Mireille Girard leads UNHCR’s presence in Lebanon, to deliver refugee protection and humanitarian operations. Over one million Syrians have fled to Lebanon, where refugees now account for a quarter of the country’s population. We spoke with Mireille about what this means for Lebanon and how the UNHCR is helping these refugees.
- Your career with UNHCR has been quite extensive. What is it that first drew you to work for the organisation and what continues to drive you today?
A determination that everyone can contribute to alleviating the plight of refugees and do something to help them.
Refugees are seldom understood, they are mistaken for economic migrants or perceived as presenting a security risk for countries whereas they are precisely fleeing violence and persecution and desperately need protection.
- What is involved in your role as the UNHCR Representative to Lebanon?
My role entails, first and foremost listening to refugees and ensuring that they participate in decision-making about programmes and services designed to benefit them, such as health care, cash assistance, shelter and education. As a Representative, it is important to make sure the voices of refugees are heard as part of the protection advocacy UNHCR undertakes on their behalf.
We work with host communities to enhance awareness and endeavour to also address their needs when community resources are affected by the large presence of refugees. This contributes to building peaceful co-existence and a positive public sentiment toward refugees. I also liaise closely with authorities at local and central levels to maintain or expand the protection space for refugees when required.
Another important aspect of the job of Representative is to raise awareness among donor governments and the public and advocate for funding and other forms of international support. Without the necessary funds, UNHCR cannot provide the services that refugees in Lebanon so desperately need to help their families make ends meet.
- The humanitarian crisis in Syria is one of the worst of our time. Just what sort of impact is this having on the ground for refugees and their families?
There are 6.3 million displaced from their homes inside the country and more than 5 million refugees displaced to neighbouring countries. The overwhelming majority of refugees from Syria remain in the Middle East region, and this puts great strain on countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt which have been hosting millions of refugees – some for up to six years now.
Because they have been displaced for so long, many refugees are now well past the point of exhausting their resources and any savings they might have had. Despite the generous support of the hosting communities, and aid from international actors such as UNHCR, the vast majority are now living below the poverty line. In Lebanon, 70 per cent of Syrian refugee households are living below the poverty line, including 50 per cent who are below the extreme poverty line. The reality for refugee families is that they live by the day, and every day presents new challenges. They are living two or three families in a small apartment, in garages and unfinished buildings, or in tents or flimsy shelters in rural areas. Many cannot afford health care, clothes and school supplies for their children, or the basic household necessities for a dignified life for their families.
- What are some of the main obstacles that refugees are experiencing and how is the UNHCR assisting?
One of the main challenges for refugees is being able to maintain a legal and secure stay and to provide a decent life for their families in their country of asylum until such time in the future when conditions in Syria are right for them to voluntarily return home in safety and dignity. In Lebanon for example we have recently worked with the Government which took the decision to waive the annual residency fee of USD 200 per person for a large number of Syrian refugees. This fee had previously been unaffordable for Syrian families, deepening debt among a group where the average household debt is already close to USD 900.
One of the key innovative responses by UNHCR is its programme of cash based interventions, where refugees are provided with a monthly payment, pre-loaded on an ATM card. This allows refugees the dignity of choosing the kind of assistance they need in each particular month, whether it is to pay for medicine, new clothes for the children, rent, heating, food or other assistance. In 2016, UNHCR’s cash assistance reached close to 1.76 million Syrian refugees across the region, with a value of USD 324 million. It is also much more efficient, with no intermediary so that the maximum of each dollar of aid is going directly into the refugees pocket and being spent on local goods and services, also strengthening the local economy in host communities.
But these are safety nets which we need to have in place because refugees do not yet have widespread access to proper livelihoods. Being able to find secure, even if temporary, legal employment that is free from exploitation or harmful work practices is vital, though difficult at a time when the economies of Syria’s neighbours are being heavily impacted by loss of trade and tourism due to the war. There have been positive moves in this area: Jordan has issued or renewed 53,000 work permits to Syrian refugees, while Turkey has granted more than 19,000 work permits to Syrian refugees so far. But more needs to be done to support the economies of these countries so they generate sufficient jobs both for nationals and for refugees.
We also need to encourage social cohesion among refugees and their host communities, to ensure that rising tension or the perceived competition for resources does not break out into hostility.
Since the start of the crisis, host countries have generously opened their national health and education systems, as well as local and municipal services, to Syrian refugees. UNHCR works to improve services such as schools, health care centres and hospitals, and water and sewage services at the local level which are accessed by both refugee and host community members. This helps avoid that they represent an additional cost to already struggling host countries and shows those local communities, which have been hosting refugees for up to seven years, that the international community is standing with them and that their local services will have lasting improvements even after the refugees have eventually left their communities.
- The Syrian crisis is seemingly without end. What can countries be doing better to help the plight of refugees? How can individuals help?
We need three things from countries, individuals and civil society.
Firstly, political support for a Syrian led and owned peaceful resolution of the crisis in Syria. This is the only way that Syrian refugees will get the assurance that ceasefires will hold and that a lasting peace will be in place. This will allow them to eventually return home in safety and dignity.
Secondly, funding is vital. Donors, including Governments, companies and private citizens in Australia, New Zealand and scores of other countries, have collectively contributed over USD 1 billion this year to the Syria response, but the funding is not keeping up with needs. The Syria refugee response for all UN and NGO agencies in 2017 is only 33 per cent funded in August, and UNHCR alone needs around 1 billion dollars to meet all the needs to the end of the year in the region. Without further funding our cash assistance programme and emergency healthcare programmes in Lebanon and Jordan could end by October. We are appealing to all of our donors to try to do more for the Syrian refugees.
Thirdly, resettlement for Syrian refugees is a vital way of helping individual families to restart their lives in a new country such as Australia or New Zealand, and to show host countries such as Jordan and Lebanon that the international community is willing to share the responsibility. Again, the generosity of resettlement countries has given us the chance to help some 200,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees with this solution over the past five years. However, we still estimate that around 300,000 Syrian are in need of resettlement to a third country, and we are calling on all countries to assist – whether through traditional resettlement or through other pathways such as private sponsorship schemes, family reunion, temporary employment or scholarships to study. When given a chance, refugees are very keen to show how much they can contribute to new communities, this is their way to give back.
To find out more how you can help, visit the Australia for UNHCR website here