On a scruffy basketball court in south Lebanon, a few dozen people shuffle their way to the front of an orderly queue where most collect a piece of paper and leave. A few, perhaps a quarter, are told to join the second line.
They are Syrian refugees expecting to pick up their monthly food vouchers at one of the dozens of makeshift distribution centres across the country.
In the second line, two NGO workers explain in detail why the select group of refugees will be cut off from food aid, and give them an appeal form if they want to challenge the decision.
Lebanon, now home to nearly 700,000 Syrian registered refugees and many more unregistered, is stretched to breaking point. At least one in five people in the country of little over four million is now a Syrian, as tens of thousands of families flee the increasingly bloody civil war next door.
Across the region, countries neighbouring Syria are struggling to cope with the staggering number of refugees, who have strained health, education and other infrastructure. As more refugees stream over the border every day, the UN is being forced to prioritize the most vulnerable due to lack of funds.
Starting this month, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have stopped distributing food vouchers to 30-40 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, or more than 200,000 people, according to UNHCR.
Fatima, a mother of two small children, is among the unlucky ones. Her husband works in a bakery in the capital Beirut making US$300 a month, sleeping in a room next door. They cannot afford to rent a place there, so she and the children live 90km further south in Tyre, an impoverished city that still bears the scars of the 2006 Israeli assault.
He sends her what he can, but after living costs he does not have much to spare, so her family survives on support from the UN, mostly food vouchers. Already the $27 per person monthly food allowance does not go far in a country where prices of basic staples are considerably higher than in Syria. A kilogram of rice, sugar, tomatoes, cucumbers and other basics costs $1-2 each. Meat and fish are often too expensive for the budget.
“This country is so expensive,” Fatima said. “They were already giving us almost nothing and now they are going to stop this [aid].”
Further down the line Mohammed, a frustrated 32-year-old from Idlib in northern Syria, is also facing a cut. The charity workers seek to calm him down by explaining that he can appeal against the decision, but he has little time for their arguments.
“Why me? I don’t have anything,” he protested, explaining that he left his family behind to seek work in southern Lebanon but has been unemployed for six months. He now shares a room with five other men. “I was going to bring my two children here to get away [from the war]. I don’t think I will any more,” he said, crumpling the appeal form in his hands.
The cutbacks are one of the consequences of insufficient support for Syrian refugees by the international community. The UN and the Lebanese government have appealed for $1.2 billion and $450 million respectively to care for the refugees throughout 2013. To date, the UN has received 44 percent of its appeal for Lebanon, while the government has received none of its desired funding, according to UNHCR.
The result is that the UN can no longer afford to provide full support for all refugees. Ninette Kelley, UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon, said the lack of funding presents them with “tragic choices” every day.
Other forms of aid are also being cut for many refugees, particularly hygiene kits and baby kits. UNHCR had already reduced the percentage of hospitalization covered from 85 to 75 percent in April. But the food vouchers are the most potentially dangerous, with charities already warning that malnutrition is on the rise.
In theory those facing the cuts should already be able to support themselves – either because they have jobs or have families or friends that can provide for them. Roberta Russo, communications officer at UNHCR, stresses that “all the people who cannot rely on themselves to survive will continue to get assistance.”
But there are major concerns among charities that by cutting food vouchers to over 200,000 people, thousands who desperately need that support could be mistakenly taken off the list, with potentially disastrous consequences. Asked whether she can survive without the aid, Fatima merely pointed at her dirtied outfit: “Do I look rich to you?”
“We are very concerned that refugees with legitimate needs will fall through the gaps,” said Rachel Routley, grants and communications manager with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), one of the largest international charities working in Lebanon. “We are concerned that gaps in our information could lead to mistakes [in who gets excluded].”
“In some parts of the country there are people sleeping in tents,” added Joseph Matta, head of the Lebanese charity Salam Association, which provides health care for refugees in marginal communities outside of the main cities. “We need to make sure they get more support, not less.”
Part of the concern is over a lack of quality information to determine who to cut. Normally, in order to make an assessment, aid agencies would visit refugees regularly to analyze their needs. But the scale of the crisis has made this impossible, so many of the decisions are based on bio-data – basic information on the makeup or the size of families and their work status.
“The criteria we have are very complex but to simplify them, they depend on the family composition [and] on the income of the family,” Russo said. She declined to give a more detailed explanation of the way in which the decisions are made, but stressed UNHCR is trying to make the appeals process adjustable to avoid mistakes.
While she emphasized that they are doing their best to ensure no one falls through the cracks, both UNHCR and charities stress the importance of the appeals process in limiting the number of people wrongly cut off. Every person facing the cut is given an appeal form, with over 100 drop-off boxes across the country. Charities are helping illiterate refugees fill in the forms.
But some Syrians, many of whom already feel deserted, say they will not fill in the forms due to frustration with the already slow UN bureaucracy. Mohammed summed up much of this feeling of inertia: “What’s the point?”
Indeed Russo was unable to guarantee that appeals would be responded to within a specific time frame. “The aim is to get it through as soon as possible but I am not sure [how quickly they will all be done]. We are starting now. It depends – there are too many variables; it depends on how many appeals we have.”
For these reasons, the DRC’s Routley stressed: “The vast majority of excluded beneficiaries will be visited by a verification team to ensure we have the best possible information and that the right decisions are being made. This secondary verification will make doubly sure that the most vulnerable are not excluded.”
Photo: Um Ahmed, her husband Abu Ahmed, and their two children sit inside a United Nations refugee registration center in Tripoli, Lebanon. They fled the northern Syrian city of Aleppo months ago. “There was a lot of shelling,” said Um Ahmed, “I wasn’t thinking, I was just thinking of my children.”