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Lebanon: Syrian refugee influx causes immense challenges

22-08-2013 Interview

At the end of his tenure as head of the ICRC's operations in Lebanon, Jürg Montani describes how the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring Syria has sparked a humanitarian crisis that shows no sign of easing.

How many refugees from Syria are there in Lebanon today and how are you assisting them?

Today, there are at least 700,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon according to UNHCR and more than one million according to the government, not to mention over 60,000 Palestinian refugees who have also fled the violence in Syria. That’s a far cry from the spring of 2011, when I first arrived in Lebanon. The Syrian uprising had started just a few months earlier and the number of refugees did not exceed a few thousand. The Middle East was in turmoil, but Lebanon was basically unaffected.

One priority for us has been to make sure Syrian war casualties receive treatment in hospitals in the Bekaa area. We coordinate our efforts closely with our main partner, the Lebanese Red Cross, which is doing a great job transferring patients to the hospitals. The number of wounded patients for whom the ICRC has covered the cost of treatment has risen dramatically in 2013, which gives you a glimpse into how the violence in Syria has escalated. We are now at 700 cases while in 2012, we had 600 and in 2011 around 120.

The Lebanese authorities, UNHCR, UNRWA and others bear primary responsibility for helping the refugees. Given the scale of the crisis, however, we have stepped in when gaps were revealed in the primary response. For example, we have provided food and other items for the refugees, who often arrive exhausted and with few if any belongings. In addition, our water engineers are working with the municipalities to increase the availability of water so as to keep up with increasing demand.

By some accounts, the Syrian crisis is one of the most tragic in modern history. How do you describe the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon in general?

The first to arrive were taken in by their friends and relatives, and many still are. But with their numbers growing, and their displacement lasting longer, their living conditions have become increasingly difficult. Some communities are running out of public buildings and space to host refugees decently. We have seen improvised tented settlements spring up across the country. In urban settings you can see refugee families sleeping in the open air, under bridges. The situation is becoming more difficult, and will be even more so in winter. In addition, opportunities for refugees to earn an income are very limited. The refugees often compete directly with equally needy Lebanese in the labour market. This in turn creates tensions. Humanitarian assistance covers basic needs, but much remains to be done in terms of education and health care.

And let's not forget the social and economic pressures affecting the host communities, or the fact that many Lebanese feel, or in fact are, as much in need of help as some of the refugees.

Are you expecting more refugees in Lebanon? Will the country be able to cope with an additional influx?

I think that this is a very challenging time for the country and for humanitarian organizations. I choose to be optimistic. I want to believe that Lebanon will be able to stay out of the Syrian crisis, although some recent events show that Lebanon will be tested more and more. It is difficult to imagine how Lebanon would deal with more refugees coming in. But then again, it was almost impossible a year ago to imagine that Lebanon would be able to deal with anywhere near the numbers we see today. But it did. And it keeps surprising us. I believe, however, that for this to continue, Lebanon will have to find new ways of dealing with the impact of the refugee influx, and that the country will need support. Financially of course, but also political support and solidarity. The ICRC delegation in Beirut will continue to provide support, but the government and the UN agencies bear the primary responsibility for dealing with these problems.

What other activities, not linked to the problems of refugees, have you carried out in Lebanon?

We dedicate much of our time to helping the families of the thousands of people who went missing in Lebanon since the beginning of the civil war in 1975. In the last two years the ICRC has been able to thoroughly assess the specific needs of these families and we will work with the authorities and civil society to address them. We have also started to collect detailed information on every single missing person, and will soon start collecting DNA samples of their families . All this is to prepare for the answer the families most long for, an answer to the question "where is my loved one?" The day the Lebanese authorities are ready to take this step, we want to make sure everything is ready.

We also visit all places of detention in Lebanon under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Defence. We monitor conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees, and propose and discuss very pragmatic ways of making improvements. An ICRC initiative on the problem of access to health care in places of detention, for example, has resulted in the authorities concerned regularly sitting together and working on solutions. And it works. Overall, the ICRC receives good support from the Lebanese authorities for all of its activities.

In terms of our support to the Lebanese Red Cross, and in addition to the joint operation we have with them related to the transfer and treatment of wounded Syrian crossing into Lebanon, we as well maintain our financial and technical support with the purpose of strengthening the National Society's emergency services.



Jürg Montani, head of the ICRC's operations in Lebanon.