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Lebanon News

U.N. just days away from cutting refugee aid

Syrian refugees watch the convoy of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres as he visits Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria March 13, 2013. (REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

BEIRUT: The United Nations is only days away from cutting back basic aid programs to over 400,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon because of a lack of funding, U.N. officials told The Daily Star Tuesday.

The planned cutbacks, in areas such as health care, food aid and housing programs, would reduce aid services to one of the largest refugee communities in the region which is living in increasingly difficult conditions, exposed to disease, hunger and political strife.

“The plans are in place, the staff is ready, but the funds are drying up,” said Ninette Kelley, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Lebanon.

“At this level of funding, vital programs to ensure food, clean water, schooling for children, health care and shelter for newly arrived refugees are simply impossible,” Kelley said.

UNHCR officials are planning for the first measures of a scaled-back aid plan to go into effect in the next 10 days. Secondary health care coverage will be one of the first programs to be reduced, UNHCR spokeswoman Dana Sleiman said.

Syrian refuges receive 85 percent coverage of their health bills for long-term treatment of illness and injury. UNHCR plans to reduce that coverage to 75 percent to save money, Sleiman said. Around 11,000 refugees get secondary health care a month, according to UNHCR.

The number of refugees in the country has grown massively over the past two years, exceeding all projections and quickly outstripping the amount of aid given to the country. Making matters worse, only a third of the funding pledged for the crisis has been received, UNHCR reported.

Several international donor conferences won pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars to help refugees. Much of the money pledged came from regional Arab states but only some of that money has trickled into the country. The vast majority of UNHCR’s Lebanon funding comes from the United States and the European Union.

Officials have frequently warned of the worsening refugee crisis in the country, where by most estimates the total number of refugees far outstrips the 400,000 people the U.N. is aiding. Syrians line the streets of many cities and refugee families are stuffed into small, makeshift rooms for their long term housing. Many people suffer from the shock of war in Syria and the opportunities to have a livelihood are limited.

Lebanon launched a $200 million funding appeal on top of the U.N.’s several months ago. Ministers said the money was needed to ease the burden of host communities that bear much of the cost of the refugee communities. The risk of conflict between Lebanese and refugee groups is increasing, government officials warned.

Both funding appeals appear to have gathered limited support. Without further aid, U.N. relief planners are being forced to cut down on basic services that are the cornerstone of aid work in the next few days. The food assistance program, which helps most refugees in the country prepare meals, will be cut dramatically. Food aid workers said they had enough money to make deliveries until May, after which deliveries of goods and vouchers would stop.

“If there are no additional funds very urgently, there will be a full stop,” Etienne Labande from the World Food Program in Lebanon told The Daily Star.

“So far there is no indication that we will receive funds anytime soon.”

Refugees are fanned out across the country as families search for shelter and work, making aid efforts to reach them costly and difficult. The U.N. inaugurated a new registration point in the southern city of Tyre Tuesday to help deal with the large numbers of refugees in the south. Over 60,000 refugees have contacted the U.N. for help in the south and the organization expects tens of thousands more to seek their aid despite limited funding.

Other programs put in jeopardy by the lack of funding include housing aid and education tuition payment. Syrians are living in increasingly desperate housing conditions and paying exorbitant rent because of the huge demand for cheap housing. Aid workers have rehabilitated hundreds of derelict or incomplete buildings as refugee housing but UNHCR officials said they did not have the money to rehabilitate 44 newly identified buildings.

Around 30,000 refugees have registered for school and aid groups provide supplies and remedial classes to students unfamiliar with the Lebanese system.

“We are currently revising the strategy in order to make the cuts, but we will have to make the cuts at the current funding level,” Sleiman said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 10, 2013, on page 1.

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