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Q+A: Ninette Kelley, UNHCR Representative in Lebanon

Lebanon currently hosts 780,000 registered Syrian refugees, roughly one-sixth of its population of 4.4 million. .

Written by Susannah George Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Since 2010, Ninette Kelley has been the representative of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees(UNHCR) to Lebanon. Since then, she says, her organization has been working nonstop to keep up with the steady flow of Syrians crossing the border.

She predicts that by the end of this year, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon will swell to over 1 million, and with no political solution to the crisis in sight, the number could hit 2 million in 2014.

In an interview with Syria Deeply at her office in Beirut, she spoke about what’s to come for Syrians in Lebanon.

Syria Deeply: The Syrian conflict has been going on for nearly three years. Who are the refugees who are just now leaving Syria to cross into Lebanon? Are they coming here because violence has only just reached their village or hometown?

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Ninette Kelley: What’s interesting is a lot of people who come now have been displaced many times over in Syria … [crossing into Lebanon] is the last resort. They’ve tried to go to one neighborhood, or another neighbor, or another town altogether, and they’ve just had to flee at the last moment because there is no safe place that they can access.

We also find that the place of origin of our newly arrived refugees often patterns where there is intense conflict in Syria, so there is a direct correlation between conflict and those who are coming over.

SD: Last week the UNHCR announced that its focus in Syria would shift towards longer-term development aid, rather than emergency response aid. What does that mean for refugees in Lebanon?

NK: What we’re trying to do is assess the negative economic impacts of the Syrian crisis here in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region.

The Syrian crisis has had an incredible impact. What we’re saying is, Humanitarian dollars alone will not be able to provide the support to hosting countries that they need in the immediate and longer term. We need more development partners to come in and do things, for example, like shore up the education [system], help build new schools, refurbish schools. Build medical centers, primary healthcare centers, that sort of thing. Stand behind the governments of these counties and provide support in very deep and meaningful ways.

SD: Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in the 1980s aggravated some of the tensions that led to the outbreak of Lebanon’s own civil war. Are you concerned about potential backlash from this move to longer term development aid?

NK: I’m not worried about it because what we’re saying is that development aid needs to go to the institutions that are bearing a disproportionate burden by the presence of refugees. So that’s very much a message in support of Lebanon and the Lebanese, so I don’t think there’s room for a negative backlash. In fact, I think it’s something welcomed by the communities here.

SD: What’s your reaction to the diplomatic developments at the U.N.?

NK: We’ve welcomed [the] resolution on providing more humanitarian access to persons inside Syria. This is critical because as deep as the suffering is in the surrounding areas, it is very desperate inside Syria. So, the more that we can open up avenues for aid to get to people who are most in need in Syria is a very important development. So yes, of course we embrace that.

SD: Lebanon is a diverse country of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Druze living together in close proximity. There were concerns that the influx of Syrian refugees could disrupt this delicate religious and ethnic balance in Lebanon. Do you see any evidence of that in your work on the ground?

NK: Well, certainly people voice that concern, but refugees are not here to stay. Refugees are a temporary phenomenon, which is why ensuring that peace and stability returns to Syria as soon as possible is very important.

In terms of long term, most Syrian refugees, in fact everyone I’ve spoken to, express a real desire to return home. So yes, I think the issues of upsetting the sectarian divisions within Lebanon is often voiced, but I don’t think over the longer term this is something that we can anticipate, because the refugees will return.

SD: What are you preparing for over the next few months? Winter is approaching and current forecasts predict it will be harsh.

NK: That’s our biggest worry. The winter months are always the most difficult because many refugees live in areas that are exposed to wind and snow and flooding in the wintertime. So we have been working [for] many months on providing winterization packages. These are things like the materials needed to ensure that where people are residing are sealed off from the elements so they can stay safe and warm though the winter months.

But, it is really a race against time. As much as we do, there are more coming in. And so we anticipate there will be great hardship this winter.

SD: What is it that you wish people had a better understanding of when it comes to Syrian refugees in Lebanon?

NK: I think the thing that would most surprise people is how small Lebanon is, and how the Lebanese have responded to the Syrian influx. I can’t think of any time in my life where I’ve seen a response that has been as open or as generous as what’s happened here in Lebanon. I think that’s the biggest surprise, and I don’t think many people know that.

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