As I was arriving to Beirut from Damascus to take up my new role as UNHCR representative in Lebanon, only a few weeks before the world would mark a shameful milestone - 10 years of the Syria crisis - I reflected on the last time I had worked and lived in Lebanon, and how much more difficult the situation is today, for refugees and Lebanese alike.
When I last worked in Lebanon, the country was recovering from the July 2006 events. At UNHCR, we were providing support to displaced Lebanese families and some 10,000 refugees from Iraq, Sudan, and other neighboring countries.
I left Lebanon in March 2010. Little did I know that the biggest humanitarian emergency of my lifetime would start only one year later.
Today, over 80 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. One in six is Syrian.
These shocking figures are a shameful reminder of the failure of the world to end one of its biggest humanitarian crises.
In Lebanon, we mark this milestone against the backdrop of a grim reality: the worst economic crisis in decades, steep inflation, a pandemic and health emergency, and the repercussions of the massive explosion that ripped through Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020.
When Syrians first fled to Lebanon in search of protection, they had just left their families, their homes, their schools or work behind. Some had even brought some savings.
But as the years went by and they remained in a situation of exile - paying rent every month, buying food and covering medical expenses, just like everyone else - they quickly depleted any savings they initially had, and instead started accumulating debts. Today, nine out of 10 Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty, on less than LL308,728 per person per month – less than half the minimum wage.
Ten years on, life for refugee children, women and men has gotten more and more difficult. Refugees’ abilities to survive have been stretched past the breaking point. With limited possibilities to generate an income to cover one’s basic needs and enable the children to stay in school, refugees are not only depleting their material resources, but also their human capital. This is what a protracted situation of refuge can lead you to, if you don't have the ability to continue your education, develop your professional skills, live a life as close to normal as possible, and prepare for life back home after returning.
The current reality is taking a very big toll on Syrian refugees’ mental health. Last year, there was a sharp increase in the number of calls made by refugees to our nationwide call centers, where refugees told my colleagues that they don't know how to manage anymore, how to survive. Something that was repeated over and over is: “I'm thinking about taking my own life, what's the point of continuing living if it's such a struggle just to survive every single day?”
That level of despair led two refugees to tragically take their own lives in 2020, leaving behind families and young children, who will live the rest of their lives wondering why this has happened to them. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
But UNHCR will not lose hope. I will not lose hope. Collectively, we cannot lose hope, and we all need to continue doing all we can to help those who need it the most among all communities, especially in such unprecedented times.
While a lot has been done over the years to support vulnerable refugees, Lebanese communities, and Lebanese institutions and infrastructure, it remains far from enough amid the rapidly deteriorating situation in the country.
Since 2011, UNHCR has worked closely with the Lebanese authorities and invested in the country’s institutions and infrastructure to expand their capacity to deliver public services to the whole population. Most recently, UNHCR has scaled up the capacity of 13 hospitals with 800 beds and 100 ICUs to receive COVID-19 patients, and supported rehabilitation efforts for 11,500 families whose homes were destroyed in the Beirut Port explosions.
As UNHCR continues supporting Lebanon to deal with the refugee crisis, we persistently do this in a way that is geared toward enabling the refugees to find a longer-term solution to their situation of refugee. This is the goal of refugee protection since no one should have to remain as a refugee for decades. Since the creation of UNHCR, we have helped more than 40 million refugees worldwide to voluntarily repatriate to their home countries. Because return is not simply about crossing a border, it’s about being able to re-establish yourself back home and not feeling compelled to flee again because you were unable to survive.
We know from experience, from regular intention surveys with the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and from research done on displacement that it is by addressing the factors that the refugees themselves say are important for their ability to return that you actually work toward and support returns. The factors consistently raised as important are safety and security, ability to recover your house, access to basic services like schools and hospitals and job opportunities so you can generate an income and pay for your basic expenses back home. In addition, refugees who have been able to attend school and develop their skills and human capital during their years in exile have a stronger capacity to return home and rebuild their life in a war-torn country, than refugees who are impoverished and destitute.
My last assignment before Lebanon was representative of UNHCR in Syria. During my term in Damascus, I observed UNHCR expanding its work in the country to provide more support for internally displaced people (IDPs), returnees from within Syria, and neighboring countries like Lebanon.
In Syria, UNHCR supports returning refugees through ongoing humanitarian programs at the community level and based on need equal to that of other populations, including IDPs and returning IDPs and vulnerable individuals from host communities. In particular, the vast network of UNHCR-supported community centers across Syria offers an important point of contact for refugee returnees on par with others. In 2020, close to 485,000 persons benefited from UNHCR’s various forms of initial housing repair, 32 damaged schools were repaired in communities with returnees and some 225,000 persons benefited from UNHCR’s primary health care and psychosocial support program.
UNHCR and partners are also engaging with the government of Syria and other stakeholders to gradually address the issues that refugees say delay their return, such as concerns over safety, housing, livelihoods or access to services.
Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ms. Sadako Ogata said something decades ago that marked me deeply, and that I believed in more and more as I worked in humanitarian emergencies across the world. She said: “There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.”
In a few days, world leaders will gather for the Syria V Brussels Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region.” Now, more than ever, all actors must come together, not only to ensure that the humanitarian needs of Lebanese and refugees are addressed, but also commit to sustainable support to refugees’ capacity to find longer-term solutions to their plight.
My message to Syrian refugees and Lebanese people today is the following: I wish there no longer was a need for UNHCR to have such a big presence in Lebanon. But, as long as this need remains, I promise you that all of us at UNHCR will do all we can to help alleviate suffering, and ensure that all vulnerable communities in Lebanon - Lebanese, refugees, and others - can live in dignity.
Ayaki Ito is the UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon.