The U.N. Refugee Agency is helping people in need across Lebanon stay warm this winter. In addition to Syrian and Iraqi refugees, those receiving aid include tens of thousands of Lebanese families. As Lebanon’s economy continues to slump, UNHCR announced last month that it has scaled up its annual support programs in field offices across the country. The agency is partnering with local authorities, non-governmental organizations and religious institutions to identify and assist the most vulnerable.
Much of the aid takes the form of cash assistance and fuel cards that can be redeemed at designated suppliers. According to a UNHCR statement released in December, other services provided by the agency include the delivery of wheelchairs, blankets and water pumps, and the support of grassroots initiatives to distribute fuel, food and clothes.
The hardest-hit refugee families receive a one-time cash grant to help them cover additional needs during the coldest stretches of winter, equivalent to LL112,000 per family per month.
“Winter is scary, especially for the children,” Halima, a Syrian refugee and mother who is enrolled in the UNHCR program, said. “You have to spend more just to keep warm.”
In addition to assistance for families, UNHCR is also providing fuel grants to public hospitals across Lebanon, along with stocks of medication to primary healthcare clinics. These donations come as many hospitals have warned they are unable to purchase medical supplies or provide patients with proper urgent care.
This crisis is caused by the government’s failure to reimburse private and public hospitals for funds owed, as well as a nationwide dollar shortage that has restricted imports and led banks to curtail credit lines, according to a December report by Human Rights Watch.
“Winter is harsh for everyone. In times of hardship, it is important to mobilize all our efforts to ensure that no family in need – whoever they are – is left behind this winter,” Lebanon’s UNHCR Representative Mireille Girard said. “We are racing around the clock to make sure that the most vulnerable individuals in Lebanon can keep safe, warm and protected from diseases.”
In addition to refugees, over 20,000 Lebanese families will benefit from the program, UNHCR says.
The program’s announcement – and in particular its featured support for Lebanese families – follows visible resentment from some quarters toward refugees in Lebanon. Some protesters have assembled outside community centers during UNHCR’s monthly distribution of aid, holding signs emblazoned with declarations like “Lebanese are suffering too,” as refugees wait in line to collect assistance for their families. In recent months, a number of Lebanese have urged refugees who fled to Lebanon following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 to return to their home country.
“Everyone in Lebanon is affected by the current economic situation, and … the most vulnerable communities are the ones affected the most,” Lebanon UNHCR communications officer Lisa Abou Khaled told The Daily Star. “Understandably, the current situation brings with it a level of anxiety among refugees in Lebanon.”
Refugees represent close to a third of Lebanon’s total population of approximately 6 million, according to Beirut-based research firm Information International.
By the end of November, there were 916,113 Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR, but Lebanese politicians estimate the real number to be closer to 1.5 million. Many refugees go unregistered – just 30 percent of children born to Syrian refugees in Lebanon have had their births registered, according to a 2017 U.N. report. This dynamic has been worsened by the government’s policy until 2014 of not registering Syrians born in Lebanon.
This is in addition to Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, whose populations are similarly disputed. Although around 450,000 Palestinians are registered in Lebanon, only an estimated 175,000 actually reside in the country, while 5,700 Iraqi refugees are registered.
Over three-quarters of Syrian refugees in Lebanon exist below the poverty line, surviving on less than LL6,000 per day, according to the UNHCR. A 2019 U.N. report states approximately one-third of Lebanese live in similar circumstances.
Along with the country’s economic downturn, winter’s harsh weather conditions make their situation even more difficult.
“When it snows here, we shiver with cold. You see how expensive things are,” Jeanette, an 83-year-old Lebanese woman living in Zahle who is enrolled in the UNHCR program, said. “With this assistance, I can now buy fuel for the house. I currently have none.’’