International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Q&A: Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Recently I sat down with the International Rescue Committee’s country director for Lebanon, Bryce Perry. Bryce has been in Beirut since the IRC opened its country office there last fall, as Syrian refugee numbers began to climb. There are estimates that close to a half million Syrian refugees are currently in Lebanon, and the influx continues daily. The IRC is now providing thousands of vulnerable Syrians with economic support. We are also working with women and girls at four women’s centers we’ve opened since November of last year.
Q: How would you characterize the level of need here? Given one in eight people in this country is a Syrian refugee?  
A: The scale of the crisis is enormous. The number of registered refugees is forecasted to reach over a million by the end of this year, and that is not counting those who were already in the country before the crisis started or may be unwilling or unable to register with UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency). The scale of the crisis has fast outstripped the response capacity of the humanitarian community. You also have Lebanese host communities that are stretched beyond capacity. Refugees have typically settled in communities that are among the poorest here. As a result, you have vulnerable host communities made more vulnerable by the refugee influx. Competition for jobs has increased dramatically leading to wage deflation; the cost of rent and basic goods has gone up given the soaring demand.

Q: This is a particularly difficult environment in which to work given that there are no camps here. The refugee population consists entirely of urban refugees, which means they are spread out over a broad area. How do you approach that?

A: Refugees are spread over more than 1,000 localities in Lebanon, making it exceedingly difficult to ensure we can get to those in the most need.  Aid agencies like the IRC are stretched thin trying to ensure solid coverage. The overall effort requires a great deal of coordination at all levels. While freedom of movement and dignity that are associated with a non-camp setting are certainly positive, the challenges of this urban refugee response are immense and require a great deal of resources.

Q: You mentioned that Lebanese host communities have also been impacted the influx of refugees. We support them too. Why is it essential that the IRC does so?  

A: It’s hugely important to help both communities, not only from a humanitarian perspective, but also as means to mitigate escalating tension between refugees and host communities.  As I mentioned before, vulnerable Lebanese have been made more vulnerable as a result of the crisis. By providing assistance to both communities, we not only help those in the most need, we also help to reduce tensions.

Q: The subject of refugee camps is a sensitive one for Lebanon. Why is that?

A: The main reason is that refugee camps have a sensitive history here.  Many Lebanese associate them with the Palestinians’ camps that have been around for decades. Segments of society fear that building camps could lead to a permanent settlement of Syrians. Practically speaking, the scale of the crisis has increased exponentially since last fall.  At the beginning of the crisis, refugees had access to shelter with host families, in rented buildings and apartments; now the demand for shelter has outstripped the supply. I see informal tented settlements springing up everywhere I travel here--and the conditions are absolutely deplorable.  Whether desired or not, we are all being forced to look more seriously at the camp option.

Q: We’re working in two areas now: women’s protection and empowerment, and economic recovery and development. Is it likely we’ll be expanding into other aid sectors in the coming months?

A: There is definitely room for expansion now that we have an operational foundation on which to build. I think complementary programming to what we already provide is the most likely. For instance, we are looking at a child protection and education component. And in terms of the economic recovery and development program, we’ve been primarily involved in cash assistance, but as we recognize the protracted nature of this crisis we are looking at more livelihood promotion opportunities. Beyond those sectors, reproductive health and protection are areas we’ll be looking at given the immense needs that have been identified in those sectors. We have an obligation to scale up as much as we can, given the enormous needs.

Q: This conflict has dragged on for more than two years and shows no sign of winding down. Are organizations like the IRC prepared for what happens next in Syria?

A: Most people appear to agree that even if there is a political transition in Syria, it’s unlikely the conditions on the ground will allow for a massive return of refugees. I think the reality is that as much as refugees may want to go back, concerns about longer-term sectarian conflict, not to mention that the country’s infrastructure is essentially destroyed, will make return difficult. So I think we are all planning for a protracted refugee crisis and will need to look at what that means for Lebanese society as well. The outlook is pretty grim. It means we all need to redouble our efforts, and provide more resources and attention to it.   

Syria Crisis Response

Map and photos: How the support of IRC donors is translating into lifesaving assistance both within Syria and in neighboring countries

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