An Interview With Bernard Borkhosh, CARE Lebanon’s Country Director
Could you briefly describe the regional context of the Syrian crisis?
Since spring of 2011, Syria has experienced scenes of extreme – and sometimes fatal – violence. More than 6.8 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria. Families fleeing the conflict, often with barely anything but a suitcase, are seeking safety in other parts of Syria and in neighboring countries, or remain trapped in conflict zones. The entire region is affected by this crisis.
Some Syrian refugees live in formal or informal camps but the majority, 80 percent, has settled in urban areas where their living conditions are very precarious. Renting costs and prices of basic items have risen significantly, adding pressure on host populations and increasing their vulnerability.
What are the reasons for re-opening CARE’s office in Lebanon?
CARE Lebanon follows the operational model already adopted by CARE in response to the Syrian crisis in the region, such as in Jordan. Over the past several months, Lebanon has been the country with highest number of Syrian refugees in the region. This gives a solid ground to CARE to start operating in this area.
One of CARE’s strengths in Lebanon – and of the CARE network in general – is bridging humanitarian action and development instead of focusing exclusively on immediate lifesaving assistance. It is our role to support the most vulnerable people and to shape our interventions around the changing situations and needs.
Most of CARE Lebanon staff is local or from the region, unlike for most international NGOs.
How does the Syrian crisis impact Lebanon?
The humanitarian situation in Lebanon remains precarious. Figures vary according to sources: 600,000 refugees are officially registered or awaiting registration, while government authorities estimate that 1 to 1.2 million Syrians are currently living in Lebanon. Undoubtedly, the population living in Lebanon has considerably increased and many newcomers, about 15 percent of the Lebanese population, do not carry any personal belongings with them.
From a microeconomic point of view, there are many different realities, which mean that the crisis has impacted communities in various ways. On the one hand, many Lebanese people lose their jobs as Syrian workers accept to work below minimum wage. Conversely, a minority of Syrian people come to Lebanon with significant financial resources and fuel Lebanon’s economy with a higher standards of living. Many Syrian workers, who used to live in Lebanon before the conflict, have been joined by their families and decide to spend their small income here instead of sending it back to Syria as they used to. Regrettably, there are also people taking advantage of this situation by renting [rooms] for US $400 per month or more. Clearly, if situation in Lebanon was previously critical, the Syrian crisis adds a significant burden to the Lebanese economy.
What are the needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon?
The situation in Lebanon is very concerning; refugees living in precarious conditions need everything: shelter, food, functioning water and sanitation infrastructures, and medical care.
Despite the violence, some Syrian refugees return to Syria or go back and forth. It is very common to hear refugees asserting that they would rather return home than stay here, in spite of the risks they may face.
What will be CARE’s action in Lebanon?
As a humanitarian NGO, we are a non-partisan organization. This implies that we are impartial and independent from any type of influence – especially political influence. The preservation and protection of human life and dignity as well as the alleviation of suffering are at the heart CARE’s action. We do not participate in political debates; we just help the most vulnerable regardless of their origin, religion or gender. Our role contributes, amongst others, to reduce tensions and to improve social cohesion.
In Lebanon, our mission is to support the most vulnerable groups: Syrians who fled the conflict without any possession and have limited or no income sources, but also host communities who suffer from both the crisis and their own limited resources.
We concentrate our efforts on the Beirut and Mount Lebanon regions, where few international NGOs are present but a high concentration of refugees are currently located. Most humanitarian organizations are active in northern Lebanon and in the Beqaa region (eastern part of the country), as the main destinations of the first massive waves of refugees. Today, refugee flows are changing and so it is our role.
Based on our initial assessments, we decided to focus on priority sectors: shelter, water, sanitation, hygiene, protection and improvement of livelihoods. Strengthening social cohesion and taking into consideration gender-related challenges will be cross-cutting themes in our interventions.
We recently launched the first project, which aims to support Syrian refugees among vulnerable groupings of people in Beirut. Funded by the Canadian Humanitarian Coalition and implemented by our local partner PARD, this project began in July 2013 and will last until October 2013. It will support almost 7,000 people, improving access to water, hygiene and sanitation for Syrian refugees and host communities.
What challenges need to be addressed?
One of the main challenges related to this launch period for CARE Lebanon is to get solid data and information of the situation. Coordination mechanisms between NGOs present on site should be strengthened.
In collaboration with the UNHCR and other organizations, we will start to conduct a thorough mapping of refugees’ locations and needs. It is important to bear in mind that many refugees do not seek help, do not get registered by the UNHCR or other structures and, therefore, are not easy to identify. They settle wherever they can, such as construction yards and abandoned buildings; they rent small apartments, attics, garages or opt for informal dwellings. We already know some of these places, but there is much more work left in order to map out the entire region.