BEIRUT: Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour said Thursday a “preventative and pre-emptive” approach was needed in the face of growing tensions between Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities in some of the country’s most impoverished regions.
However, the minister also emphasized the lack of funds available to carry out extensive intervention in the area.
Speaking at the launch of the joint Social Affairs Ministry and United Nations Development Program initiative “Lebanese Host Communities Support Program,” the minister said the economic situation in the country was fueling animosity between Lebanese and Syrians, particularly in the Wadi Khaled area, and that “we should not wait for things to happen to intervene.”
Increased competition for jobs and business, extra strain on resources and decreased cross-border trading opportunities have combined to generate frustration within the communities hosting the majority of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
The Lebanese Host Communities Support Program goes beyond addressing the welfare of refugees, extending the humanitarian response to host communities as well through initiatives aimed at improving livelihoods, income generation and services.
The initiative also aims to develop local mechanisms to promote social cohesion and conflict prevention.
“More than anywhere, the safety and livelihood security of refugees in Lebanon is inseparable from that of their hosts,” said Robert Watkins, resident representative of the UNDP, at the program launch.
With more than 317,000 Syrian refugees now receiving assistance in Lebanon, Watkins highlighted that “in many cases this growing burden has perversely fallen most heavily on those areas of Lebanon least able to cope with additional stress.”
With no formal refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon, most are hosted by families or accommodated at the local level within host communities.
The Lebanese Host Communities Support Program will provides assistance to communities – particularly those in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley – where high poverty, low wages, and weak infrastructure and services make hosting refugees of Syria’s almost 2-year-old conflict especially challenging.
Some of the projects will benefit municipalities, Watkins said, while others will benefit families directly.
While a number of projects benefiting host communities have already been initiated or carried out, Watkins appealed to donors for assistance, emphasizing that the ability of the U.N. and the Lebanese government to respond to the needs of host communities largely depends on funding received under the new program.
“We are sending warning signals,” Abu Faour said, adding that the donations already made were not enough. More help is needed, he said, to avoid an “explosion sooner or later between the Syrians and host communities, and the Lebanese and the government.”
Abu Faour gave no specific figure for how much funding was required.
At an International Pledging Conference in Kuwait on Jan. 30, President Michel Sleiman indicated that Lebanon had approved a $370 million plan to care for Syrian refugees, but Abu Faour said that amount was no longer sufficient as the number of refugees had risen in the interim.
Both U.N. and Lebanese government representatives noted the need for pledged support to start arriving in cash form as soon as possible.
The UNDP estimates that $5.8 million is needed to implement the necessary support projects in Akkar, Minyeh and Dinnieh, and Tripoli, while approximately $3 million is needed for Hermel, Baalbek, Zahle, the Western Bekaa and Rashaya.
However, UNHCR resident representative Ninette Kelley pointed out that it was “way more expensive” to accommodate refugees in camps than in local communities.
Commending Lebanon’s hospitality and noting that she “cannot think of a single country that in proportion to its size has taken in as many refugees,” Kelley also called for “much more robust international support” and emphasized the need for donors to invest in local communities.