SAADNAYEL/ARSAL/MASHARIH AL-QAA, Lebanon: Sanaa’s five children are allergic to their moldy blankets, but the coverings are all she has managed to procure.
Having arrived from Homs a month and a half ago, she still has not received a refugee certificate from the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and so the help she is getting is spotty. Living among some 75 families in an unofficial West Arsal refugee camp, Sanaa’s youngest child is in dire need of formula and diapers, but since her flight from Syria she has received only one box of food aid.
In Masharih al-Qaa, Abu Alaa and his family are staying in a borrowed tent that barely shelters them from the elements. They entered Lebanon via a smuggler’s route, and so they have neither a refugee certificate from UNHCR nor the aid it would entitle them to.
Abu Alaa, his wife and two daughters are now surviving off the LL6,000 a day each daughter makes from working in a nearby pickle factory.
And in Saadnayel, Abu Ahmad sells toys from his packed bicycle. He and his family do have the prized UNHCR refugee certificates, providing school and medical care. But he complains that the food vouchers they receive don’t make ends meet, so he is hawking trinkets.
The woes of Sanaa, Abu Alaa, and Abu Ahmad paint a picture of the problems Bekaa refugees face. While the Higher Relief Committee and Ministry of Social Affairs are assisting refugees in the north, in the Bekaa relief is provided by a variety of organizations, and is chaotic and patchy.
Marwan Traboulsi is secretary of the Wahda Club, which he says was one of the first organizations to provide aid to Syrian refugees in Saadnayel. The club devised its own method of organization, issuing yellow cards to each refugee so it would be clear who needed blankets, mattresses, and food.
Traboulsi says the Wahda Club’s aid comes from a coalition of Bekaa associations, but now that there are around 1,000 refugee families in Saadnayel and nearby Taalbaya the group can only help newcomers.
“The village is full of refugees, three or four families live in one house,” he explains. “The main problem newcomers face is covering medical care, particularly for urgent cases.”
Traboulsi criticizes UNHCR for being too slow to register refugees, and complains that no one answers the agency’s hotline.
Saleh Amer has been hosting refugees in his Masharih al-Qaa home since the uprising began, and now has 42 extra people in his house.
Amer says there are 1,000 refugee families in Masharih al-Qaa, and notes that most do not have UNHCR papers.
“Some refugees are not receiving aid because they are new, do not have UNHCR certificates, or are Lebanese,” he adds.
These Lebanese refugees include those who fled their homes inside Lebanon but close to the border because of shelling. There is also a fair number of Lebanese citizens who lived inside Syria, and although they also fled from the violence, UNHCR does not consider them refugees.
UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman says that there are now 35,000 Syrian refugees in the Bekaa; around 7,600 families. Of those, 23,000 are registered and preparations are being made to document the remaining 12,000.
She acknowledges registration delays: “When the numbers [of refugees] were limited at the beginning [of the conflict, it used to take two or three days [to register].”
“But it is starting to take around two weeks because of the large increase in numbers [of refugees], and a lack of staff that now have to cover a wider area,” she adds.
Sleiman says, “UNHCR is working very hard to increase the staff that is registering refugees, and is opening a permanent center for this purpose in Bekaa along with a mobile team.”
The agency will also be giving refugee applications to local associations, mukhtars and civil society activists to speed up the process.
She says the agency’s hotline has been flooded with calls, and advises refugees to keep trying if they are unable to get through. In time, she adds, the hotline will be restricted to receiving calls about women and children who need protection.
As for disorganization in aid provision, Sleiman says UNHCR is “dealing with the absence of a role of the Lebanese government in dealing with refugees in Bekaa” by holding weekly coordination meetings with those who are distributing aid.
But Sleiman adds that addressing the needs of all refugees exceeds UNHCR’s administrative and financial capacity. The agency has asked donor states to increase their help to all countries that are receiving Syrian refugees.
In addition, she says UNHCR is speaking with the Cabinet about involving the Social Affairs Ministry in helping those Lebanese refugees who have slipped through the aid cracks.