Lebanese minister dismisses as 'an affront' UN plan to pay refugee aid in US dollars

UNHCR announced this as alternative to unstable Lebanese currency for providing Syrians with support

Syrian refugees living in an informal settlement, in Al Marj, in Bekaa, eastern Lebanon. Reuters
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Lebanon’s caretaker Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar has rejected a plan by the UN's refugee agency to pay aid to Syrian refugees in US dollars, dismissing the initiative an “affront” on Friday.

This followed a UNHCR announcement this week that Syrian refugees in Lebanon would be able to withdraw cash aid in dollars from late May, rather than in the unstable and devaluing Lebanese pound.

Eligible Syrian families can now receive a maximum of $125 a month in cash assistance from UNHCR and the UN's World Food Programme.

Previously, the maximum a family of five received was roughly the equivalent of $80, paid in Lebanese pounds.

At a press briefing, Mr Hajjar said his ministry had not received official notification of the change.

“How was this decision taken when the Ministry of Social Affairs responsible for this matter did not agree?” he asked.

He said UNHCR had proposed to the ministry to raise cash assistance to $140 – a basic $40 sum, plus $20 per family member, capped at five people.

Mr Hajjar said he had rejected this as “the amount is much higher than that of a first-level public sector worker”.

However, Mr Hajjar, who is close to the Free Patriotic Movement, known for its anti-refugee stance, did not mention a fourfold rise in public sector salaries last month.

Employees can also withdraw salaries at a favourable exchange rate through the Central Bank’s Sayrafa platform.

“The majority of Lebanese popular opinion rejects Syrian displacement in Lebanon and is comparing the different help the displaced receive in comparison to the very simple assistance that Lebanese receive,” he said.

Lebanon has taken in between one million and 1.5 million refugees from Syria's civil war, which began in 2011.

At a time when Lebanon is beset by a severe economic crisis, with most of the population living in poverty, this has further strained the country's resources.

In recent weeks, the Lebanese government has ramped up efforts to deport refugees seen as illegal. Deportations have been accompanied by an escalation in calls for other refugees to return to Syria.

Syrian refugees have been met with greater hostility since the onset of Lebanon’s economic crisis in 2019, because of a perception that Lebanese nationals must compete with Syrians for resources and that refugees are provided with large sums of cash from humanitarian organisations.

Some observers say this has largely been driven by political scapegoating, as Lebanon’s political class seeks to deflect from the country’s financial crash.

“Paying Syrians in dollars encourages them to stay in Lebanon and allows their integration into society,” Mr Hajjar said. “We need to get the wheel moving on returns, not staying.”

He demanded that UNHCR and other international groups provide aid to Syrian refugees not in Lebanon, but in Syria, in order to incentivise their return.

Although untrue, it was already a popular belief throughout the country that Syrian refugees were receiving cash aid in dollars.

Updated: May 26, 2023, 5:26 PM