BEIRUT: The government is preparing to issue a revised national plan to aid Syrian refugees next week in its latest move to regain control of aid efforts and respond to a worsening humanitarian crisis.
Millions of dollars have begun to come in to fund the new plan and the government is engaged in hiring in order to fulfil its planned role, which will see it try to make headway on the politicized issue of refugee camps and calming tensions between Lebanese and Syrian communities.
Ramzi Naaman, the newly appointed head coordinator of Lebanon’s Syria response plan, is charged with advising Prime Minister Najib Mikati on how to approach the worsening humanitarian problem refugees are facing, while balancing the concerns of Lebanon’s divisive political environment and at the same time securing the trust of international parties.
It’s a tough balance, Naaman said while speaking from his office in the Grand Serail Thursday.
Naaman operates in an environment where he says refugee camps are needed, but deeply resisted, and where the government is being drained of resources helping refugees. But some international donors aren’t fully comfortable funding its aid operations.
“We are trying to fight against the current,” Naaman said. “Now we are trying to catch up with a year and a half of work that should have been running since the beginning.”
Naaman, who also directs the country’s poverty program, says the first step in the process is to regain control of the aid work that is being done to help a refugee population that is approaching 300,000 people and is expected to reach over half a million by the summer.
Unlike other countries with large Syrian refugee populations, Lebanon has never had the same control over aid operations as more centralized countries such as Turkey and Jordan, where aid operations are tightly controlled by the government.
In Lebanon the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has done the vast majority of work with the approval of the government, but not under its direct authority.
The UNHCR has quickly grown its operations from the north to the south of the country over the last two years.
This should change, and the government, which has a better feel for local and political concerns in the nation, needs to take the lead in aid operations, Naaman said.
“There is a Lebanese government and we have a plan set for coordination,” he added. “We need to trust the government, this is the government and the government is always in the lead in any process.”
In December, the government issued a $180 million appeal for international aid that would empower the Social Affairs, Education and Health ministries as well as the Higher Relief Committee to aid Syrian refugees and centralize aid under the government. After feedback from a donor conference in Geneva, the government will issue next week a consolidated response plan that centralizes aid operations even further.
International contributions from the original appeal have already been made and ministries have begun hiring to expand and fill their new aid role, which would see tens of millions of dollars boost ministry operations.
One ministry has already made 50 new hires for refugee response and was looking to make a dozen more shortly, Naaman said.
Having the government in charge of aid is more than just about control, Naaman added. He said it would help aid operations in terms of the local political context that international aid bodies sometimes don’t understand.
The very success of the international aid work for refugees in the north and east of the country has raised local tensions with many poor Lebanese who have always lived in harsh conditions. A recent decision to move to a cash-aid-focused system could have an even more detrimental effect. Cash assistance programs have long been rejected by the local political establishment, which says it undermines its control.
Naaman said that although the political considerations may not be pretty, they are the realities the country operates under and are unlikely to change anytime soon.
Navigating the politically charged issue of refugee camps is another area where the government will need to be in the lead. Despite a recent push by Cabinet ministers to create refugee camps soon, Naaman said the politically divisive environment makes the camps hard to imagine at the moment, when few are prepared to indefinitely house another half million refugees on top of the country’s Palestinian population.
In the meantime, Naaman suggested regulating the de facto refugee camp areas where large groups of refugees have congregated, such as in towns in the Bekaa Valley. He said planning and recognizing the areas would give aid groups the chance to reach large numbers of refugees at once without having to go through the cumbersome process of officially establishing refugee camps.
“There should be a major decision to try and organize these camps,” he said.
Overall, he said, it’s time for the government to “take this into our hands.”