Refugees are set to make up a third of Lebanon’s population by late 2014. But the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is massively underfunded in the country, forcing it to do more with less. In this blog post, MPP Master’s student Alessandro Pezzano shares his first experiences from the field and gives an early insight into his research theme: the use of technology to improve aid effectiveness.
Stuck at Istanbul airport, waiting for my transfer to Beirut, I receive an alarming text: there has been a suicide bombing in the southern part of the Lebanese capital, so it may be difficult to reach my destination. I’m going to Beirut to conduct fieldwork on the use of ICT in providing humanitarian assistance to Syrians in Lebanon.
I haven’t even touched Lebanese soil and I already have a taste of “instability”. Two days later, the car radio echoes news of a second explosion, close to the Saudi embassy. “Goodbye tourist season” is the laconic comment from my Lebanese friend Dima.
In a tiny country like Lebanon, extremely vulnerable to regional events, with a population of less than 5 million people, one can imagine the huge impact of 1.2 million registered refugees (plus hundreds of thousands unregistered).
Displaced Syrians are scattered throughout the country since a moratorium on the construction of refugee camps. Just a few days ago (5 July 2014), Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil again rejected proposals for an amendment, saying “we are entrusted with preserving this unity and the country’s stability and to protect the Lebanese people”. The Lebanese government does not want displaced Syrians to settle permanently, and is urging for their “speedy exit”. This makes humanitarian assistance very challenging.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees (84 per cent) are urban displaced living in the heart of host communities in rented housing, abandoned or unfinished buildings and garages. These people are “invisible” to the humanitarian community, as they blend in with the host communities, making them hard to identify. The remaining Syrians (16 per cent) reside in informal camps, mostly in the Bekaa Valley, where they face a lack of the most basic needs and are exposed to harsh weather conditions, in winter as in summer.
The humanitarian response, led by UNHCR, is applying innovative strategies to tackle these challenging issues; in fact, I am here to understand how technology is used to speed up and target the aid more effectively. However, underfunding is a major concern for the UN: of the US$1.7 billion appealed for Lebanon in 2014, only 17 per cent has been met.
I’m in a servìs, the typical Lebanese shared taxi, when the driver stops at a group of three waving people: they’re dressed in threadbare jumpsuits, carrying plastic bags and an old carpet. They speak in Arabic. The driver is clearly reluctant, and eventually drives away leaving them standing by the road.
“Syrians! I don’t like them, at all. No job, no money, nothing, just roaming the streets, asking for money. They are too much, we should chase them away”. I think to myself that one cannot blame people for thinking like this, and it must be said that the Lebanese community is extremely hospitable, frequently accommodating Syrians in their own homes; still, his words and actions sting.
An Italian journalist has written that “Beirut is a place where you train to live with the other,” a statement that I think brilliantly describes the country. However, the difficult cohabitation between 18 different sects in the country means a spark can easily become a blaze.
The influx of refugees has exacerbated what were already urgent problems: water, health care, and infrastructure (already inadequate for the most vulnerable portion of the Lebanese population); problems that have become more acute due to the population increase. Unemployment was high even before the Syrian crisis, so competition on the job market, also in the informal sector, is seen as a potential trigger for turning resentment into social conflict.
Another scene that captures my “foreigner’s eyes” is street begging; nothing new, when you come from Italy. However, everyone here agrees that it is on the increase. Most beggars are children. I am frequently stopped by groups of them, sometimes with an offer to shine my shoes, but often just with empty outstretched hands. If I were to satisfy all of them, I would quickly run out of funds. UNHCR has estimated that, in February 2014, 50 per cent of Syrian children were out of school.
It’s hard to talk about solutions in Lebanon. With the conflict in Syria showing no end in sight and a history of accepting refugees, the latter are set to make up a third of the country’s population by the end of 2014. Coupled with a decline in the socioeconomic conditions within Lebanon, this demands urgent responses.
Technology and displacement
There is growing recognition in the humanitarian world of the role that technology can play in complementing traditional forms of assistance. UN OCHA’s report ‘Humanitarianism in the Network Age’ testifies to some of these opportunities.
Given the urban nature of displacement in Lebanon, it is often challenging to identify and reach people in need. In humanitarian crises, people not only need material assistance; they also have an urgent need for information. Despite this, there is limited research on the application of ICTs in the field. This motivated my visit to Lebanon to assess technology use by organisations providing humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrian populations.
During my field interviews, I have witnessed how mobile and internet-based technologies can address information gaps by providing relevant, prompt and effective information to refugees. However, there are still many challenges in the implementation of such technologies, largely due to institutional reasons such as coordination between different actors and resource constraints.
I have also observed the use of GPS and GIS to keep track of informal settlements – since displaced populations are often highly mobile. These technologies can help to monitor movements and speed up relief aid by providing more accurate and timely data.
UNHCR / S.Baldwin / D.Khamissy;