It’s mid-November and thunderstorms have started rolling over south Lebanon. The temperature is still in the high twenties, although the storms have evaporated the humidity over the summer months. So far, we’ve had one or two dramatic lightning shows across the sky which signals that winter is on its way. Air-con is no longer needed, which is useful considering electricity is still on 12 hours on, 12 hours off cycle.
The first rains after summer inform locals to start picking the fruit of the olive trees that cover the land. According to my colleagues, those who have trees take time off to tend to the harvest, the precious oil moves from the trunk to the fruit when it feels the first touch of rain. Harvesting is a hard job, shaking the trees by hand and collecting all the fallen fruit. The olives are then pressed into the bright green liquid that is aged and poured over almost all the national dishes. Oil is an important symbol of life here. People are proud of their produce, the bittersweet olives are the taste of the land. So, many Syrian refugees are currently moving around the south and the Bekaa Valley to work on the harvest. They make a paltry wage, but it is better than nothing, especially as the cold of winter is looming.
There have been figurative storms clouding the sky over my work, and the situation in general, which has had an impact on UNHCR and my team. To understand the current situation, it is important to recognise that Lebanon has a complex history. The country had a catastrophic civil war during the 1970s and 80s that pitted village against village. Since the intense fighting stopped, there hasn’t been too much in the way of transitional justice to heal after those bloody and factitious years. The same leaders who led militias against each other during the war now sit in parliament, many of whom seem to seek to keep the divisions softly lit, always in the background with gentle and not so gentle reminders of the wounds of the past.
Lebanon has been occupied a few times since its Liberation from the French in 1943. Syria occupied a whole swathe of the east of the country right up to Beirut. In the south, Israel occupied land along a border that was continually moving and involved a lot of fighting from local resistance. Both nations eventually left, Israel in 2000 and Syria in 2006, however the influence, interest, and power play continues, and short yet devastating wars have been fought since with the threat of more never too far away.
So, it is this context that frames the work we do, and each new crisis has an impact on our ability to support refugees in the country. This year has been no different, and so I’ll briefly guide you through some of the current issues being faced.
For people who have fled persecution, conflict, famine, and all manner of other things that put them under the remit of UNHCR, there are a few ‘durable solutions’ that aim to mark the end of their time as refugees and provide sanctuary and safety to live the rest of their lives. The first of these is local integration in the new country they are in. This means the new State upholding their human rights, enabling them to live without fear of further persecution, and building their life here in the new country. The second solution is resettlement, where people can be moved to another third country to continue their life in safety with the ability to support their family to live a happy life. Many countries have resettlement programmes including USA, Canada, Norway, Australia, and the United Kingdom, although the UK’s programme has been in decline since 2020. UNHCR helps identify families for resettlement and compiles all the information needed with the host country. It is a long process, often taking more than 18 months from identification to travel, with many interviews and assessments being conducted along the way.
The final durable solution in a refugee context is voluntary repatriation which is the voluntary return to the country of origin, in our case Syria. Lebanon hosts the most refugees per capita anywhere in the world. The country has offered a huge amount of support to Syrian people fleeing the war, and the Lebanese state is finding it hard to sustain this. However, UNHCR does not believe that currently Syria is safe to return to. During all crises, it is easy to find people to blame, and the economic crisis means they need a scapegoat and Syrian refugees fit the bill. The government of Lebanon announced a programme to voluntarily repatriate Syrians, arranging transport and general coordination. Figures of 15,000 people returning each month were shared rhetorically. UNHCR, whilst not supporting the returns due to lack of safety in Syria, has been on hand to observe and to support the families that are voluntarily taking part.
The first two organised returns happened this month, and from south Lebanon the numbers have been very low. Still, it is an important event, and a significant mark on the timeline of the Syrian crisis. People must be returning willingly, of their own accord, and they must be fully aware of the potential danger of doing so. So, we provide this support to those families who have chosen to leave. Most people cite the difficulty of living in Lebanon amid the economic crisis as their reason for returning. They see the relative calm after such a brutal 11 years of violence as better than staying in this country where things are getting so tough for those who cannot afford the necessities for survival. As the currency fluctuates drastically, people are forced to make do with less and less, and that must be exhausting for so many, Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinians alike.
On top of the economic troubles, the first cases of cholera were found in Lebanon in October. Since then, cases have spread, mostly in areas with poor access to sanitation or a clean water supply. Cholera is a water bound disease and symptoms start from overexposure to ingesting it. At time of writing, 18 people have died. Thankfully, it is treatable, and more 600,000 doses of the oral vaccine have begun to be administered in the most affected regions with UNHCR playing a leading role. At home we have changed our habits, brushing teeth with bottled water and thinking first before ordering salad, although in the south not a lot has changed.
For Syrians however, when so many people in the north and Bekaa valley are exposed to unsafe water resources, it is an intensely scary prospect. When people are unable to afford transport even to the hospital, children with bouts of illness may not receive the treatment they need. Lebanon is a small country, yet the nearest hospital can still be two hours away and the cost of that transportation could be more than half a month's total income for a family. Obviously, people do not want to risk their children’s health, but the situation is not helping them in any way.
UNHCR is coordinating a cholera response plan. We have trained nursing staff in our Reception Centre providing advice every day to people attending interviews, and we have teams going to the areas worst affected to deliver the easily administered oral vaccine directly to the communities that need it. We also support people with vital cash assistance when needed, although it is still not adequate for a family to survive to a decent standard of living due to the economic collapse.
The Registration Team I work with, mentioned in the previous blog post, supports these people every day. Our team listens to people’s needs, worries, hopes, and nightmares, and the team counsels them with vital and potentially lifesaving information. It is a high burden, feeling the responsibility to support those in dire circumstances all day, and our team does it so well. I’m in awe of the dedication and commitment they show everyday.
With budget cuts globally and the political pressure on the return of Syrian refugees, the work of UNHCR is getting even more difficult. Cholera, on top of the economic and political crisis, is just another strain on people who have dealt with far more than their fair share in recent years. If more countries and governments supported the durable solution of resettlement, then more people would be saved from such severe ongoing hardship.