Christina Malkoun
Last updated: 18 June, 2013

Interview: Syrian refugees and the role of the UN

As part of her series on Syrian refugees, Christina Malkoun talks to Reem Al Salem, regional spokesperson of the Higher Committee of the United Nations for Refugees (UNHCR) in Beirut.

Reem began working for the international organization 14 years ago. She started volunteering in Cairo, and since then has toured the continent to defend a single cause: the humanitarian one.

Can you describe the situation of Syrian refugees?
You should know from the outset that these are the most vulnerable, women and children, and account for three-quarters of the refugee population. Many had to walk for days to reach the border. Others had to pay to get out of Syria. There are families that were shot while fleeing. The women, the elderly, and the children arrive in Lebanon in bad health, many of them injured. We saw pregnant women give birth on the way, and others who lost their babies. What is surprising is that, despite the difficulty of their condition, the only thing that worries them is their family back home. Women have left their husbands or brothers behind to protect their property. In general, older people refuse to leave because of their pride, at the peril of their lives.

All of them talk of returning to Syria. They were happy with the life they led there. We met with doctors, engineers, farmers, owners of important properties, who have lost everything to escape the fighting. Children bear the signs of what is called “war-related post-traumatic stress”: insomnia, withdrawal symptoms. Some women have been raped, an act used as a weapon of psychological war; destroying the “enemy” by touching his wife and daughters.

The UNHCR is trying to set up a service to address these problems, to take care for these women so that they can talk about what happened to them and that way we can better help them.

Many refugees are unfortunately exploited in host countries where some try to take advantage of their vulnerability. We try to be vigilant about this but it is difficult to keep track of such a large number of refugees scattered over 700 Lebanese towns.

Do you have any numbers?
Yes and they are alarming. Currently, there are no fewer than 8,000 refugees that enter the borders per day, divided between Jordan (3,000) and Lebanon (2,000), whereas Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt share the other 3,000. We are talking about 200,000 refugees that arrive each month. We estimated one million refugees in June 2013, however to date, we have reached 1,560,000 refugees between those who are registered and those who are waiting to be, including 485,000 in Lebanon! So things are moving faster than expected.

We also believe that there is the same number of refugees who have not yet been registered with the UNHCR simply because they are afraid, or do not know how to do so or are unable to access our centres. Let us add to this the 4 million Syrians that are displaced inside Syria. In total, that makes 5,5 million displaced people – one fifth of the Syrian population!

How do refugees register?
The UNHCR has created four registration centres that are open 24 hours in Tripoli, Beirut, Bekaa, and Tyre. Many refugees complain about the slowness of the process. We have reduced the waiting time from 4 months to less than a month. In Lebanon, we have increased the registration capacity by 250%. The procedure entails regularising the situation of the people in their host countries. So there are protocols to follow. We organise meetings with each family to differentiate a true refugee from a migrant worker wanting to take advantage of the situation. It is true that it takes time and it may frustrate them, but this is the only way to identify the most vulnerable people in order to help them first.

What kind of assistance do you provide for refugees?
We have fortunately found great generosity in all host countries – in Lebanon, just as in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq although these countries have encountered major economic problems. People do not hesitate to welcome families in their living rooms and even in their bedrooms. Local doctors have volunteered to care of the sick and injured. The humanitarian movement was phenomenal. There are municipalities whose population has increased by 40% with the arrival of refugees. Local authorities organised a help system in each country.

As for us, we are involved in providing housing, food, etc. Wherever possible, we avoid camps because it is obviously not the best way to accommodate the displaced. But with this alarming number of refugees, we were forced to open some in Jordan and Turkey, and there is one in Iraq also. In Lebanon, the government has banned the establishment of camps, so we search for abandoned schools and disused buildings instead. When it comes to healthcare, we try to cover serious or urgent matters such as pregnancy care, childbirth, cancer, and heart problems. But as we unfortunately cannot cope with everything, we sometimes direct patients to other organisations.

What are the challenges the UNHCR faces today?
The first and most disturbing thing is that we see no political solution on the horizon.

Then there is a dramatic acceleration, month by month, in the number of refugees. Generally, in this kind of humanitarian crises the situation eventually stabilises itself, which gives us time to plan ahead, to implement the necessary services, etc. In the case of Syria, things don’t stop getting worse.

Also, we have a major problem with fundraising. The responses of the international community have not always lived up to our expectations. There are 60 aid agencies, including the UNHCR and the United Nations that have launched an appeal asking for $1.1 trillion just to tackle the refugee issue. This is the greatest demand in the history of humanitarianism. We have received to date less than 50% of these funds, which is obviously insufficient to provide the minimum requirements, which consist of 200 calories per day per person, a duvet and 20 litres of water per family. We are facing an untenable situation and we will need to sound the alarm!

A message to Arab women?
The number of Arabs in organisations such as the UNHCR is unfortunately minimal. This is even truer for women. Arab youth should benefit from greater awareness of the situation and to get involved in humanitarian causes because who could better understand an Arab than another Arab? And what is happening now to the Syrians could happen to us someday. Who would have thought that such a humanitarian disaster could occur so close to home, in the beautiful streets of the Syria that we once loved to visit? The world today is unpredictable. Anything can happen.

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