BEIRUT: Winter looms and some 20,000 Syrian refugees live in tents erected on flood-prone lands. Thousands more are in substandard shelters, soon to be battered by wind, rain and snow. The school year just started but at least 200,000 Syrian children will not be enrolled in Lebanon’s public schools. Child labor is on the rise. Malnutrition is of growing concern. There wasn’t much optimism expressed Tuesday as the heads of three United Nations agencies central to the Syrian crisis response in Lebanon gathered to apprise media of the situation.
Articulating the litany of challenges, the resident representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon, Ninette Kelley, bluntly reiterated what has become a familiar refrain over the past year: “Without more international assistance here in Lebanon we all simply will not be able to manage and the very stability of this country will continue to be under great strain and risk.”
Again Kelley highlighted what she referred to as “a very sad statistic”: The U.N.’s almost $1.7 billion humanitarian appeal for the Syrian crisis in Lebanon remains just 27 percent funded.
This means “we face very tragic choices daily,” Kelley said.
According to official UNHCR figures Lebanon now hosts more than 756,000 Syrian refugees, but the actual number is believed to be significantly higher.
Kelley’s remarks came the day before an international conference, held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting, was set to address Lebanon’s growing problems as a result of the Syrian crisis and consequent refugee influx.
“It is heartbreaking the decisions we are having to make because the consequences [of funding shortages] across all sectors are so dire,” Kelley said.
The shortfall, she said, is perhaps most telling in the area of health care, where a limited budget means only lifesaving and emergency secondary health care expenses are covered.
Kelley gave two examples of refugees with health care needs who would remain untreated under the present system: a child whose vision, impaired by cataracts, could be restored with a simple surgery, and a manual laborer unable to work due to a leg injury that could be easily surgically rectified. Neither patient’s life is in danger, so neither will receive treatment.
Yet, Kelley emphasized that the funding which has materialized has “quite literally enabled us to save hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Nonetheless, the challenges ahead are alarming.
She describes the shelter situation as “chronic.”
With no political approval for formalized camps of any kind, the U.N. will struggle to find alternative shelter for 20,000 people in informal tented settlements located in areas likely to flood this winter. It will also attempt to insulate from the elements hundreds of thousands of other refugees sheltering in disused and unfinished buildings.
Annamaria Laurini, resident representative of UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, described the Syria crisis as a “children’s emergency.”
“We are now having children who have already been through two years of war. The children that are coming [now] are children that are suffering major deprivation. They [have not been] in school for quite some time. They have poor health. So the challenges are becoming increasingly important,” she said.
On education, Kelley said: “To say we have an educational challenge would simply be an understatement.”
The U.N. aims to enroll some 100,000 Syrian children in the Lebanese public school system this year – more than three times the number enrolled last year – but the number of school-age Syrians in the country is far higher than that.
Kelley puts it at 270,000, but Laurini said it was difficult to provide a definitive figure given that some have not been registered with UNHCR. Laurini estimates Lebanon has a population of half a million Syrian children, 400,000 of whom are school age.
Laurini added that that her organization was seeing “more and more child labor in the country,” particularly in the Bekaa Valley.
Laurini also pointed out the emergence of malnutrition among refugees – an issue she described as “not known in Lebanon before.”
UNICEF is supporting the Health Ministry in their capacity to have surveillance systems so malnutrition can be detected, she said.
Lynne Miller, head of the World Food Program, assured however that cuts to food aid scheduled to come on line next month would not exacerbate malnutrition rates.
Miller clarified that the cuts were being made in line with the findings of a vulnerability assessment which showed some 30 percent of households can adequately meet their food needs and don’t require assistance.
Miller added that nutrition “is always a concern for us in any humanitarian response” and that it is important for the WFP to “keep very close watch on the nutritional situation and to adjust our programs accordingly.”
The situation in Lebanon will also be discussed in Geneva at the end of the month at the UNHCR’s executive committee meeting, where the focus will be on countries hosting large refugee communities, Kelley said.