SIDON, Lebanon: Hundreds of Syrian refugees line up under the burning August sun at the outer entrance of Rafik Hariri Sport City, hoping for a food coupon to buy groceries. As they stand in the sweltering heat to collect the tickets being distributed by the World Food Program through local partner NGOs, they grapple with what they say is mistreatment and the perception that they have become beggars.
Distribution staff yell at refugees standing in line, and threaten to stop the handouts if they misbehave or irritate the program employees. Another aid worker asks journalists not to take photographs of the refugees standing in line, citing their “personal liberty.”
Worse, a lack of finances and the large influx of refugees have strained the resources of U.N. agencies. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees will begin limiting in September the distribution of food coupons, hygiene packs and children’s kits to the neediest of refugees.
WFP spokesperson in Lebanon Laure Chedrawi – who explained that WFP operates and distributes its food coupons to refugees through a network of local implementing partners – told The Daily Star that incidents of abuse toward refugees are taken “very seriously and would be followed up on” if valid evidence was provided.
“WFP appreciates the work of their local partners who are operating on the front lines and dealing with a crisis sometimes beyond our reach [as WFP],” Chedrawi said, adding that the WFP carries out regular monitoring to avoid instances of misconduct.
Lebanon is home to over 1.2 million refugees fleeing the violence in neighboring Syria, where over 100,000 people have died in fighting between rebels and regime forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, in a conflict that is now in its third year with no prospect of a resolution.
“We are all in dire need for assistance,” Malak al-Kurdi said. “They want us to go hungry.”
Another refugee is more explicit in her condemnation of the circumstances now facing displaced Syrians.
“God curse war and curse those who made us flee,” said Umm Bilal. “We were masters in our land and today we extend our hands like beggars to get a meal.”
Her frustration is typical of refugees who feel humiliated by the prospect of receiving handouts, even in hardship.
Others try to relieve, even momentarily, their brethren’s suffering.
Aboul Nour Noureddine, a freshman university student of Arabic literature, fled the city of Hama nine months ago. His flight from Syria to Lebanon transformed him into a lemonade seller. As he walks through the lines of refugees, he pours cold lemonade from a large copper pitcher. He learned how to make the juice after arriving in Lebanon, he said.
Noureddine also stood in line to get his WFP food coupon, for LL40,000.
But Mohammad Shehadeh, a refugee from Deraa, is unequivocal in his allegations of mistreatment.
He asks journalists to relay the “indignity and humiliation” with which he has been allegedly treated by the U.N., which he says gives refugees only a fraction of what they are entitled to.
“We are truthfully saying what happens to us,” he said.
To date, 570,000 Syrian refugees were registered with UNHCR in Lebanon while 130,000 were still awaiting registration.
This brings the total number of Syrians receiving aid from the agency to 681,000. The agency has struggled to streamline its registration process to accommodate the large numbers fleeing across the border.
The agency published Monday details of changes to its assistance program. The announcement noted that all Syrians registered with the UNHCR had received assistance in the form of food coupons, hygiene packs and children’s kits including diapers and formula.
But the UNHCR said that “due to an increase in need and a lack of resources,” it would limit assistance from September onward to the neediest refugees, adding that it would review their needs.
The agency said registered refugees would continue to receive medical, educational and social assistance.