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Despair among Syrians cut off from UN cash assistance in Lebanon

Facing a budget shortfall, the UN Refugee Agency and the World Food Program are cutting monthly cash assistance for some Syrian refugees in Lebanon, many of whom already live in extreme poverty.

29 November 2022

BEIRUT ­– Two weeks ago, Abu Firas*, a Syrian refugee in Arsal, received a text message informing him that his family will lose their monthly cash assistance from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in January due to budget constraints. Around the same time, Omar, a 28-year-old Syrian living in Saadnayel with assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and WFP, received a similar text, as did his sister.

The UN aid cuts come at a time of deep economic crisis in Lebanon, where three-quarters of the population live in poverty—refugees and host communities alike.

“Budget constraints force us to make difficult decisions and [to] not to be able to support everyone who is in need of assistance,” UNHCR Lebanon spokesperson Paula Barrachina told Syria Direct. “Some families were not selected for assistance in the coming year, while, for example, others who were not receiving assistance last year may have been added as new beneficiaries,” she said. 

UNHCR spokespeople told Syria Direct they do not yet have an exact number of how many Syrian refugees in Lebanon are being cut off from cash assistance, while the WFP press office did not respond to a request for information by the time of publication.

In October, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi warned of “severe cuts” at the agency if it did not receive an additional $700 million in funding. He expressed “particular concerns” about parts of the Middle East, without mentioning specific countries. The UN agency’s funding shortfall is related to additional expenses due to displacement related to the Russia-Ukraine war, the 2021 Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and devastating floods in Pakistan.

UNHCR had previously warned that in Lebanon, without additional funding, “[cash]support will need to be reduced.” Even before the latest cuts, 70,000 vulnerable refugee households did not receive cash assistance, and 277,000 Syrian families were at risk of not receiving additional winter cash assistance.

How are we going to eat?

“When my wife read the message, she was in shock,” Abu Firas said. “She’s pregnant, she couldn’t breathe. I tried to console her, saying ‘God will provide for us’, but I knew this was just talk. I was panicking even more than her.”

Abu Firas, who is originally from Syria’s Qalamoun area northeast of Damascus, fled to Lebanon in 2012 after defecting from the Syrian army. He has lived in a refugee camp with his wife and children in Arsal, northern Lebanon, since then. UNHCR and WFP cash assistance has been a lifeline for his family, especially as Lebanon’s economy deteriorates. Without it, the father of four does not know what he will do.

“After I told my children [about this cut], my youngest son asked me ‘baba, how are we going to eat?’ I told him, ‘we’ll eat, no worries’—but I was lying.”  

A screenshot of a text message sent to Syrian refugees to inform them they will lose monthly UN assistance in January 2023 due to budget cuts, 11/2022 (Syria Direct)

Currently, Abu Firas’ family receives 3 million LBP per month [$75 at the parallel exchange rate] from the UN. The cash already does not go far. The family pays $10 rent for their tent in Arsal, $15 for electricity and $40 for school transportation. “Those $65 are for the basics,” Abu Firas said. “I can’t take out the school van because my children will be out of school, I can’t stop paying electricity because we will be in darkness, and if I don’t pay rent, I’ll have to leave,” he said. 

Abu Firas lost his job as a manager of a Syrian aid initiative more than two years ago, and has struggled to find work ever since. His family is around $250 in debt, and is among the 96 percent of Syrian refugee families suffering food insecurity in Lebanon. “A bread bundle is 60,000 LPB [$1.50] and we have one per day, so we spend 1.8 million LBP [$45] monthly on bread…we only eat meat on Eid El Adha,” he said. 

Lebanon’s currency has lost 90 percent of its value since 2019. The country has 208 percent inflation in the price of food, the second highest in the world. Nine out of 10 Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty, and increasing challenges in Lebanon have driven some to return to Syria, and others to cross the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to reach Europe, with fatal consequences.

Chronic underfunding

Lebanon, a country of 6 million, hosts around 1.5 million Syrian refugees—831,053 of whom are registered with the UN Refugee Agency. Currently, UNHCR operations in Lebanon are only “50 percent funded,” UNHCR spokesperson Nadine Mazloum said. A “wider funding gap” is anticipated in 2023, while the needs of refugees and Lebanese host communities are only expected to increase.

This underfunding is not unique to Lebanon. Currently, 12 UNHCR operations—in countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Chad or Colombia— receive only half the necessary funds.

Still, some 89 percent of refugee households in Lebanon currently receive some type of cash assistance, Barrachina noted. The most important UNHCR cash programs are the year-round Multi-Purpose Cash Assistance Programme of 1 million LBP per family per month [$25], as well as the seasonal Winter Cash Assistance Program, which provides 2 million LBP [$50] per family per month for up to three months. Refugees can also receive cash assistance of 500,000 LBP [$12.50] per person from WFP.

The minimum amount of money needed to survive in Lebanon, which the UN refers to as the Survival Minimum Expenditure Basket (SMEB), is estimated at 3,941,540 LBP [98$] per household per month. Since the beginning of Lebanon’s 2019 economic crisis, the number of Syrian households receiving Multi-Purpose or Winter Cash Assistance has increased, but needs have risen faster. 

Made with Flourish

“I used to pay rent with that help, if I don’t pay rent, where do I go?” said Omar, who also learned earlier this month that he would lose cash assistance in January. 

Omar, originally from the southern Damascus suburb of Darayya, fled to Lebanon in 2013, where he lives with his mother and siblings in a house in Saadnayel. They currently receive 500,000 LBP [$12.50] per person from the UN each month. His sister, who has her own UNHCR file, has also been told she will no longer receive cash in 2023. 

“I was already spending less on food in order to pay the rent, but now what?” Omar asked. His landlord recently raised his rent from $100 to $150, “because they hear that Syrians get money from the UN,” he said.  

Omar works as a day laborer, with an unstable income. It is tough to get by in Lebanon, but even without cash assistance, and even if Lebanon’s economy deteriorates further, he does not see returning to Syria as an option. “My father was detained by the regime, and me and my brother are sought by the army,” he explained. 

He struggles to make sense of the decision to cut cash assistance for refugees as life in Lebanon grows increasingly difficult, and is critical of funding priorities as he perceives them. “Before [the 2019 crisis], it was $27 per person, now it’s 500,000 LBP, so $12…but a UN worker gets more than $6,000? I’m not saying they don’t deserve it. I know they have degrees, but they’re working to serve these people [refugees] and they live as kings, honestly.” 

Abu Firas, as a defector from the Syrian army, also has no option of returning to his home country. “I’d be killed the moment I enter; I can’t make this move even if I drown in the sea,” he said. “I feel these budget cuts are a way of pressuring us to return, that’s my opinion.”

With winter and the prospect of a 2023 without cash assistance looming, his only hope is for resettlement. “I hope my family can get resettled, to any place, even Sudan,” he said.

*Abu Firas’ name has been altered due to security concerns.

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