BEIRUT: This year on the occasion of World Humanitarian Day, the United Nations made a request. The organization asked people around the world to finish the following sentence with a single word: “The world needs more...” But try as they might, by Monday afternoon, the U.N.’s resident coordinator in Lebanon, Robert Watkins, and his colleagues had failed to agree on one, encompassing noun.
“I asked all my colleagues, ‘Let’s collectively come up with a word we all agree on,’ but we haven’t come to an agreement yet,” Watkins said during an interview Monday at the United Nations Development Project’s offices in Downtown Beirut. Yet, the words in circulation among the group were all of a similar ilk: understanding, compassion and generosity.
Such words seem apt in a country a confronting what Watkins described as “a major humanitarian crisis” without a foreseeable end in sight.
“We have 684,000 refugees from Syria, we have 90,000 Palestine refugees coming from Syria, we have 40,000 Lebanese returnees who had been living in Syria. ... So there is a huge burden on the country and we expect it’s going to be getting even worse through the course of the year, going up to even 1 million people by the end of the year, if the present trends continue in Syria, which there seems to be every reason to think that they will,” Watkins said.
Recognizing the impact of this influx on Lebanon, Watkins took the opportunity to not only commend the country’s aid workers but also its “humanitarian spirit.”
“World Humanitarian Day ... is not just [about] humanitarian workers per se, who work for the United Nations and non-governmental organizations, but for the humanitarian spirit which is what we see in Lebanon,” he said.
“[The equivalent of] a quarter of the population of Lebanon ... has already arrived in this country and the Lebanese still are keeping the doors open, they are letting refugees come in and they are trying to help them as best as they can,” Watkins said. “It’s important to recognize that kind of humanitarian gesture.”
The official also acknowledged the increased level of risk humanitarian workers in Lebanon face as the conflict in its neighbor takes its toll on the domestic security situation.
Such risks bear particular poignancy on World Humanitarian Day, which marks the anniversary of the 2003 terror attack on the U.N.’s headquarters in Baghdad that left 22 of the international organization’s personnel dead.
“That was quite a traumatic event for the United Nations insofar as it was the first time we had ever been targeted specifically by a terrorist group,” Watkins said.
In Lebanon, gunfights, bomb attacks and kidnappings, although not specifically targeting the U.N. or other humanitarian agencies, have increased in frequency since the Syrian crisis began.
Such incidents greatly impact aid agencies’ work, disrupting supply routes and diverting funding into security measures and away from meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, Watkins said.
He noted that already this year aid had on several occasions been prohibited from reaching the northern region of Akkar due to fighting in Tripoli rendering the road north impassible.
“Even worse though is the increasing costs of providing humanitarian aid [in an insecure environment],” Watkins continued. “The cost ... goes up because we have to divert money that should be going to buy supplies to help refugees and host communities. That [now] has to be spent on security issues, on more security personnel doing more security analysis of different parts of the country. ... It takes up an increasing amount of time and resources and staff, and limits what we are able to do.”
And despite the high level of generosity shown by the Lebanese toward those fleeing conflict in Syria, Watkins is realistic about that sentiment’s ability to endure.
“I think it’s very clear that the more refugees that come into the country, the more there are going to be tensions between Lebanese populations and Syrian populations, whether it’s because of the insecurity due to [incidents like last week’s deadly bomb] in Ruwaiss, or whether it’s due to competition for jobs, or whether it’s because of the economic impact, the reduction in trade, the reduction in tourists,” he said.
The U.N. and other agencies have over the past several months targeted development projects at host communities as well as refugees in an effort to counteract or avoid animosity between the populations, a point Watkins again highlighted. He also noted that the U.N., in coordination with the World Bank and at the request of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, was working on a stability program for Lebanon.
Watkins also dispelled suggestions that the Lebanese government was restricting access for international humanitarians, explaining that although Lebanon has changed its policies on providing visas to foreign workers it has only done so in line with international practices.
“The government decided to change its policies earlier this year to ensure that people who were coming here to work on the humanitarian operation already obtained their visas before entering the country, rather than come in on a tourist visa and try to get a resident visa after the fact, and this is totally in line with international practices,” he explained. “Obviously with this great increase in international workers coming to help Lebanon, they [the government] want to be sure that the right people are coming in to do the right kind of activities.”
Watkins admitted that the new policy has caused “some adjustments on our side” but said that most of the problems to date had been resolved.
“Some people have had to go back to their home country to get this visa and then come back in to the country. But I think we’ve made the adjustment now. Now everyone knows what the rules are,” he said.