In Lebanon, 1 million Syrian refugees live on $1 a day

The UN registered Lebanon's 1 millionth refugee today. The organization is struggling to keep up, with only 14 percent of its funding needs for 2014 met. 

Bilal Hussein/AP
Syrian families await their turn to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) center in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Thursday, April 3, 2014. The UN registered the 1 millionth refugee in Lebanon on Thursday, and it continues to register them at a rate of more than one per minute.

When Syrian Miriam Abdulkader lit herself on fire in front of a United Nations building in Tripoli last week, she says the only thing on her mind was feeding her four children.

Since fleeing the Syrian city of Homs two years ago, she has lived with her family in an abandoned house in Tripoli in northern Lebanon. For the first year, her family received UN assistance, including $30 per family member in food vouchers, but in the fall that help was cut off.

After six months without aid, the family had so little to eat that her children complained of being weak and dizzy.  

“I could no longer watch my kids starve in front of me,” says Ms. Abdulkader from a hospital in Tripoli. She has burns on 70 percent of her body, and bandages cover her from head to toe. She spoke through a phone from behind a glass wall in a sterile room.

She was one of thousands of refugees who had their assistance stopped last year after UN agencies decided to direct more aid to the most vulnerable refugees. Thirty percent of families stopped receiving food and financial assistance as a result.

Abdulkader says she went back to the UN office four times to appeal, but was turned away. The fifth time, she bought $1.25 worth of gasoline along the way. When staff turned her away yet again, she doused herself with the gas and set herself ablaze.

“I expected to leave this life,” she says.

Today the UN registered the 1 millionth refugee in Lebanon, and it continues to register them at a rate of more than one per minute. The tiny Mediterranean state with a population of 4 million before the Syrian conflict now has more refugees per capita than any country in the world. And the UN says it has only 14 percent of the funds it needs for 2014, leaving a $1.5 billion shortfall. 

“Unless the situation inside Syria is solved, we can expect many more refugees to flee into Lebanon,” says Ninette Kelley, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon. “And we can expect that such acts of desperation could well be replicated in the future."

“Her case is a sorrowful reflection of the consequences of the Syrian crisis and the great desperation that refugees feel. This is the face of the Syrian crisis," Ms. Kelley says.

Yesterday another refugee committed suicide in south Lebanon. Local media reported neighbors saying the 50-year-old Syrian woman was having difficult coping with life in Lebanon.  

While thousands of refugees have found some work in Lebanon, particularly young males who do construction and other manual labor, many lack employment. Women begging and children selling flowers and candy are now a regular fixture on the streets of Beirut

Massive funding shortfalls

Kelley defends the decision to ration aid, saying it was necessary due to massive funding shortfalls. This meant asking tough questions about who would qualify. 

“Is it a single-headed household? How many adults are in the household? What is their potential to work? Is the person disabled? These are the kinds of vulnerability criteria,” says Kelley.

Food assistance comes in the form of monthly $30 food vouchers per person from the World Food Programme (WFP). Abeer Etefa, a spokeswoman, says that amount provides for 2,100 calories a day. 

But refugees say it is not enough, particularly if they live in more expensive urban centers in Lebanon. Raid Ali lives with his five siblings and parents in a cinderblock apartment on the outskirts of Beirut. His family receives food vouchers, but he says they cannot meet their needs. His 14-year-old brother managed to get work at a bakery, but that brings in only an extra $20 per month.

“We don’t get any money for the rent,” of $400 a month, says Mr. Ali. “And food here is terribly expensive.”

A dollar a day doesn't go far in Lebanon: many food items cost nearly as much as in the US, and some staples are more expensive. In Lebanon a liter of milk – about a quarter-gallon – costs about $2. A kilogram of chicken goes for around $7 and local cheese is about same price.

The food vouchers go quickly and Ms. Etefa, the WFP spokeswoman, says their funding is precarious. 

“We have enough funds to cover until June. But throughout the Syrian crisis it has been a hand-to-mouth operation,” she says.

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