BEIRUT: Both the international community and Lebanese citizens themselves must not take for granted the country’s relative stability, said Ross Mountain, UNDP Resident Representative and the U.N.’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Lebanon.
“The pressures here are enormous. The outside [world] really needs to understand that,” Mountain told The Daily Star as he prepares to leave his post at the end of this month. “I’m not even sure that everybody in Lebanon understands the extent to which the fragility of Lebanon’s situation is continuing.”
The international community, Mountain suggested, may have overestimated the tenacity of Lebanon’s current calm. He often tells donors, however, “that there is absolutely no guarantee that this can hold.”
Donors, he said, tend to open their coffers only once disaster has struck. “Lebanon is almost a victim of its own success.”
Mountain praised Lebanon’s resilience and continued stability but cautioned against assuming that either Syrian refugees or impoverished Lebanese would accept the current status quo.
“When you sit in Zaitunay Bay, it’s very hard to think about let alone comprehend the pressures that are on communities in the Bekaa Valley and Akkar in particular,” he acknowledged, in reference to the capital’s posh seaside district.
Perhaps more than any other diplomat or humanitarian figure, Mountain has long and loudly advocated for the need to support poor Lebanese communities in addition to aiding Syrian refugees.
“You have these two impoverished populations living side by side,” he said. “This is where the population for mounting tension and conflict exists. ... That’s where the rubber hits the road.”
Mountain has lobbied donor countries to support development projects in Lebanon along with funding for the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Several countries, he said, have been responsive to the new aid paradigm for Lebanon.
While providing for vulnerable Lebanese citizens is of great importance, ensuring that the most basic needs of refugees are met should also rank high on Lebanon’s list of priorities, Mountain said.
“There is the school of thought that if you make the situation bad enough for the refugees, they will go home. Well that isn’t going to happen,” he said.
“If people that are spread throughout the country become desperate because they aren’t able to move, feed their families or have adequate assistance, then this is bad news for Lebanon,” he said, explaining that desperation may fuel social unrest. “I’m concerned that this very large population should not be facing desperation and doing things that really do disrupt their lives, Lebanese lives and Lebanon itself.”
The current situation for refugees, Mountain added, is already dire. Earlier in the crisis refugees received $27 in food assistance per month. Since July, that amount has been cut to just $13.50. “This is not just about food. This is the backbone of the assistance to the bulk of the refugees,” Mountain said.
The most recent round of cuts may cause increased sexual exploitation, criminality and child labor, which he said is not in the interest of Lebanon. He suggested that the Lebanese government allow Syrian refugees to work, without fear of arrest, in fields where they have historically worked such as agriculture and construction.
Mountain highlighted the fact that neither he nor any other humanitarian or diplomat is “in the business of encouraging the refugees to stay here forever. There is certainly no U.N. plan to install them here ... quite the contrary,” he said.
The Lebanese authorities, he said, should lead the charge in regulating the refugee crisis. “It is vital that the authorities know where the refugees are and manage them while they are here. ... The international community has a role to play, but it must be in support of the national authorities’ lead in dealing with this.”
Working alongside national actors, the international community must continue to support Lebanon’s stability. “Lebanon can’t make it on its own, and shouldn’t have to make it on its own,” he added.