Refugee host countries struggling to cope as funding gap widens

UN agency has $400m black hole as Lebanon plans pilot returns programme with Syrian villages, global forum hears

King Abdullah II of Jordan, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and Switzerland's State Secretary for Migration, Christine Schraner Burgener, take part in the Global Refugee Forum, in Geneva.  AFP
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Countries hosting refugees are struggling to fulfil their duties amid a widening funding gap, the Global Refugee Forum heard on Wednesday as donors were pressed for commitments to cover the shortfall.

The United Nations gathering in Geneva is garnering support from wealthier states for the low- to middle-income countries that are hosting most of the world’s displaced. The number of people displaced worldwide passed 114 million by the end of September, an all-time high and almost 40 million more than the last forum in 2019.

Among those unable to cope is Lebanon, which hosts an estimated 1.5 million refugees from Syria, almost a quarter of Lebanon’s total population, in addition to Palestinian refugees.

An economic crisis which drove 80 per cent of Lebanese people to poverty has accelerated calls for the return of Syrians to their homeland.

Najib Mikati, Prime Minister of Lebanon, told The National that the country was seeking a “sustainable” solution which would enable the “safe” return of Syrian refugees.

“We are here to express the burden of the Lebanese people. Amid the multiple circumstances, it is the burden of the large number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, while also trying to fulfil our humanitarian duties,” he told The National, after his address at the forum.

“I’ve asked the international community to form a partnership that will reach a decision on the Syrian presence in Lebanon,” he said.

Fears of demographic change are also behind the call for their return. “There is a demographic change happening in Lebanon, and this is a danger. We’ve raised our voice and asked for sustainable solution soon,” he said.

Dr Mikati insisted the return would be “safe” and done in co-ordination with the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR).

Lebanon had begun tentative conversations with the UNHCR to develop a pilot project in five Syrian villages, he said.

“These are safe villages and the return will be done in a way that is acceptable to the people, and especially with the support of the international community,’ he added.

Yet Syrians say they face persecution, torture and death from the Syrian government should they return.

Joumana Habra, chairwoman of the Women’s Support Association, and a Syrian refugee in Turkey, said she was “deeply hurt and angry” by the Prime Minister’s address at the forum, in which he reiterated his calls for the return of Syrians.

“All Syrian refugees in the world are tied to their land and their villages, but how can they return when there is no safety there?” she told The National.

UNHCR high commissioner Filippo Grandi said the agency had been in “constant conversation” with the Lebanese government.

“I share the Prime Minister's deep concern that he expressed this morning in his statement. The burden is enormous on a country that has a lot of other challenges,” he said, at a press briefing

While the agency would not endorse a “forced return” of Syrians, he promised “extra funding” for Lebanon, including $30 million allocated by the United States in recent days.

Yet Lebanon is just one of the victims of funding shortfalls towards refugees his year.

Mr Grandi highlighted these dire funding shortages at his opening address at the forum, calling on donors to strengthen their support.

“Many humanitarian organisations are facing severe funding challenges,” he said, pointing out that “UNHCR alone is lacking $400 million to end the year with the minimum of needed resources”.

That, he said, was “a shortfall we have not experienced in years, and we are all looking with much concern at 2024".

Mr Grandi said that amounts to “114 million shattered dreams, disrupted lives, interrupted hopes. It is a figure that reflects a crisis – many crises – of humanity”.

Among them, nearly 36.5 million have fled across borders and are living as refugees, according to UNHCR – a number that has doubled in the past seven years and looks set to rise.

King Abdullah of Jordan echoed these concerns about funding in his keynote address to the forum. Jordan hosts more than 4 million refugees, about a third of its entire population.

Yet the country had only received around 22 per cent of its pledged needs this year, the lowest ever, with the rest covered by its national budget, he told delegates.

“We recognise that this is a long-term commitment that we are undertaking on behalf of the international community,” he said.

Likewise, the international community should not resort to short-term solutions and move on to the next crisis,” he said.

In doing so, the international community risked “leaving a lost generation behind”.

Updated: December 13, 2023, 5:46 PM