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Refugee Crisis in Lebanon 2013-2016 and the Role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) | Lebanon |

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Refugee Crisis in Lebanon 2013-2016 and the Role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Marc Petzoldt

/ 11 Minuten zu lesen

In 2016, Lebanon hosts more than one million Syrian refugees, representing 25 percent of the population. This is the world’s highest number of refugees per inhabitant. The Syrian conflict is now entering its sixth year and humanitarian operations in Lebanon are transitioning from ‘emergency’ to ‘protracted’ crisis interventions. This report argues for the continuation of support to Lebanon to maintain peace, security and stability; support is required from the international community to cover humanitarian needs for the most vulnerable populations in Lebanon, particularly Syrians refugees.

Syrian family in a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley. 48 percent of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are under 15 years old, 36 percent are younger than 10 years. (© picture-alliance, APA/

In the past few years Lebanese communities have generously taken in and protected Syrians fleeing from the unbearable suffering brought by the war. Lebanese people have shown remarkable solidarity. Lebanon kept its borders open until early 2015. Since then admission is restricted to those who can provide proof that their stay in Lebanon fits into one of the approved Government categories for entry. Most of the Syrian refugees are living within Lebanese communities across the country, but are primarily concentrated in poorer areas of the North and the Bekaa Valley and the capital, Beirut. Even before the Syria crisis, some regions of Lebanon (namely in the North and the Bekaa) were the poorest and most underserviced. Social services, infrastructure and livelihood opportunities were limited and often inadequate.

Entwicklung der Flüchtlingszahlen (© UNHCR)

The strain of the refugee influx on host communities is enormous, and is felt in Lebanon more than in any other country in the region. A joint UN - World Bank study in 2013 revealed that the total fiscal impact and spending for stabilization cost of the crisis to Lebanon would reach USD 5.1 billion by the end of 2014. UN impact assessment pointed out that there is increased pressure on basic services (such as education, health, water and sanitation, and waste collection), as well as growing competition for jobs and sources of income. Some reports indicate that tensions and frustration among host communities are increasing towards refugees. To date, however, there have not been any serious outbreaks of violence between the communities.

It is recognized that Lebanon requires continuous international support to deal with this challenge. The World Bank has stated that despite modest growth in economic activity, spillover effects from the Syrian crisis have imposed a heavy toll on Lebanon's economy through the disruption of trade, reduction in cross-border investment, evaporation of tourism, and increased pressure on public services.

In order to address the strain on Lebanon, a shift in the international support in 2015-2016 aims at maintaining peace, security and stability at a time of high vulnerability and unprecedented threats. It is foreseen that the Government of Lebanon (GoL) and national and international partners will deliver integrated and mutually reinforcing humanitarian and stabilization interventions. Humanitarian operations in Lebanon are transitioning from ‘emergency’ to ‘protracted’ crisis interventions. A key supporter to realize these interventions is the Office of the Interner Link: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with the mandate to protect, support refugees and to identify solutions to their plight.

UNHCR's Support Strategy for Syrian Refugees

At the onset of the crisis, UNHCR led the humanitarian inter-agency refugee response in close coordination with the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) and the Ministry of Social Affairs, and with the support of almost 80 humanitarian actors including UN World Food Programme (WFP) and United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), as well as local and international non-government organizations. In order to respond to the immediate needs caused by the crisis, UNHCR put in place a regional strategy and coordination framework to address the needs for protection and assistance of refugees fleeing from the Syrian Arab Republic into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. This Regional Humanitarian Response Framework has evolved since the first plan in 2012, and was transformed in 2015 into an integrated humanitarian and stabilization/resilience plan, intended to respond to the needs of refugees and affected local communities in the host countries, while also focusing on the need to stabilize the countries. This response is jointly led by the host country, UNHCR, and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In Lebanon it is called the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP). The 2016 LCRP plan proposes a US$2.48 billion appeal to provide humanitarian and stabilization assistance and protection to almost 2.8 million highly vulnerable individuals (refugees and Lebanese) and to invest in services, economies and institutions to reach the most vulnerable communities.

The three response areas of the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan address urgent humanitarian needs for the most vulnerable populations in Lebanon, particularly Syrian refugees, as well as the coping capacity of all crisis-affected communities and certain deeper-rooted development gaps that can be addressed in the short term. Interventions are based on identified needs, capacity to implement and the potential to scale up for a positive impact on stabilization.

Other UNHCR program activities cover a variety of humanitarian sectors, including protection; health, shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); basic assistance, institutional and community support; and inter-agency coordination.

One example of the shift of the intervention strategy of the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2015 and 2016 has been strengthening and using national systems to respond to needs of refugees and nationals, i.e. the donor consortium channeling education support directly to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education’s national strategy on how to ‘Reach All Children with Education’ (RACE).

The education sector has led the way, with the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education, supported by the international community, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNESCO have supported the enrollment of more children and the improvement of the delivery of high quality education to both Syrian and Lebanese children, thus allowing them to continue certified education, while strengthening the system to improve service delivery in the longer term for Lebanese children.

A basis for the work of UNHCR and its partners is to have a better understanding of needs and the current living situation of refugee communities in Lebanon. One way that this is done is through conducting a vulnerability analysis that looks at economic vulnerability from the perspective of multi-sector outcomes. This vulnerability analysis helps to identify where lack of economic resources contributes to multiple problems, e.g. poor food security, shelter, health, education or protection outcomes. With support from donors and in cooperation with NGO partners, an annual 'Vulnerability Assessment for Syrian Refugees (VASyR)' framework was established in 2013 led by WFP and carried-out jointly with UNHCR and UNICEF. In 2015, the 'Vulnerability Assessment for Syrian Refugees' surveyed 4.300 refugee households across the country, using a multi-sectoral approach aimed at providing a picture of vulnerability at the household level. Key food security indicators – such as household expenditure and dietary diversity, as well as, health status, shelter condition, education and family composition – were surveyed. The 'Vulnerability Assessment for Syrian Refugees' allows humanitarian stakeholders to understand the profile of the refugee community, and to define the characteristics of the various socio-economic groups within the community.

Characteristics of the Syrian Refugee Population in Lebanon

The 'Vulnerability Assessment for Syrian Refugees' 2015, found that for the second year running, the average household size decreased from 6.6 members in 2014 to 5.3. Large households were significantly less common; only 25 percent had seven members or more, compared with 40 percent in 2014. One reason for this is that when people were first displaced, they shared shelter with extended families; as they became more settled, they have been able to re-establish the household groupings that they had in Syria.

Diagram 2: Population Pyramid of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon (© UNHCR)

48 percent of the Syrian refugee population of Lebanon is below the age of 15, and 36 percent below the age of 10. The average household head was 39 years old and 81 percent of household heads were male. Although they still make up less than one fifth of total heads (19 percent), the number of women leading households is higher than in 2014 (16 percent) and much more so than in 2013 (11 percent). Community discussions suggest than many of the men have remained or died in Syria. 5.4 percent of households were headed by an adult age 60 or older, only 1 percent of households in the survey were headed by a child under the age of 18. Almost 27 percent of households reported having at least one member with specific needs, a significant decrease from 2014 (49 percent). Around 7 percent of Syrian households had at least one working age member with disability.

There are no refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon. Instead, Syrian refugees live in more than 1.700 locations across Lebanon. Based on surveys and established trends, some 55 percent of all refugees rent apartments, often sharing small basic lodgings with other refugee families in overcrowded conditions. The remaining 45 percent live in fragile environments such as tents in informal settlements, and sub-standard shelter including garages, worksites and unfinished buildings. Nearly half of Syrian refugees (44 percent) have only one room in their residence, often shared with one or more families. Interner Link: UNHCR and partners prioritize improving and weather-proofing shelter for those in the most insecure dwellings, particularly those in informal settlements, garages, warehouses, and unfinished buildings.

The findings of the vulnerability analysis confirm that Syrian refugees are highly vulnerable, with a vast majority poor today, and poorer each year. Based on household expenditure data in 2015, more than half of households (52 percent) were below the survival minimum expenditure basket ($87 per capita a month) as compared to 26 percent in 2014. 69 percent (vs. 43 percent in 2014) were below the survival expenditure basket ($114 per capita a month). The majority of Syrian refugees rely on humanitarian food assistance as their primary source of food. However, despite efforts by World Food Programme (WFP) to support over 50 percent of the entire refugee population, most of surveyed households (89 percent) reported lack of food or money to buy it. The most common coping strategies households engaged were to: reduce their food consumption (84 percent), buy food on credit (80 percent), reduce other expenditures (59 percent), spend savings (38 percent), sell goods (32 percent), withdraw children from school (20 percent) and sell assets (10 percent).

In an effort to better assist Syrians in Lebanon, UNHCR and partner organizations began delivering a portion of their assistance as multi-purpose cash grants. UNHCR is using cash-based interventions as an effective form of aid for mitigating the impact of severe poverty within the refugee communities. This form of aid is a more dignified way of assisting affected populations, as it empowers people to determine their own priorities and the best way of meeting them. Recent research shows that cash assistance also works well for assisting refugees, but the full effectiveness is constrained by aspects of refugee policy in host countries. The evidence from Lebanon and around the world shows that when people receive cash grants they invest the money or spend it on such basic items as food and better shelter. It is also proven that refugees make smart decisions with their own money far more often, and available data supports those findings.

This finding is also supported by a World Bank report that considers that refugee assistance programs are very effective in addressing refugee poverty in humanitarian response interventions, but point out that this type of aid is not sustainable and cannot foster a transition from dependence to self-reliance.

In order to address this, UNHCR prioritizes program interventions in 2016 that aim to enhance the resilience of refuge communities and individuals, using Government facilities and services to deliver assistance – for example education needs for children through an integrated approach while ensuring at the same time the delivery of regular and seasonal basic assistance through cash transfers to the poorest of refugees. However, UNHCR relies entirely on voluntary contributions from donors and partners to respond to unprecedented levels of needs. As assistance programs cannot stand alone, UNHCR highlights the importance to promote additional mechanisms and programs that aim to provide economic growth and opportunities in order to improve and transform the lives of host population and refugees caught up in the Syrian crisis. Key part of this support is for neighboring countries, like Lebanon, who are shouldering the largest share of the Syrian displacement.

UNHCR in brief

Created by UN member states to care for the world’s refugees, the Office of the Interner Link: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began its work in 1951 and established its first office in Lebanon in 1964. Over the years the UN General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council ECOSOC) broadened UNHCR’s mandate through resolutions calling on the Office to assist not only refugees but also ‘others of concern’ in need of international protection due to persecution, conflict, generalized violence or human rights violations. Today, its more than 12.000 national and international staff work in some 125 countries worldwide to help refugees, displaced people and stateless persons who account for over 55 million people.



  1. Since January 2015, any Syrian national wishing to enter the country can enter only under different categories of visas, and with a series of documents in support thereof, namely if for/as: tourism, work visit, property owner, tenant, student, shopping, travelling to another country/transiting through Lebanon, medical visits, appointment with a foreign embassy and finally as a displaced person (Oxfam (2015), Lebanon: Looking Ahead in Times of Crisis. Taking stock of the present to urgently build sustainable options for the future, Externer Link:

  2. UN/World Bank (2013), Lebanon. Economic and Social Impact Assessment of the Syrian Conflict, September.

  3. UN (2014), Syria Regional Response Plan, Externer Link: (accessed: 4-1-2016).

  4. World Bank (2016), Global Economic Prospects. Spillover amid Weak Growth, January 2016.

  5. Protracted crises have been defined as "those environments in which a significant proportion of the population is acutely vulnerable to death, disease and disruption of livelihoods over a prolonged period of time. The governance of these environments is usually very weak, with the state having a limited capacity to respond to, and mitigate, the threats to the population, or provide adequate levels of protection" (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations/FAO (2010), The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2010. Addressing food insecurity in protracted crises, Externer Link:

  6. The Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) describes how the Government of Lebanon and its partners will work together to reinforce stability through this crisis while also protecting Lebanon’s most vulnerable inhabitants, including de facto refugees. As the Lebanon chapter of the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan 2015-16 (3RP), it represents international and Government of Lebanon commitment to expedite strategies and funding to mitigate the impact of the crisis on Lebanon’s stability. Stabilization, in the context of the LCRP, means strengthening national capacities to address long-term poverty and social tensions while also meeting humanitarian needs.

  7. The following are groups generally considered to have specific needs: girls and boys at risk, including unaccompanied and separated children, persons with serious health conditions, persons with special legal or physical protection needs, single women, women-headed households, older persons, persons with disabilities, and persons with a diverse sexual orientation or gender identity. However, it is important to remember that not every individual in each of these groups will have specific needs, and that their needs may alter over time and according to context.

  8. The Minimum Expenditure Basket (MEB) is a way of establishing poverty lines for refugee populations. It is emerging as the primary tool to develop a cost and market based expression of minimum needs of refugees in any given country. It broadly follows the notion of a "cost of basic needs approach" as outlined in the World Bank Poverty Manual from 2005. The Survival Minimum Expenditure Basket (SMEB) is the expression of the monthly cost per capita which is the minimum needed for physical survival and implies the deprivation of a series of rights.

  9. Author comment: Although many Syrians are registered as refugees with the UNHCR and the authorities, they face multiple challenges. While they are able to access public services, the availability of these services is severely constrained due to increased demand. A key challenge is their inability to renew their legal stay and inability to work to cover their daily expenses.

  10. 1) Blattman, Christopher/Niehaus, Paul (2014), Show them the money, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 3, pp. 117-126. 2) Lehman, Christian/Masterson, Daniel (2014): Emergency Economies: The Impact of Cash Assistance in Lebanon, August, International Rescue Committee. 3) El Asmar, Khalil/Masterson, Daniel (2015): Impact Evaluation of the 2014-15 Winter Cash Assistance Programme for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, August.

  11. The joint World Bank Group and UNHCR report "The Welfare of Syrian Refugees: Evidence from Jordan and Lebanon" offers a snapshot in 2014 of who these refugees are and their welfare.


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is a Targeting Assistance Officer for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Beirut (Lebanon). He holds two Master’s degrees in Humanitarian action (University of Geneva) and an Executive Master of Public Management (Hertie School of Governance/Berlin).