Are aid agencies in Lebanon profiting off the back of refugees?
BY Martin Jay
Huddled under makeshift ‘tent houses’ nestled in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, Syrian refugees are braced for a winter of bitter cold. Night falls on land bequeathed by the United Nations, where the tents are pitched. But the organisation itself appears to be buckling under new corruption allegations.
Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Italian diplomat Filippo Grandi as the new U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), tasked with handling perhaps the world’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
But the diplomat has his work cut out for him. The U.N.’s programs have come under fire from outside critics and whistleblowers alike; non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may be embezzling U.N. funds, intended for Syrian refugees.
One such critic is Dr. Jean-Bernard Bouvier, head of Première Urgence-Aide Médicale Internationale, an NGO operating in Lebanon. Bouvier has accused the U.N. of mismanagement on an “immoral” scale. His allegations are backed up by whistle blowers who have lifted the lid on scores of millions of dollars that are illicitly soaked up by NGOs and their chiefs in a series of elaborate scams, as he describes them.
To support his claims, a senior UNHCR official painted a picture of rampant graft, speaking to Newsweek Middle East on the condition of anonymity. One concern is that U.N. officials in Lebanon promote unqualified friends to highly paid positions.
The “moral ground,” which U.N. agencies are supposed to have, in order to set an example to NGOs “doesn’t exist at this moment,” says Bouvier. But the aid veteran is careful not to use the word ‘corruption’ when talking about the U.N. agencies in Lebanon, as he’s also trying to convince their chiefs that a radical overhaul of its bureaucracy is needed. A key challenge is to persuade the U.N. to revisit former “compromises,” that have allowed a large number of expatriate workers with high paid jobs and monstrous expense budgets to burden the organization.
“It’s about the number of staff and systems which pile on top of each other,” Bouvier told Newsweek Middle East. According to him, the U.N. in Lebanon merely expands itself continuously creating more departments in a frenzy, and that saps yet more money from an ever-decreasing budget.
Tongue tied press officer
At the U.N. headquarters in Beirut, a stammering press officer shrugs her shoulders when asked about the allegations. “It doesn’t shock me… I don’t really find it so amazing,” said Dana Sleiman of the UNHCR.
“People are desperate and they will do anything to help their families so they might pay when asked,” she explained.
“Yet if allegations of fraud arise we take them very seriously and they are investigated through an independent party or through Geneva,” she added.
But Sleiman failed to provide one example citing “confidential” cases as an excuse not to discuss the matter. She insisted though, that when tackling the subject of NGOs embezzling U.N. funds, monitoring remains consistent. She further dismissed Bovier’s claims over high salaried foreigners employed by the U.N.
Staged photo shoots
Such opulence though does not go unnoticed from a languid organization, reluctant to diligently check on 80 NGOs it bankrolls.
In a UNHCR-sponsored Islamic NGO, another whistle blower—who also spoke on the condition of anonymity—recalled a dire lack of accountability from the U.N. and financial corruption, which she claims led Dar El Fatwa to extend beyond its normal remit as an NGO which operates in Arsal, close to the borders with Syria.
The moderate Muslim organization assisted Syrian refugees in Arsal who escaped the war in Syria and were in need of shelter. The source spoke of spectacular chaos, wide-ranging mismanagement and fraud in an organization which appears to have spammed the U.N. with aid requests.
“Dar El Fatwa recognized the opportunity for personal gain to be made [via] their partnership with the UNHCR and other U.N. bodies,” claimed the former employee.
“There was no coordination of general nor specific information about meetings, updates, contact lists, changes of supervisors, progress of a project, etc. This left us often doubling emails to external contacts, showing up clueless to important UNHCR meetings, or undertaking a lengthy task like writing a report, only to find the idea had been suddenly scratched by the director, or the report no longer necessary,” the whistleblower said.
Yet the U.N, which to this day is still funding the NGO, was concerned about money going to a relief operation that is accused of keeping no records and rewarding its managers with huge salaries and luxurious cars.
“The U.N. expressed a lot of concern over the lack of contracts and the lack of financial management at Dar El Fatwa in their progress reports,” she pointed out.
She added that the relationship between the UNHCR counterpoint and the director of Dar El Fatwa’s relief office were “very tense,” which has resulted in the U.N. considering breaking the contract.
UNHCR dismissed all such claims wholesale although Sleiman admitted that she was “not allowed” to respond to questions about accountability.
Ironically it was another U.N. agency, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, (OCHA) who funded one winter project in Arsal for Dar El Fatwa, which sounded the alarm at least by marking it a “high risk” partner.
Yet perhaps more disturbingly is her account of how refugees were treated almost as though their dignity was eroded the more U.N. money Dar Al Fatwa acquired. Equally disturbing is the contrite veneer which Dar El Fatwa mustered, according to the insider, when other donors from rich Gulf Arab countries required a show. “The beneficiaries complained about ill-treatment they received from Dar El Fatwa members in the field, such as ordering them around rudely and humiliating them for photo opportunities,” she recalled. In Arsal, some refugees told her they didn’t want to attend the distribution of donations as it was a “degrading” experience. In Beirut, Dar El Fatwa had monthly public donations in a large open space in Beirut where 1,000 beneficiaries at a time were sometimes invited to come.
“The Communication manager of Dar El Fatwa told me he had received requests from Gulf donors to provide dramatic images of these donations, complete with disorderly lines and wailing children, to please the donors who needed that to feel appreciated,” she told Newsweek Middle East.
Attempts last week to reach Dar El Fatwa for a comment on the allegations also ran aground. I spoke to its chief of operations, Riad Itani who refused to respond to the claims.
The claims, although unsubstantiated, do chime in with a number of other accounts about the professional merit of the organization.
UNICEF NGO blows ‘wasted’ money
It is not hard to spot the NGOs which have something to hide. I hoped to visit a refugee camp run by Relief Lebanon International (LRI) – which was, in 2013, receiving $12 million annually from UNICEF, after a former employee of the Lebanese NGO made some alarming allegations.
The former employee who wished to remain anonymous said she was shocked by the amount of cash which was being “wasted” usually from the result of asking for too much in the first place from UNICEF and then in the remaining weeks of the contract period having to spend it rather than lose it.
The official, who has worked for a number of other NGOs in Lebanon on short contracts, said the NGOs she has worked for and have ties with some U.N. affiliates “are spending money recklessly,” she claimed.
The charges are robustly dismissed by UNICEF officials.
“It would be hard for money to be spent unorganized as we have very structured mechanisms in place with the partner,” said Violet Warney, Chief of Field Operations / OIC Deputy Representative. “There are really strict procedures in place but of course there can always be holes, but in general we feel confident about our procedures.”
Warney stressed that strict monitoring and checks are made both by UNICEF staff and outside auditors. She did however admit that a former employer made allegations of corruption directly to UNICEF in 2014 which led to an investigation and Lebanon Relief International having $2 million clawed back by U.N. auditors in a probe which revealed what Warney euphemistically calls LRI “not reaching their targets.” Consequently, UNICEF now has reduced its cooperation with LRI to nutrition programs. “In emergency situations, sometimes you over extend, especially in the area of child protection,” she added.
But Warney also revealed that LRI is being funded by other organizations, which lead to confusion and grey areas of accountability.
Rabih El Chaer, President of Sakker El Dekkene, a Lebanese NGO fighting corruption, said he was “not really surprised to hear” both the allegations against NGOs and the U.N.’s response. “There is no control from the U.N. within these NGOs, no transparency,” he added.
“There is a huge problem here in Lebanon with corruption… and with this international money for the Syrian refugees, there is no control on these funds so they are subject to corruption.”
But on inflated salaries, the anti-corruption expert concluded that this was the main artery which bled the system.
Tragically, it’s in the camps themselves where you see who pays the price, as many are in a terrible state and could use more cash.
The price of being a Syrian refugee
The refugee camps have no real sanitation system to speak of. Refugees sometimes drink filthy water leaving children suffering from diarrhoea— and an infestation of cockroaches which leaves angry mothers berating aid workers that they spend more on pest killer than baby milk.
Yet two refugee camps in the Bekka valley’s Housh Al Oumara and Saadnayel areas are considered to be “five stars” by Maria Assi of an NGO named Beyond Association which is sponsored by UNICEF.
But a closer examination of these camps and the ghastly plight of the refugees who live in these squalid conditions often in ramshackle structures, reveal a much more sinister reason for the U.N. and their league of local NGO workers to avoid the word: the unfortunate souls living in them are hardly refugees but more a group of unfortunate victims of war in neighboring Syria who, far from being the recipients of ‘aid,’ are, in fact, being shamelessly exploited under the noses of the Lebanese government and international community.
Some Syrian ‘refugees’ in Lebanon actually pay to live in many such dwellings, at extortionate rates in most cases, claims a UNICEF official Salam Abdulmunem.
According to Maria Assi and her UNICEF colleagues a large number of Syrian refugees not only pay rent for their dilapidated shacks but are also being exploited by many local Lebanese farmers who, due to new rules adopted by the Lebanese parliament, can no longer employ adult Syrians on a humble day rate of $6.50 even if they wanted to. Now, farmers in the Bekka Valley use hundreds of 12-year-old children to work the fields for as little as $4 per day in a well-organized rural employment scheme which in return pays ‘the rent.’
Some refugees pay a shocking rent of $150 USD for a 40-square-meter space, according to Assi, which in the summer offers little respite from cockroaches and rodents, while mothers battle with sick babies slain by contaminated water—often pulled from wells and then left in plastic bottles to ‘settle’ foul sediment before drinking.
It is the children which worry Assi. She barely holds back the tears when she talks of the plight of the young girls who leave the UNICEF-sponsored ‘play and learn’ classrooms in Saadnayel to work in the fields. “They had enough trauma in what they saw in Syria and now here there is child abuse and child labor,” she says.
“They are now working under the sun and this brings with it skin diseases and diarrhoea.”
In this part of the world, there is no break from the elements. The Syrian refugees battle with all on many sides in a gruesome test of survival.
They may have escaped a war, but here in safe Lebanon, somebody’s making a killing from their plight.
No free lunch
Syrian refugees make up at least 1.4 million with many living in tents and unable to legally work, claims UNICEF. Recent cuts in assistance has made their situation worsen significantly.
Yet regardless of their status, not one refugee can live on the $24 monthly gratuity from the World Food Program. The Syrians have to pay much more for food and rent.
But how did this scandalous rent racketeering scheme come about in the first place?
In one camp we were approached by a middle aged man, which makes the NGO worker we are with a little nervous. He is a Sharwish, previously a land agent who is also a Syrian and one of the profiteers of the war. Before the war in Syria started in 2011, these agents would hire 1000 square meters of agricultural land from a Lebanese farmer for around $300 a year. When Syrian refugees started to trickle over the border in 2012, they searched for such men who rented them plots to put up shacks. These days the mark up is astonishingly high and sky high profits, many believe, are being split between the land owner and his Syrian agent.
“Sharwish was here before the war and he rented the land for agriculture,” explained Assi.
“Now he turns it from agricultural to renting tents to Syrians. Every tent is eight meters by six and they pay between $100 and $150 for it.” But it’s not just the housing which the Sharwish makes a massive profit from, but also on child workers whom he allocates to the fields.
“He takes from each child $0.70 cents for himself [as a commission on each day they work],” explained Assi. “The fathers can’t go out because they don’t have legal papers.”
But the role of these Sharwish has become paramount to the survival of the refugees. The U.N. and the NGO community treat them with a near religious reverence as their status in the community is almost of a tribal leader. NGOs work closely with them to assure that the refugees are treated well as in many cases the U.N. and their local partners who work with the refugees are at the mercy of the Sharwish many of whom demand a tax on each child working on their rented land. In the camps which I visited, the Sharwish were quite sympathetic to the calls of NGO workers who, for one, asked that children below the age of 12 would not be designated farm labouring jobs.
Yet the corruption saps the hearts of most.
At Dalhamieh refugee camp in the Bekka, Assi can only speak of hope, when talking of 40,000 new babies born each year. “Most of these people know their own homes are damaged and so all they have is their families and hope,” she said. It’s as though she means ‘no hope’, a scandalous predicament for paying guests, who surely deserve much better.