BEIRUT: The European Commission will soon provide 30 million euros to aid Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a visiting European commissioner said Tuesday, adding that the government needed to be better prepared for any future challenges the Syrian crisis might bring.
Stefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, told The Daily Star that the contribution “will be available within weeks,” bringing the total assistance the European Commission has given Lebanon for issues related to the Syrian conflict to nearly 75 million euros ($97 million).
All of the funds will be managed by U.N. agencies, with a small portion going to the Palestinian relief agency UNRWA and more to the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
Time is of the essence for Lebanon, which is facing a growing refugee crisis as the fighting in Syria continues. UNHCR estimates there are more than 325,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and the government has said it did not have the resources to handle the ongoing influx. Another 25,000 Palestinians have fled Syria for Lebanon and a sixth of the new funds will go to help them.
During a January conference in Kuwait, donors pledged approximately $1 billion for Syrian refugees in bordering countries, but little of that money has materialized so far.
In addition to noting the expected speed with which the money will be delivered, Füle highlighted that “for the first time [the money] will be made available ... for not only meeting the needs of refugees themselves, but also [for] meeting the needs of the hosting communities, because we realize that this increased number is quite a strain on Lebanon and its citizens.”
He said the money targeted at host communities would be used to “improve the capacity of local communities and municipalities and in some cases [to help] ... families to cope with this extra burden.”
Having met with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, President Michel Sleiman, the foreign and social affairs ministers and various other leaders of civil society and U.N. bodies, the Czech diplomat, who last visited in October 2011, sees Lebanon as a changed country.
With the Syrian uprising then in its infancy, he recalled “certain issues related to the well-being of the thousands of Palestinians living in the 12 camps, some of those questions ... [were] not easy to discuss with the government.”
This time around, Füle “found the government aware of the magnitude of the problem, [and] the government trying to help – although I have to say that [while] I found the government being creative for the challenges of yesterday and today, more work needs to be done for the government to be ready for the challenges of tomorrow.”
The responsibility for this readiness also falls to U.N. agencies and Füle said he had assured Mikati and Sleiman that Europe would be an ally on the issue, but added that “this evolving situation would involve some efforts from your [the Lebanese] side.”
Füle believes Lebanon’s greatest hurdle may be in the unpredictability of the Syrian war.
“I think the biggest challenge is that unfortunately, despite all the best efforts of the European Union and a number of other stakeholders, there are not that many people who see an end of it soon. ... That should be a priority ... The time is now, and not tomorrow, to come, because each and every day that passes means a concrete hundreds of thousands of people passing the border between Syria and Lebanon, not to speak of ... the pressure also on Jordan and Turkey.”
While in the country Füle also talked about the upcoming elections, but he wouldn’t be drawn on particular electoral law proposals except to say he hoped the elections would be constitutional and “organized on the basis of such [a] law providing such [an] arrangement that the elections will unite Lebanon and not divide [it]; that it will take the country from the confessionalism which I see as ... not being compatible with efforts to create effective administration in this country.”
Füle also wouldn’t directly address whether the European Union would add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations, with pressure mounting since Bulgaria announced last month that an investigation had found two men with links to Hezbollah had been behind a deadly bus bomb that targeted Israeli tourists in Burgas last year.
Calling the bombing a “terrorist act” and emphasizing that Bulgaria’s findings were preliminary, the commissioner said, “Let’s not prejudge what’s going to happen at the end of the process. What is important now is that both sides, the European Union and Lebanon are both very keen in working together so that those responsible are brought to justice.”
“I hope it also encourages us to cooperate more so that terrorism is eradicated, whether we see it in Lebanon ... on the European Union territories or elsewhere,” Füle said.