migrations. It is how “forced” such migration flows are which increasingly become ungraspable. As mentioned above, international law does not contemplate cases in which people who are not subjected to persecution are eligible for such a legal status. However, it became evident that people, even when not directly persecuted or personally endangered, still find themselves in the condition to have no other choice than leaving, as the Syrian exodus is currently proving. Consequently, speaking of and tackling migrants as a different category from refugees – and vice versa – becomes misleading on a pragmatic and a legal level, rather than ensuring rights and meeting needs appropriately.

For instance, in the first instance, UNHCR did not consider external compelling reasons for migration as mandatory criteria for registering refugees from Syria. In Lebanon, the rash policy of considering anyone coming out of Syria as aprioristically eligible – as potentially subjected to persecution by one of the warring parties – led to a daunting and premature shortage of aid which the humanitarian agencies were supposed to provide, as well as to an unbelievable number of registered refugees (now 1,172,753) until the January 2015 tightening of the new Lebanese immigration laws.

Therefore, to make up for resources’ waste, UNHCR subsequently introduced refugee status cancellation policies in accordance with the Lebanese government when registered families or individuals did not collect their assigned aid packages more than three times in a row. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that Syrian refugees often reported the lack of successful communication between them and aid providers. Many of them therefore found themselves in extreme need of assistance after being cancelled from the UNHCR list. In a nutshell, the random registration of refugees at the outset of the refugee crisis, and the consequent UN compensation policy to make aid suffice for all, have unavoidably been perceived as aggressive policies by the refugees, for whom such measures were standing for the carelessness of the international community.

A further example is provided by the paradox that defining an individual as ‘economic migrant’ rather than ‘refugee’ can mean denying her/him access to the process of applying for asylum. Likewise, those who do not have the status of asylum seeker can legally be returned to their country of origin whenever the latter is considered safe. The distinction inevitably leads legal institutions to introduce a list of countries from which either only asylum seekers or economic migrants can come. For example, countries ridden by longstanding conflict like Syria are viewed as merely producing influxes of refugees and not economic migrants. The complexity and differentiation of the types of mobility that the Syrian political crisis has gradually given birth to goes here unheeded.

It is of use to recall that many Syrians were undergoing political harassment and persecution from the side of state institutions in the 1970s and later, who were therefore fleeing to neighbouring and western countries in the capacity of ‘economic migrants’ rather than ‘political refugees’. The lack of officially declared emergencies, and the unwillingness to deal with the Hafez al-Asad regime at an international level at that time, influenced the definition and the management of Syrian people’s mobility in those years, in a bid to depoliticise or simply undercut the matter for the sake of regional and international stability.

A further suitable example nowadays is offered by the North-Eastern region of Syria, the semi-independent area which is co-ruled in practice by Bashar al-Asad’s regime and the Syrian Kurdish Party PYD (Democratic Union Party), despite the highly controversial relationship that these two political actors have intertwined.

Especially in 2013, two years after the outset of the Syrian uprisings taking place across the whole country, Syrian Kurdistan produced big flows of ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ altogether towards the neighbouring Turkey and Iraq. A large number of those who fled into Iraqi Kurdistan (where over 90% of Syrian refugees are now Syrians Kurds) and Turkey – where segments of their families were already living – should properly be defined as ‘economic migrants’, if the very reasons for their migration were considered. Indeed, the traditional inhabitants of Syrian Kurdistan had long been neglected by the central state’s services, and the regime’s politics of meeting the Kurds’ needs and granting Syrian citizenship to many of them only at the beginnings of the Syrian revolution (April 2011), were primarily aimed at averting a greater turmoil, therefore limiting the use of force to curb the popular protests in these areas. Similarly, the regime’s aviation has never bombed the Kurdish-majority areas since 2011, except for the territories presently held by the so-called Islamic State (mainly al-Hasake’s governorate).

Aside from chronic poverty, hence, longstanding lack of social services, schools, and roads, and the decreasing presence of basic goods, electricity, and clean water during the ongoing conflict, Syrian Kurdistan mostly became a region of spontaneous migration rather than refugehood caused by indiscriminate political persecution and bombing against the local population (i.e. the Hama governorate in central Syria). Nonetheless, the life conditions of the average Kurdish Syrian citizen were dire to the extent at which migrations towards an unknown future and a refugee-camp life in Turkey or Iraq were still considered as a better option.

In sum, the Syrian Kurdistan region, called in Arabic “Rojavà”, has long been neglected by the Syrian central state as well as by international media before the Syrian crisis. The mechanic and aprioristic association of Syrians with refugee influxes in the Middle East and elsewhere, operated from outside, has also induced many Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds living in this region to abandon their homes and look for a better life outside of the country. The use of the refugees’ label and the livelihoods at their disposal – the emergency aid supposedly destined only to the war-stricken – have turned out to be great assets for disadvantaged people desiring to find a job and a higher economic status far away from home.

Likewise, many among the older date Syrian migrants in Lebanon decided to leave their previous life of exploitation and social marginalisation to opt for a more hopeful life in Europe or elsewhere. Their Syrian passports have helped them to pursue their mobility purposes and concretely move towards an economic betterment and a “life of dignity” only in times of regional emergency.

The typical phenomenon of viewing refugee status as opportunity, whenever the international community legally acknowledges an emergency and its political consequences, also appeared in recent times with chronically poor Lebanese citizens, especially from the Akkar region, which is deemed as the poorest in Lebanon. Akkar’s residents started “capitalising” the miserable status of Syrian refugees to comply with their own very needs and legitimate desires of migration. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the drowning of seventeen Akkaris from the village of Fneideq who had bought fake Syrian passports in order to be shipped towards the Australian coasts. After the tragic episode, Akkar’s roads were blocked as a sign of “protest and solidarity, to express our frustration… When will we redeem ourselves from chronic poverty and deprivation?!”.[3]

Neither the status of economic migrant nor that of refugee seems to be able, per se, to redeem diversely needy people, as long as such international labels remain embedded in the increasingly laborious applicability of legal definitions, the way in which the latter discipline the material management of people’s mobility, and the predominant political order which is strategically upheld by these labels.

While law should sort out social issues on the basis of social justice and overall security, its recurrent submission to international politics keeps on labeling departures, resettlements, continuous movements, personal decisions, and human lives at its will. Nothing more ungraspable. Nothing more fruitlessly ambitious.

[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[2] United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

[3] Quotations taken from in-depth interviews undertaken 13 October 2013, in Lebanon.

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Media and Humanitarianism in North Lebanon (April 2013)

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(Picture taken by Estella Carpi in Wadi Khaled, Lebanese-Syrian border, 13th December 2012)

http://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/estella-carpi/alliance-of-media-and-humanitarianism-in-lebanon

The alliance of media and humanitarianism in Lebanon

ESTELLA CARPI 2 April 2013
 

With the growing Syrian refugee crisis, media entrepreneurs seem to care more about protecting the orthodox morality of humanitarianism, with the excuse of preserving social order – as conceived by them – rather than educating the public.

International media, closely connected to humanitarian agencies, often hasten to show North Lebanon’s ‘outstanding’ hospitality of Syrian refugees, arriving in large numbers to flee destruction, scarcity, repression and chronic fear. However, unlike the idyllic scenario humanitarian practitioners usually provide, such hospitality is actually part of a larger picture. At the same time, the media, while providing positive accounts in an alleged bid to pacify further social frictions, paradoxically rely on ethnicised desciptions – in this specific case, Lebanese versus Syrians.

A few months ago, some Lebanese threw stones at humanitarian workers during the distribution of food kits for Syrian refugees in Akkar, the northern most region of Lebanon and host to the majority of Syrian refugees. The episode was considered an outburst of tension by local people themselves with the sudden massive presence of humanitarian organizations in an area of little political interest, often neglected by state and non-state actors. Non-state actors have always been more localized in Beirut and the south of the country, concentrated on the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli occupation and the subsequent aggravated local impoverishment.

The humanitarian agencies operating in that town decided not to let journalists report on the episode at the time. Some published about it instead by contending that local people in North Lebanon would stop ‘hostilities’ and warm up if aid was provided to them too. The main reason behind the omission of the episode would seem to be the preventing further inflammation of tensions between the local community and Syrian refugees.

The humanitarian phenomenon of hospitality however serves the interests of aid providers in showing that they are acting in a responsive and compliant environment. Local hospitality in north Lebanon is often used in the media to express the ‘truly humanitarian essence’ of Northern Lebanese identity – as stated by aid providers politically affiliated to the March 14 coalition, presently allied with the Syrian opposition. Such a politicization of aid was similarly used by March 8 political coalition (that counts among its most important members the Hezbollah and Michel Aoun alliance), during the 2006 war with Israel.

Except for mixed families that host Syrian relatives who have escaped the war, such hospitality very often relies on financial returns through house rents paid in cash by humanitarian organizations to Lebanese landlords, as in the case of Taiba, a Saudi NGO in Halba. Other refugees, unable to access the housing refurbished and provided by agencies, end up paying, at a minimum, 100 USD to Lebanese landlords just to rent a piece of land or receive a tent.

News reports covering the area intentionally disguise these local money circles that renew classic patron-client relationships in Akkar, reflecting its social roots. This is often done in an illusory attempt to protect the moral reputation of north Lebanon’s people. Media coverage thus ties morality to the local material (in)capacity to host and welcome refugees.

Indeed, the role of the media should be to highlight the desperate fight for economic survival in Akkar, whose people have been chronically neglected in the years since the French mandate (1920), the post-National Pact State (1943) and the post-Taef Agreement State (1990). Nowadays, local residents of the northern region must still deal with a twenty-hour power cut every day, lack of drinking water and scarcity of public schools and local hospitals.

Media entrepreneurs seem to care more about protecting the orthodox morality of humanitarianism, with the excuse of preserving social order – as conceived by them – rather than educating the public. On the one hand, it advertises north Lebanese hospitality to maintain the international image of the welcoming Akkaris, as prompted by humanitarian workers; on the other, whenever it decides to distance itself from the humanitarian mainstream, it portrays Akkar’s people as greedy beings getting profit from the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

Humanitarian organizations should realize by now the infeasibility of intervening in an empirically ‘empty space’, ideally void of social frictions, expectations, paybacks, resentment and mutual mistrust. The implementation of humanitarian projects, hence, should take these conditions into consideration. Further research is needed on how failure and success of humanitarian projects can grow within an organization and gradually affect social history, regardless of the good intentions of the working staff.

National and inter-community relations seem to be the only media narratives to explain the social frictions in Akkar. This obsession for categories is unluckily a common trend of international journalists attempting to grasp violence outbursts in the religiously mixed Akkari villages. As a result, individual reasons and disputes, therefore, go totally unseen.

The media directly connected to humanitarian organizations omits the kind of information that we, international philanthropists and middle class locals working in the humanitarian sector, would feel uncomfortable with. Such unpleasant truths might undermine the nature itself of our ‘for-the-sake-of-mankind’ work. All the ‘side effects’ humanitarian work engenders – as it normally occurs in any enterprise – need to be disguised in the name of its survival.

The intellectual effort to explore the historical reasons for the present social frictions to avoid the oversimplified ethnic lens between ‘Syrian-takers’ and ‘Lebanese-givers’ is dangerously left to the public. By adopting arbitrary descriptive terms in the media, such as civil war, sectarianism, terrorism, Islamisation and so forth, and by ‘ethnicising’ the explanation of social facts, we have already created human imaginaries of Lebanese against Syrians and Syrians against Lebanese.

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An ethnographic snapshot from Akkar, North Lebanon (by Estella Carpi – March 2013)

http://www.sirialibano.com/lebanon/una-mattina-in-akkar-cittadini-negletti-tra-realta-e-menzogna.html

Una mattina in Akkar. Cittadini negletti tra realtà e menzogna

10 MARZO 2013

(di Estella Carpi*). Con questo aneddoto, estratto dalla mia ricerca sul campo, vorrei far emergere le strategie discorsive che i cittadini negletti utilizzano in riferimento allo Stato.

Queste strategie, facilmente riscontrabili a livello quotidiano in ogni parte del Libano, mettono inoltre in evidenza come la contradditorietà di ciò che la gente afferma non dia vita facile al ricercatore.

In una delle mie tante mattine in Akkar, scendo dal bus all’altezza di el Bahsa – sulla via di Halba – in prossimità della quale, tra gli spaziosi campi, si son recentemente stanziate le uniche sei famiglie siriane che abitano nella zona. Noto che sul ponticello si è formata una grossa buca nell’asfalto, a causa dello straripare del fiume, dovuto – a sua volta – alle forti piogge degli ultimi giorni. Così mi dicono due ragazzi che tentano invano di superare l’immensa buca in motocicletta.

Il ponticello danneggiato permette di congiungere la strada principale che da Tripoli porta dritta all’Akkar, con la municipalità di el Bahsa e la piccolissima realtà rurale di Hay el Amin, dove vivono in tutto ottanta abitanti.

Hisen, detto Abu Beder, mi vede fotografare l’enorme buca. L’anziano signore fa quindi cenno con la mano di avvicinarmi a lui, ma infine decide di non cancellarmi la fotografia e mi chiede chi sono. Prontamente un altro interviene: “Ma sì, io la conosco. Una straniera che viene qui soltanto per i siriani ogni settimana, non è così?”.

Con quest’affermazione, che in qualche modo mi suona leggermente di denuncia, realizzo amaramente quanto questo mio gesto forse abbia fino ad allora involontariamente contribuito ai tanto vociferati attriti tra la comunità “ospitante” dell’Akkar e gli “innumerevoli” rifugiati siriani, a dispetto del mio intramontabile criticismo riguardo al mercato degli aiuti umanitari.

Abu Beder mi spiega poi il perché della sua premura: “Tengo molto a questo ponticello perché sono stato io a costruirlo nel 2000 dopo numerose richieste allo Stato che non si erano risolte in nulla. Prima che lo costruissi con la colletta di tutti gli abitanti del villaggio, tutti noi dovevamo attraversare il fiume ogniqualvolta avevamo bisogno di raggiungere la strada principale o andare al di fuori del distretto di Morleye Mohlem” (che qui traslittero come pronunciato, con l’accento caratteristico del Libano settentrionale).

Senza questo ponticello, nel paese di Morleye Mohlem, ribattezzato Hay al Amin dallo stesso Abu Beder, gli abitanti non avevano modo di portare le merci, spesso recuperate in Siria e trasportate sulla Dabbusiyye – dal cui confine si è prossimi – al resto delle municipalità circostanti senza dover fare un lunghissimo giro intorno ai campi.

“Questa mattina, come al solito, ho tentato di chiamare il delegato delle opere pubbliche per riparare il buco nell’asfalto. E come, al solito, non mi ha neanche risposto al telefono. Lo riparerò io stesso”, conclude Abu Beder.

Mi allontano dalla sua grande abitazione e riattraverso con cautela il ponticello danneggiato per tornare alla strada principale. “Che ti diceva Abu Beder?”, mi chiedono altri due abitanti del luogo.

Riporto le sue parole e i due reagiscono con una scrollata di spalle e con un sogghigno, come di chi è certo di ciò che sta per essere detto: “Lascialo stare, dice a tutti così; si dà tante arie, ma non è vero niente. Difficile a credersi, ma il ponticello ce lo ha costruito lo Stato!”.

Confusa, mi allontano da Hay al Amin, mentre rabbrividisco al pensiero della sottilissima linea che passa tra la realtà, la menzogna, e la limitatezza della mia interpretazione culturale dell’episodio.

Abu Beder è solo un vecchio magnate di paese, avido di fama locale, illuso di poter spadroneggiare e dominare la verità locale, un portatore della nota retorica dell’assenteismo dello Stato libanese al fine di far eroicamente emergere le proprie qualità di self-made man? Oppure, sono quei due abitanti di Morleye Mohlem a negare piuttosto l’agentività del vecchio signore, poiché stanchi di questi capoccia pseudo-tribali avidi di tutto; e quindi pronti anche a tradire le verità pur di non far trapelare all’esterno uno sconsolante senso di gratitudine nei confronti di Abu Beder, per aver voluto sopperire, con la costruzione del ponticello, ai doveri presunti dello Stato libanese, il quale già dai tempi del mandato francese (1920-1943) abbandonò l’area dell’Akkar in un abietto stato di abbandono?

Lo Stato libanese è assente, debole, corrotto o fallimentare ogni volta che si desideri asserire la propria attiva cittadinanza, all’interno della quale l’individuo ritrova la sua fiducia nel quotidiano grazie alle proprie abilità e intraprendenza.

Lo Stato è tuttavia presente, agognato, inventato, ogni volta che il mancato cittadino attivo ne rivendica la necessità e si ribella alla sopravvivenza di strutture padronal-clientelari nella propria quotidianità. Questi i ruoli di Abu Beder e dei due abitanti in cui mi sono successivamente imbattuta.

In ambedue i casi, la società libanese finisce per plasmare il proprio modus vivendi solo come entità distinta e ostile allo Stato, guardandolo dal fuori, contestandolo cronicamente, non permeandone mai i muri e non avendo la facoltà di cambiarlo con azione efficace, in quanto spesso grida i propri diritti a se stessa.

Il significato che ho desunto da tale aneddoto del controverso ruolo dello Stato, e l’ingente bisogno che quest’ultimo si affermi all’interno del contesto libanese, mi porta a considerare accessoria quella sottile linea tra verità e menzogna che mi vessava inizialmente, e che sembrava “inquinare” ogni mio tentativo di ricerca.

 

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The challenges of humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled

The last two IRIN reports I contributed to, after travelling to Wadi Khaled (Northern Lebanon) in early December 2012. The situation was slightly better than six months before, although many Syrians were sleeping in sheds without any window…and the region is particularly cold in the winter. Medicines for certain diseases were completely absent, according to the complaints of the refugees. 

The first version of the report is the original one, which was significantly different and included a section on Lebanese local authorities allegedly stealing part of the aid for Syrians. This and some other considerations prompted the UNHCR to prevent the first piece from being published, as it was believed it would have harmed aid workers in Lebanon. I believe in transparency and i’m not a UN spokesperson, hence I leave the judgement to you on what’s detrimental for humanitarian aid. 

The second and the third report are the ones published by IRIN.

1. Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled: where Lebanese and Syrians compete to receive humanitarian aid

Syrian_refugees_in_lebanon

10 December 2012- Wadi Khaled (Akkar- Lebanon)

Out of the 133.000 Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon by the UNHCR, 10.862 live in the Wadi Khaled area, a North-Eastern strip of land secluded from the rest of the country by a military checkpoint in Chadra. Access is often a complicated issue to this remote area, where Syrians complained with IRIN about the slowness of sheltering and medical assistance. Some reports from both refugees and NGOs ascribe this also to a lack of transparency in the mediation of local actors, while all humanitarian actors stress the challenges presented by delivering aid in an already impoverished Lebanese context.

Shelters and medicines

In order to address the needs of Syrians, who cannot afford to pay rents, cash has been provided in installations to Lebanese landlords to rehabilitate houses and complete unfinished ones. “The rehabilitation has never been completed, look at that house without windows,” says Mahmud Ghazal, the Lebanese mukhtar of the village of Muqayble, while pointing the finger at a building in front of his residence, “here we have a cold wind penetrating your bones in the winter…How are refugees going to cope with this?” The mukhtar showed IRIN another apartment void of doors, where nylon substituted windows and a family of twelve people from Qusayr (Homs) has been waiting one month and a half without receiving fuel coupons to refill its stoves. “The UNHCR usually sends the first committee to verify the needs, then there’s another one to assess the costs, then a third one…too many committees without any achievement,” complains Mahmud Ghazal. As IRIN visited a school turned into a collective shelter, Syrians were particularly upset, as a result of the numerous fruitless visits they allegedly received from humanitarian workers.

“The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is providing shelter to roughly 800 families1 in Wadi Khaled, but rehabilitations take from four to six weeks,” explains NRC’s program director, Martino Costa, “we’ve been the only organization offering shelter solutions since one month, thus being perceived as THE organization responsible for this, but we do face budget limits.” In consideration of the growing needs, even the UNHCR is currently revising for the fourth time its $84 million fund appeal.

Among the most widespread needs, there is the availability of specialized costless medicines. “He’s one of the two Syrians working out of 100 refugees living in this school,” says Mohammad* from Talkalakh (Homs), after a man in working suit entered the room, “the UNHCR is covering 85% of medical expenses, where do we get the remaining 15% from, if we are unemployed?” While Mohammad sits talking on a carpet, his daughter affected by the Down syndrome wanders with curiosity around the room. “According to Lebanese law, we cannot cover more than 85%, it’s the same percentage covered by the State for the healthcare of Lebanese,” objects UNHCR spokesperson, Dana Suleiman.

“Even Doctors Without Borders told us they lack medicines against thalassemia, asthma and diabetes, therefore people started to collect money to purchase them” says the mukhtar Ghazal. Among the twelve people from Qusayr living in the unfinished house, there is Latifah ‘Akkari*, a lady in her sixties, laying on a mattress in the corridor. “In the six months I’ve been here, I always had to pay on my own for medicines against high blood pressures and rheumatisms,” Latifah told IRIN.  The only drug she claims to have received is a box of Isodol, the Spanish trade name for nimesulide, an anti-inflammatory drug actually used for the symptomatic treatment of arthritis, but useless against blood pressure. In the school converted into a collective shelter, a woman from Talkalakh complained about the daughter being given a medicine not suitable for her age to treat an infection.  “We have doctors, what is needed is a dispensary with all the necessary medicines,” concludes Mahmud Ghazal.

“We do cover chronic primary diseases like diabetes, but not those requiring hospitalization,” explains the UNHCR spokesperson, Dana Suleiman, “Wadi Khaled is a remote area, some of the refugees cannot even commute to an area where medicines are available, but our mobile medical units are a response to this.”

In general, NGO workers reply by belittling some of the complaints of refugees. “In the end refuges complain about everything,” says NRC’s Martino Costa, “for example, we brought them food in the Biqaa valley and they asked TVs and refrigerators!” In late October, when IRIN visited the Biqaa village of ‘Arsal, the Syrian refugees stressed the need to receive support for rent expenses. “They’re lying to receive more money, the Norwegian Refugee Council is actually covering their rents,” Amel Association’s coordinator, Maraay Flity, told IRIN, after having listened to the complaints in a collective shelter. NRC is indeed working in ‘Arsal through its sheltering programs based on rehabilitation.

Access to Wadi Khaled and transparency of local actors

Having said this, the discontinuous access to Wadi Khaled due to security reasons is recognized as an obstacle in speeding up humanitarian aid.  “The army is one of the main obstacles, we haven’t been able to access Wadi Khaled for almost three weeks between September and October,” remembers Martino Costa, “as we work through installments, Lebanese landlords ended up threatening us, for the delays we faced in settling debts with those who paid in advance.” Access was also restricted over the last weeks, as the Syrian army shelled bordering areas on the 27th of November. During IRIN’s visit, mortar shots were clearly audible on the Syrian side and the Lebanese military intelligence cautioned against circulating after the sunset, due to frequent gunfire.

The Norwegian Refugee Council voiced its suspects on the transparency of the Lebanese intermediaries. “The Qataris put lots of money in the hands of local people in Wadi Khaled, maybe their relatives, but not the Syrians,” adds Martino Costa. Some of the refugees proved equally skeptical of the role played by local intermediaries. “Humanitarian aid is delivered to the Lebanese responsible of the protection of a number of families [N/A: the so-called mahsubin],” affirms Hassan Bayut, a 40-year-old Syrian from Bab ‘Amro (Homs), who arrived one year and a half ago, “I’m not blaming Mahmud Ghazal, but many other mukhtars are stealing!” It should be taken in consideration that, in Wadi Khaled, the mukhtars are in charge of communicating the names of those in need of UNHCR mobile registration, as they crossed the border illegally and they cannot travel outside the valley.

Nevertheless, UNHCR rejects the idea of local corruption being a relevant problem. “The system became more efficient, after initial reports of corruption,” says UNHCR’s Dana Suleiman, “we distributed something through mukhtars, as some of them opened their houses to refugees, but now each registered family must pick up personally the kits.”

A poor hosting community

The main obstacle in delivering aid seems to remain the impoverished conditions of the Lebanese hosting community.

“The initial reaction of the Lebanese community was different, they were even picking up Syrians from the border, but 20 months have passed since then,” says Dana Suleiman, “we prefer to sign contracts with local shops and distribute food coupons among the refugees to benefit also the Lebanese community.”

Some locals tried to exploit the situation at their advantage. “Some Lebanese landlords attracted Syrians into their houses to have them rehabilitated by us,” says NRC’s country director Mads Almass, “when they got told that their houses didn’t meet our criteria, we received threats to expose us to the media.”

The unique feature of Wadi Khaled in the Lebanese context is that those Syrians who entered illegally cannot live the valley, due to the military checkpoint in Chadra. Such a restriction on freedom of movement has prevented Syrians from finding jobs outside this impoverished area. “There’s no job here and I cannot leave,” complains Hassan Bayut from Bab ‘Amro, “I came here without any documents and I’m wanted in Syria: if I reach the checkpoint they’ll send me back to my country.”

Rather than creating job opportunities for Syrians and fostering resentment in the poor hosting community, the UNHCR is working to normalize the legal status of people like Hassan. “Legalizing the status of those who crossed the border illegally would serve the purpose of helping Syrians to find a job,” says Dana Suleiman, “we already had a positive response from the Lebanese General Security: Syrians are not required to renew their residency permit at the border anymore and the $200 renewal fee has been officially waived.”

As refugees keep flooding Wadi Khaled, the challenge of the coming months will be to keep the balance between Syrian and Lebanese beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. “There are also untraditional actors, let’s call them like this, who come into Lebanon without any control with either in kind distribution or cash coming from people in the Gulf,” says NRC’s Mads Almass, “their assistance is getting to Syrians rather than Lebanese and this creates differences.”

1 The average is of five persons per family.

*The interviewee didn’t wish to reveal his/her real name.

2. UN: To avoid tensions with refugees, Lebanese hosts need support

28 January 2013 (IRIN) – Donors channelling funds towards Syrian refugees in Lebanon must also assist their poor Lebanese hosts to diffuse rising tensions, aid workers and a government official said ahead of an international pledging conference for humanitarian aid to Syria and its neighbours.“We have seen a growing sense of resentment among the Lebanese host communities that see assistance going to refugees and not to them,” Robert Watkins, humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon, told IRIN. “It is causing some tensions.”Most of the more than 220,000 Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon have settled in the poorest parts of the country, in districts like Akkar in the north and Ba’albek or Hermel in the eastern Beka’a Valley.The North Governorate is home to 20 percent of Lebanon’s population but 40 percent of its poor, with more than half the people living under US$4 a day, according to a 2005 study.

Despite their poverty, people of the north have been undeniably welcoming to refugees, taking them into their homes for months and covering their food, water and electricity needs, aid workers said.

Nearly two years later, more than 60 percent of the refugees are now renting their own homes. But their presence – in some 550 villages across the country – has depleted government-provided supplies in pharmacies, increased competition for jobs, raised the price of housing, and, in some cases, more than doubled the population of the town or village.

“Changing winds of opinion”

“We are reaching the point of suffocation for Lebanon,” said Hala El Helou, emergency coordinator at the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, which is responsible for helping the refugees.

“There have been many reports by the security forces of an increased number of security incidents that include Syrians,” both as aggressors and as victims, she told IRIN, pointing to killings, beatings and thefts. Reports of forced prostitution, early marriage and child begging have also increased, she said. “It’s a reflection of the social and economic situation.”

One of the early incidents was the October launching of a Molotov cocktail into a municipal building hosting refugee families in a village in Akka’rs Wadi Khaled area. No one was injured.

“It was simply a sign of the changing winds of opinion whereby the period of unrestricted hospitality and generosity was beginning to change,” said one aid worker who preferred anonymity.

In a more recent incident this month, explosives blew off the roof of a house sheltering refugee families near the town of Aidamoun, also in Akkar.

Sahar Atrache, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Lebanon, said Syrians are now taking an unfair share of the blame for all the ills in society: “Whenever you have a robbery, a rape, it’s because of the Syrians, as if Lebanese don’t do these things.”

“The initial reaction of the Lebanese community was different,” explained Dana Sleiman, spokesperson of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon. “They were even picking up Syrians from the border. But 20 months have passed since then.” 

Implications for aid

This tension has also had implications for aid workers.

One Western researcher said locals near Qobayat Village in Akkar initially “welcomed” aid workers there with stones, a sign of the indignation at the aid delivered only to Syrians in a region historically neglected by the Lebanese government.

Some locals have also tried to exploit the situation to their advantage.

“Some Lebanese landlords attracted Syrians into their houses to have them [the houses] rehabilitated,” said Mads Almass, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which gives landlords funding to make their homes more fit to shelter refugees. “When they got told that their houses didn’t meet our criteria, we received threats to expose us to the media.”

Watkins said the aid community has seen this shift in the feeling of host communities and tried to design programmes accordingly, focusing on improving the overall conditions and services in these areas to benefit both refugees and their hosts. These include programmes that would buy drugs to replenish pharmacies, inject cash into the economy by offering cash-for-work projects for Lebanese people, and provide credit to help small businesses start up.

“But these [kinds of programmes] are, unfortunately, very difficult to find donors attracted to,” Watkins said.

“Conceptually, [donors] understand how important that is,” he continued, “but if they are told they have a limited amount of resources and they will choose between injecting cash into the Lebanese economy to help the Lebanese population or injecting cash into a relief operation which is providing food and shelter to refugees who are bereft of both, they generally opt for the latter.

“But there are tensions, and those tensions will only get worse.”

Donor interest?

An international conference to take place on 30 January in Kuwait aims to garner funding for aid projects inside Syria and in neighbouring countrieshosting nearly 700,000 registered refugees. The appeals amount to more than $1.5 billion, but donors have given less than $50 million since they were launched in December.

UNHCR has implemented so-called quick-impact projects – such as equipping mosque halls, opening a public library, and supporting agricultural co-operatives – after holding sessions with Lebanese communities at which residents expressed their village’s needs as they saw them.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has also done similar projects in Wadi Khaled and in the Beka’a Valley’s Arsal town, both home to many refugees. Country Director Luca Renda said he hopes to expand these kinds of programmes across the country and is in contact with many donors on this issue: “We hope the Kuwait meeting will yield results,” he told IRIN.

The Regional Response Plan, spearheaded by UNHCR, includes projects supporting host communities, as does the Lebanese government’s separate appeal for $180 million, which was launched in December and is currently being revised in line with the constantly growing refugee numbers.

Observers say the government’s capacity to deal with the mounting refugee crisis is limited, given the economic problems the country is facing and its polarized politics. Lebanon is the only neighbouring country in which refugees are not housed in camps, but rather are living in towns and cities with the support of local people.

The Minister of Social Affairs, Wael Aboufaour, recently told the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star that camps may soon be the only solution.

One quarter of population

El Helou said there were 811,000 Syrians in Lebanon – including refugees, migrants and visitors. Added to a Palestinian refugee population of at least 450,000, the foreign “guests” are equivalent to a quarter of the Lebanese population. The UN expects the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, already equivalent to five percent of the population, to increase to at least 300,000 by June.

“Without additional support, Lebanon cannot handle that,” El Helou said. “Lebanon has reached the limit.”

At all levels, observers say, the government has become consumed by the Syrian crisis and its impact on Lebanese soil.

As a result of upheaval in the region, the Lebanese government has downgraded economic growth estimates for 2013 from 4 percent to 1.5 to 2 percent, Sami El-Daher, adviser to the prime minister on economic affairs and development, told IRIN. The crisis has hit Lebanon’s exports through Syria, border trade with Syria and tourism industry.

Aid agencies have already tried to tailor their programmes accordingly. Instead of distributing food, for example, the World Food Programme (WFP) gives refugees vouchers to redeem food at local shops with which it has signed contracts. Instead of creating jobs for Syrians specifically, UNHCR is trying to regularize the status of those refugees who entered illegally to make it easier for them to move around freely and access the common job market. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is rehabilitating schools in which both Syrian and Lebanese students study in an effort to ensure that its emergency work for Syrian refugees feeds into long-term development of the region.

ag/ha/rz

3. Lack of funds hits refugee health care in Lebanon

BEIRUT, 8 February 2013 (IRIN) – The Lebanese government and UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) say they are trying to scale up their assistance to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees but are hampered by a lack of funds.

On 7 February Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released a report, entitled Misery Beyond the War Zone, which painted an alarming picture of the living and health conditions of refugees in Lebanon and called on both the UN and the government to increase registration and aid.

In December, MSF surveyed 2,100 refugees in three areas of Lebanon and found more than half of those interviewed, whether they were officially registered or not, were housed in substandard structures and could not afford medical care, with nearly one-third of them having suspended treatment already under way because it was too expensive.

“Something has to be done. We can’t accept that someone who is fleeing a war has to negotiate with NGOs to get medical assistance,” Fabio Forgione, head of mission for MSF Lebanon, told IRIN.

Aid agencies in Lebanon are facing growing difficulty keeping up with worsening conditions, as the number of refugees increases and the financial situation of those already present degrades.

There are 163,036 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Lebanon, another 74,587 awaiting registration, and a further 50,000 unregistered refugees, according to MSF estimates, though others have given much higher figures.

In November, IRIN visited dusty Muqayble village in the remote Wadi Khaled area of northeastern Lebanon. One of the most widespread needs refugees expressed was medicine. UNHCR covers 85 percent of medical expenses, in line with the Lebanese government’s coverage for its own citizens. But so high is the need, that for some, even this is not enough.

“Where do we get the remaining 15 percent, if we are unemployed?” asked Mohammad*, a refugee from Homs. He lived in a school sheltering 100 refugees. Only two of them had work.

In one of the unfinished homes nearby, Latifah*, in her sixties, lay on a mattress in the corridor. She suffered from high blood pressure and rheumatism, but said she has received nothing but an anti-inflammatory drug in the six months she had been there. Instead, refugees and host communities had been collecting money among themselves to pay for medical expenses.

Problem with the registration system?

According to the MSF report, the most vulnerable refugees are the ones who are not registered with UNHCR. While some NGOs do specifically target unregistered refugees with assistance, 63 percent of the unregistered refugees interviewed by MSF said they had not received any assistance.

“There is a lack in the organization and the delay to be registered is too long,” Forgione said. “In the meantime, the unregistered refugees don’t get sufficient assistance.”

MSF, which will increase its own activities in Lebanon, called on the Lebanese government and UNHCR to scale up their registration system, set up transit sites for new refugees, and help unregistered refugees.

Ninette Kalley, UNHCR representative in Lebanon, acknowledged the delays but said the organization is constantly scaling up. It has increased staffing levels from around 60 at the start of the crisis to more than 250 today.

“We have double shifts in some of our centres. New registration centres will be opened in Beka’a and Tyre this month. We are also working to increase registration capacity in Beirut, where waiting periods are longest,” she told IRIN.

In January, UNHCR registered 38,000 refugees, compared with 24,000 in December.

“We have agreements with several NGOs to help any refugee, even the unregistered ones and we’re expanding these partnerships,” she added.

UNHCR said it is working with the Lebanese government to identify transit sites, focused around Beka’a and the north of Lebanon. This would allow for identification of vulnerable persons in the unregistered population, and rapid assistance in a situation of increased influx.

Urgent need for new funds

Nevertheless, UNHCR and its partners in Lebanon have received less than 15 percent of the funding needed for aid work until June, as part of the Regional Response Plan for Syrian refugees.

“This necessitates the prioritization of activities,” Kalley said. “The first priority is saving lives. From this point, there are competing priorities for shelter, food, health care, cash assistance.”

On 30 January, donors pledged more than $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and those in need inside Syria, but aid agencies are worried nonetheless.

“We don’t know when the money promised will be sent. The situation cannot wait,” Forgione, of MSF, said.

To face this emergency situation, the Lebanese government announced in December a plan – now updated to seek $370 million – to be able to help refugees.

“Lebanon is now sounding the alarm,” Lebanese President Michel Sleiman told donors in Kuwait.

Last week, Hala El Helou, emergency coordinator at the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, told IRIN the government had only received a few in-kind donations from Saudi Arabia, Iran and China, some financial contributions from the UN to do capacity-building, as well as $700,000 from Norway, and around a $1 million grant to be channelled through the World Bank.

“We’ve had some pledges and we’ve had some promises. Very few have so far provided us with actual funds,” she said.

The government had received no contributions for the health sector of its plan, “which is one of our most crucial at this point…

“We have a huge lack of medication at the centres of the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Public Health. The medication we have is barely enough for the Lebanese,” she said.

According to UNHCR, the number of refugees fleeing Syria to neighbouring countries could top one million by June 2013.

*not a real name

ag/ar/ha/cb

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