Aid and (social) protection: A look at a multi-stakeholder refugee response for Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon
UNHCR’s assistance to refugees. Photo by Esin Tu on Flickr (all rights reserved, reproduced with author's permission).
Since the onset of the conflict in Syria in 2011, 5.6 million Syrians were displaced, most of whom fled to neighbouring countries. Seeking protection at the nearest feasible location, refugees became the object of assistance in a convoluted system where state and non-state actors interact. Refugee protection for Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon begins with the registration of refugees, a joint effort by the UN and the governments. After registration, refugees are entitled to rights and services and are granted access to pre-existing protection services for refugees.
Coordination and scale of the refugee response
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Jordan hosts 676,164 and Lebanon 831,053 registered Syrian refugees, around 6% and 15% of their respective total populations. In addition, 6.9 million have been internally displaced in Syria. States hosting Syrian refugees have shown solidarity through reliance on an open-door ‘guest’ policy in the initial years of the conflict, resulting in a temporary status entitlement for displaced Syrians in these countries. Based on the geographically pervasive nature of the crisis, the UN-led Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) was signed in 2014 for coordinating the response across the region.
Many actors are involved in refugee protection and assistance for Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon. These include local initiatives and community-based organisations, and national and international actors, including governments. The UN is especially crucial in designing and implementing social assistance and support programmes with local actors, with help from foreign donors. As the provision of social assistance for refugees is often delegated to the UN and contracted out to other actors, close collaboration is a necessity. Yet, there emerges a lack of coordination in the process, especially during the creation of national frameworks and strategies.
The position of governments and UN agencies in the refugee response
For the purpose of this article, the type of assistance discussed will be social protection, defined by UNICEF as ‘the set of public and private policies and programmes aimed at preventing, reducing and eliminating economic and social vulnerabilities to poverty and deprivation’. The Jordanian government runs large social protection programmes, however, these mostly target nationals. The National Aid Fund, headed by the Ministry of Social Development, and the Zakat Fund, administered by the Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places, govern social assistance for vulnerable Jordanian groups. While the Zakat Fund is technically open for non-Jordanians as well, and refugee applications may be accepted on paper, actual accessibility for refugees is difficult.
Local governments hold important roles in the protection response as well. In Jordan, the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate, affiliated with the Ministry of Interior, is responsible for the registration of Syrians with the UNHCR. In Lebanon, registration remains a mandate of the General Directorate of General Securities under the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities. Syrians thus receive UNHCR- and government-issued identity cards. However, since 2015, refugee registration in Lebanon has been limited to those who can provide legal identity documents and justify their ‘exceptional situations’ with reasons other than seeking asylum.
These governments thus hold ownership over the processes of refugee registration while only maintaining social protection for nationals, leaving humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees to be instead coordinated mostly by UN agencies. The most significant social assistance programmes in Lebanon are UNHCR’s multi-purpose cash transfers and public health services, WFP’s ‘cash for food’, and UNICEF’s ‘Haddi’ child grant. In Jordan, there are similar programmes, including WFP’s food vouchers, UNHCR’s cash transfers, and UNICEF’s ‘Hajati’ child grant. The cash transfers, especially directed at children in Lebanon and Jordan, aim to be integrated into the national social protection systems.
For refugee support, the UN recommends an eventual transition from humanitarian assistance to social protection, as a response to reduced funding. To this end, the UN in Lebanon and in Jordan looks to transfer these capacities to the relevant Ministries, focusing particularly on the expansion of programmes targeting poverty and the development of national social protection strategies. However, even though the UN has collaborated with Arab states to fund these long-term programmes, refugee assistance still depends on foreign funding and implementation by UN-funded actors. Ultimately, this results in the delay of refugee-inclusive public aid plans.
Many governments however do prepare national strategies to address the impacts of the crisis on host communities and refugees. The Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis was established in 2015 by the Jordanian Ministry of Planning. It is a strategic partnership mechanism between the government of Jordan and UN agencies. In Lebanon, the government, the UN, and partner organisations jointly drafted and agreed on the Crisis Response Plan in 2015. However, the prospects for national plans appear to be far-fetched.
The UN and the governments have not clearly organised their strategic partnership. As an example, regional-level coordination is conducted by UNDP, but national actors and governments do not take part in the development of the 3RP. In the end, the priorities in 3RP-led plans and national response plans are not fully aligned or nationally recognised, despite governments’ willingness to work together in both countries.
The humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis was initially more concerned with short-term relief. This has since shifted, as long-term funding has increasingly been made available after 2015. Despite the resulting collaboration and responsibility-sharing between the international community and local governments, results are not as promising as expected and Syrian refugees in the region remain in difficult conditions. For instance, the UN reports a high prevalence of poverty at a rate of 83% among Syrian refugees outside camps in Jordan in 2022, and 89% in Lebanon in 2020.
This ineffectiveness is mainly driven by a lack of strategy-oriented coordination and mismanagement of funds. While long-term development funds are in theory supported by the international community, in practice, current financing is focused on short-term relief programmes. This is problematic, especially in the eventual emergence of other crises, such as the Ukraine emergency, that eventually cause a shift in funding prioritisation.
Further, the ongoing presence of refugees with limited support can have detrimental impacts on development pathways and on the relative economic and political stability of developing states. Therefore, it is crucial for response funding to set and follow a strategy for social development, and to ensure an effective programme handover to host state governments. Otherwise, host states’ ownership of social protection can be impeded by the delayed inclusion of refugees in national protection and assistance in public programmes.
Yeliz Ceylan is a master’s student at Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg, in the department of Analysis and Design of Social Protection. Currently, she is doing an internship in the Learning Innovation Programme at the International Training Centre of the International Labour Organisation (ITCILO). Besides volunteering with children in prison, in agricultural areas with child labourers in Turkey and on play-based learning in Jordan, she has 5 years of professional working experience in refugee protection, assistance and education in international and national NGOs in Turkey. Yeliz’s interests are in education, the humanitarian-development nexus, shock-responsive and child-sensitive social protection, refugee protection and assistance.
LinkedIn: Yeliz Ceylan