Top UN humanitarian officials visit Syrian refugees, call for support for Lebanon
DEIR EL AHMAR, Lebanon, UNHCR – Before the Syrian civil war, the picturesque Lebanese hill town of Deir El Ahmar saw occasional seasonal field workers arriving from Syria to pick tobacco, onions and other crops and then return home after the harvest.
Today, 14 settlements dot the outskirts of the town overlooking the Bekaa Valley and around 5,000 refugees live there. Few are showing signs of going home. Across Lebanon, tensions between host communities and Syrian refugees-now more than 1.4 million-are growing, thanks in part to events such as the kidnapping of Lebanese soldiers by Syrian militants.
In this environment, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and the head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Helen Clark, arrived in Deir El Ahmar on Tuesday to show their support for the refugees and to pledge their backing for Lebanon, which has taken the largest share of refugees from the three-year civil war.
The visit underscored a shift in the international response to the Syrian crisis: not only should assistance flow to refugees, said Guterres and Clark, but increasingly it must also flow to host communities in neighbouring countries to help them cope with the burden.
"The international community is not doing enough for Lebanon," Guterres said, while visiting a refugee settlement. "The impact on the daily life of the Lebanese, on their salaries, on their rents, their school system, the health system, the infrastructure, water, electricity: all this requires massive solidarity from the international community and Lebanon has the right to ask the international community to share this burden."
He added that, "Preserving Lebanon's stability is everybody's business."
Helen Clark, like Guterres a former prime minister, said the two were visiting Lebanon "because we see the very serious development impact that the Syrian crisis is having on Lebanon. We've been working very closely with Mr. Guterres and his agency so that both the refugee needs and those of the host community are met."
In addition to meeting with recently arrived refugees from Raqaa in Syria, Guterres and Clark visited several joint UNDP-UNHCR projects designed to help the local economy and create jobs. They included a fruit and vegetable packaging plant, a water catchment pond and the "Morning Star" women's food cooperative. The agencies are also funding the expansion of a vineyard, providing jobs for 1,000 Lebanese and 640 refugee farmers.
The Bekaa Valley is among the areas hardest hit by the refugee crisis engulfing the region. Around 770 informal tented settlements have sprung up; the valley is home to more than 410,000 refugees.
On Tuesday, Guterres and Clark met with one family who recently fled Raqaa. Unable to find regular work, the family now depends on the labour of their 12-year-old daughter, picking onions in the field. "She comes home tired, you know like any worker, she is a young girl, not fit for work," said her mother.
"Syria has become the worst humanitarian tragedy of our time," Guterres said, shortly after meeting the family. "What Lebanon is doing," he added," is an example of hospitality and protection for which the whole world is grateful."