Frozen aid, frozen children: the corruption and unfulfilled promises pervading relief work to Syrians in Lebanon
During Lebanon’s snowstorm Alexa, five Syrian children froze to death. Who is to blame for these senseless deaths? Is it the Lebanese state, which has shirked its duties toward Syrian refugees? Or UN agencies, which have spent nearly $1 billion in one year, and yet, children continue to die because they lack a blanket?
Uday Mohammed Ghazi, a 3-month-old Syrian refugee in the Baben refugee camp in Ersal, eastern Lebanon.
Mahmoud Raad, a 3-month-old Syrian refugee who was living in a wood shack in Akroum, Akkar, northern
Lebanon.Abdullah Shazli, a 9-month-old Syrian refugee in Hai al-Hariryeh, Deir Zanoun, Bekaa, eastern Lebanon.
Mohammed al-Saghir, a 10-month-old Syrian refugee who was living in a tent on a farm in the western Bekaa, eastern Lebanon.
They covered her with the only “thick” blanket they had, thinking it would protect her from the cold. But Shahd never woke up. Shahd al-Sharid, a 21-month-old Syrian refugee who was staying in a room in a building under construction in Bar Elias, near Zahleh, eastern Lebanon.These are the names of the five infants who will never grow up. They had the right to live, but were forced to die before they developed a will of their own, because, all too simply, no one had given them something as basic as a blanket in the country where their parents sought asylum.
Uday died because his parents did not have anything to cover his tiny body, after the neighbors took back their blankets on a freezing cold night in Ersal. Then imagine Shahd, and how she tucked her head into her mother’s chest for one last time, and stayed there.
Imagine Mahmoud, who died in his mother’s lap in the wooden room bearing the logo of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). And imagine Mohammed Qanbar, the 3-year-old who is now connected to oxygen support at a hospital in Bar Elias, because his mother found nothing to burn in the fireplace other than plastic bags.
Those who died were killed by the cold, not disease. They were killed by the false “propaganda” about blankets and heating fuel supposedly distributed to them. And they were killed by the negligence of their host state, Lebanon, which has distanced itself from their plight, citing the international community’s lack of response to its appeals for funding.
They will not be the last victims. Future storms will not spare others. Past and future victims are the responsibility of the Lebanese government, the UNHCR, and all those in charge of relief for Syrian refugees.
Let’s start with the Lebanese state and the account of Shahd al-Sharid’s death. Why did Shahd die? A few days before she passed, the little girl had caught the flu. Her symptoms were dramatically aggravated by the deadly cold, so her father took her to a hospital in Bar Elias. But the hospital did not admit her because the parents had no money.
The parents took Shahd back home, but at night, her pain worsened. Her parents took her to another hospital, but they got the same answer there. The parents took her back home again. They covered her with the only “thick” blanket they had, thinking it would protect her from the cold. But Shahd never woke up. Ali Hassan Khalil, the minister of public health in the caretaker government, refuses to take any blame for the death. The minister does not believe that she died from extreme cold, saying, “We did not receive a report about this.”
Khalil then claimed, “As a ministry, it is not our legal responsibility to provide medical care for Syrian refugees, nor do we have the capabilities to do so.” Khalil said the responsibility instead “falls on the UN agencies and international donors that have not given us a single Lebanese pound to relieve the refugees.”
But it is not the state alone to blame, there is also the issue of external political attitudes on Lebanon, because no country wants to deliver aid through the [Lebanese] government. Nevertheless, Khalil did not deny that he had offered some help where he could, pointing out that he assists at times with exceptional cases such as those involving patients requiring dialysis or cancer patients. In such cases, the minister takes exceptional measures for which he takes personal responsibility. But what about Shahd? Wasn’t she an exceptional case that the minister could have intervened in? “Perhaps,” he said, “but I cannot handle more than I can bear.”
What applies to the Health Ministry applies to the Ministry of Social Affairs, as well. In normal circumstances, this government department is supposed to act as the “filter and the overseer” in all that relates to relief and emergency plans. But as far as Lebanese law and the capabilities of the ministry are concerned, “we are in the back seat when it comes to relief and the Syrian refugees in Lebanon,” said Minister Wael Abu Faour.
The minister has no qualms about admitting that he is “nothing more than the person who requests aid from an employee of the United Nations.” Why? Because of the Lebanese state first and foremost, as the minister said, explaining, “Despite the swelling numbers of refugees, [the Lebanese state] has been unable to make a decision to build temporary camps for them.”
He added, “But it is not the state alone to blame, there is also the issue of external political attitudes on Lebanon, because no country wants to deliver aid through the [Lebanese] government. The money is given to international NGOs to do with it as they please, but when there is failure, the [Lebanese] government is held responsible.”
Abu Faour continued, “Nonetheless, we are trying to come up with a mechanism for coordination among the NGOs, but how can we succeed when most of them deal with the [refugee] issue like it is a business?”
One stark example of how donor countries have dealt with the refugees so far is that of the United Arab Emirates. Amid much fanfare in the media, the UAE pledged to offer the “largest aid package” so far, worth $20 million, in the form of food assistance for 150,000 displaced families. But none of this ever materialized, and the same goes for many such stunts by other countries.
The Lebanese government has dissociated itself from all responsibility, because it is purportedly powerless, according to its ministers. But this alone cannot justify the deaths. Why has the government not agreed to build official temporary camps instead of the 470 random ones scattered throughout the republic, and which do not meet the bare minimum conditions for a decent life? The government could have at the very least protected the refugees from the frost.
Abu Faour said this is what the UN agencies could have done, “if they cooperated with us.” Abu Faour is right in that the UN cannot be exempted from responsibility for what happened.
A simple calculation set against the number of UNHCR-registered refugees, who until the same date numbered 842,482, shows that each refugee should receive $999. If we set the amount against the number of displaced families, estimated at about 179,612 registered with the UNHCR, then each family should receive $4,688 or the equivalent of $391 per family each month. This is if we go by the number of UNHCR-registered refugees.
But if we go by the total number of refugees according to the figures of the Lebanese government, which currently stands at 1.5 million refugees (or 326,000 families), and who should be covered by the UNHCR program, each family should get $217 per month.
The UNHCR rejects this kind of arithmetic. Dana Suleiman, media spokesperson for the UNHCR, said the funds that her agency obtains are not disbursed in this way, and that they do not come in in one lump sum. She said, “[The funds] are subject to the conditions of the donor countries and how they wish to disburse them, in addition to logistical considerations requiring the use of associations and institutions, including some that do not have qualified staff.”
Who oversees the work of these organizations, and who can guarantee that the aid is reaching the intended recipients?While the amount may seem sufficient, how it should be spent represents a “major challenge” for the UNHCR, according to Suleiman. “For this reason, we work according to a triage system, focusing some programs on the most vulnerable segments while implementing other programs that we know can benefit everyone.”
Suleiman said, “We are the equivalent of a donor party, working in coordination with international NGOs and civil society associations, which we allocate funds based on our programs meant for the refugees – in addition to programs like food rations, heating fuel vouchers for those living at an altitude of over 500 meters, and emergency relief with things like blankets and winter clothes, as well as medical care. Who oversees the work of these organizations, and who can guarantee that the aid is reaching the intended recipients?
Suleiman said, “This is a great challenge. We are doing what we can and we are monitoring, but there are always obstacles and irregularities in the work of some parties.”“The refugees’ complaints are referred to the highest levels in the UNHCR,” she added.
While Suleiman said she did not know the exact details of the irregularities, others at the UNHCR were able to provide examples, including “the sacking of employees on the back of favoritism toward certain refugees, and terminating contracts with firms that manipulate the value of food vouchers, but more importantly, the meals themselves, which are bought at $12 each, but in some cases were delivered containing food worth $4.”
In the same vein, the refugees can tell us what that the UNHCR withholds. One example involves the number of people the UNHCR employs. For instance, in the agency’s Kobayyat office alone, 200 employees are hired to register the refugees. But, the refugees ask, what if their salaries were instead used to fund aid for them?
A Lucrative Business
Many merchants have volunteered to become involved in refugee relief, but for reasons other than philanthropy. According to one refugee in Tripoli, one infamous example involves girls who were married off to princes and wealthy men in return for aid.
The refugee listed some names of those who see relief as nothing more than a business, including the Tibeh Association, whose owner Mohammed Fares collected millions of dollars from Kuwaiti donors, and Abdul-Ghafour Alameddine and other clerics known in refugee circles, who exploited the crisis for personal gain.
Lava and Jacqueline: Dying From a Collapsed Roof
Jacqueline Mahmoud, 6, and her sister Lava, 3, died when the ceiling of the room where their family lived, after fleeing death in Syria, collapsed. The ceiling cracked the skull of their father Riad and broke their mother’s ribs.
Six months ago, the family fled from the fighting in Afrin in the Aleppo countryside, to what the family thought was safety in Hazarta in the Bekaa Valley. The father rented a room in a house that lacked the bare minimum of safety requirements, and thought the family would be safe there. But the ceiling collapsed and the two girls are dead.
The father refuses to blame anyone. He repeated the mantra that “complaints before anyone other than God is a humiliation.” Wiping his tears, he continued, “We ran away from death, but it chased us here.”
He recounted how he saw his daughters under the collapsed roof, covered in blood, after he was awoken by a loud noise and the screams of his wife. He said, “I don’t know what happened. I went outside, because I couldn’t see anything in the dust, and then returned to find my daughters dead under the roof.”
Mahmoud refused to blame the landlord, saying that international and humanitarian groups were to blame, for not having bothered to once visit and check on “the tragic conditions of our displaced children, and for refusing to receive us in their offices, which they claim are dedicated to study the conditions of the refugees.”
The ceiling of the room did not have steel meshing but only concrete, according to an informed source. What made matters worse is that the landlord, identified as H.O.A., had done some haphazard building work on the home, building a second floor over the substandard roof, eventually causing the incident, according to the same source.
Hazarta Mayor Ahmad Abu Hamdan said that the incident was an “act of God,” the result of cracks in the very old building that was restored without regard to safety standards. He said, “We had told the owners of all old buildings to repair them to avoid disasters that we have grown accustomed to during heavy snowfall.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.