December 2022 - May 2023
2023 started much like I’m sure it did in Jersey. Post-Christmas resolutions, January storms battering the coast, and the slow taking down of sparkly decorations. Here in Lebanon Christmas is a big deal with Christmas trees in most public spaces, not just Christian majority areas, and the soundtrack of carols and Mariah Carey is heard everywhere.
In February 2023, the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Syria and Turkey, killing more than 55,000 people. The quake itself, and week long after-shocks, were felt in Lebanon with buildings swaying and entire communities opting to sleep in their cars. Recent trauma of the Beirut blast and years of economic deprivation in Lebanon does not give you great confidence in the sturdiness of buildings to withstand this sort of seismic activity. At work we started seeing people arriving who had lost everything in Syria, people who have been dealt a double or triple tragedy since the war started 12 years ago.
In April, on a Thursday afternoon, a rushing sound followed by a series of booms was heard in our Reception Centre. Down the coast, plumes of smoke could be seen in the air. It transpired that unofficial military groups had launched a series of rockets over the border into Israel. Our Security apparatus quickly kicked in, with SMS and phone-calls telling us to head home, and we wrapped up the final interviews for the day. Friends at the UN Peacekeeping mission along the ‘blue line’ (the unofficial border between Lebanon and Israel) were sent to underground bunkers. All evening we waited for the retaliation that was bound to come and at around 4am we were awoken to a huge boom, rattling our windows. 12 kilometers away Israeli jets had struck the area the original rockets were fired from 12 hours prior. The only casualties were some sheep in the field and a shack that a Syrian family were living in was partially destroyed. Such is the futility of ongoing aggression, as the next day things returned largely back to normal.
May saw a drastic upsurge in anti-refugee rhetoric across Lebanon, through virtually all mainstream news outlets. Everything is political, and the presence of 1.5 million Syrians in the country is obviously a big talking point. It’s not a stretch to say that the inability to elect a President in Lebanon and the acceptance of Bashar Assad’s Syria back into the Arab League after 12 years of civil war has triggered this upsurge in anti-refugee sentiment. It has made the job of UNHCR increasingly difficult, and colleagues worry about personal attacks as this rhetoric becomes more sinister. Syrian refugees are being put under more and more restrictions, being prohibited from working, from renting, banned from moving between places, given curfews, obliged to record themselves with the municipalities, banned from purchasing vehicles, the list goes on. Most troubling is that settlements of Syrians have been raided in recent weeks, and those found to be without official papers have been sent back to Syria and handed over to the authorities. Syrian’s are increasingly scared, and tired, and such measures are creating increasing tension between the host community and the refugee population. European and Western countries continue to turn a blind eye to this, providing less support to UNHCR in Lebanon yet remaining unwilling to take refugees themselves and lighten the burden on a country where a quarter of the population are people seeking refuge. The suggestions that Syrian’s can start returning to their country have grown at a faster pace, which is striking fear into the Syrian people who fled the regime.
This month, my role in UNHCR Tyre has changed. Having worked with the Registration Team for my first 15 months, a brilliant new Registration Manager has taken the helm and I have moved to work in External Relations. This is to ensure reporting, donor visibility, and visits of VIPs to south Lebanon are well-run and successful. It is important because as budgets are tightened, the need to show the importance of the work here is ever pressing to show donors the reality on the ground. Personally, it will give me more exposure to the work of all colleagues outside of the Reception Centre and mean I will be out of the office more meeting refugees.
So far, we visited three informal settlements in Marjayoun and Hasbaya districts. These areas are right on the blue line, and most of the Syrians residing there fled from the north east of Syria, areas which are still disputed and not under government control. The people living here work on the fields of the landowners for a paltry sum, roughly $2 per day, which barely provides the sustenance they need for their families. UNHCR provides some cash assistance depending on people’s vulnerability, but sadly UNHCR can’t provide the amount needed to cover basic needs for enough people. As these places are remote, access to healthcare, affordable shops, and education are all very costly. This means people leave their health needs until they are critical and children drop out of school as they can’t afford to get there, or they need to work to support their family.
Still everywhere you go people smile, although the harsh reality of life is clear on their faces. One gentleman told us, “Before the war, life was simple and good, it has been a long, slow disintegration since then.” We also met a man who was planning to board a boat in a smuggling attempt with his young son, such is the desperation of the situation here. He is fully aware of the dangers, but life is becoming untenable especially with the increased fear of return to Syria.
The current situation makes life ever more difficult for refugees, and the assistance provided by UNHCR is taking a hit too. UNHCR does what it can with the limited resources but inevitably priorities need to be decided on and compromises made. All the while people residing here are so fearful of the fate that would await them in Syria; a regime with a brutal, horrifying record of crimes that was for so long vilified now becoming accepted once again. Such is our work in south Lebanon, and such is the need to continue finding lasting solutions for Syrian people - which inevitably includes western nations doing more to receive people who are in great need of a safe place to live and who would add value to their societies.