DEEP POCKETS

Lebanon has a crucial role to play in the care of Syria's huge refugee community and is working together with the international community to ensure the finances are in place.

It has been five years since the exodus of Syrian refugees to neighboring nations began. As of August 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) counted 4,815,540 people registered as refugees, distributed mainly among Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. With the effects of the refugee crisis drilling deep into the socioeconomic threads of recipient nations, the fourth International Donors Conference took place in February in London to pledge assistance in alleviating the upshots of five years of civil war in Syria.

After three previous donor conferences held in Kuwait generated USD7.7 billion in assistance, leaders and diplomats from 70 countries gathered in the British capital to further contribute to a global commitment that reached over USD12 billion in pledges, half of which will be distributed in 2016 and the other half from 2017-2020. During the conference, which was sponsored by the UK, Kuwait, Germany, Norway, and the UN, the Lebanese government presented its stabilization plan aiming to mitigate the effects the Syrian refugee crisis had caused on the tiny nation.

The delegation, headed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, introduced the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP), which brings together local and international partners to reinforce humanitarian and stabilization strategies to strengthen Lebanon's position in the crisis. According to the World Bank, the refugee crisis has represented a burden for the Lebanese state of USD13 billion since 2012, with 2015 costing as much as USD5.6 billion, equal to 11% of the country's GDP. It is important to recall that Lebanon holds the most refugees per capita, with some estimates placing the number at a fourth to over a third of the population.

The LCRP entails a five-year program with two major fields of action: education and economic opportunities, and job creation. First, through the Reaching All Children with Education (RACE) initiative, Lebanon has committed to enroll all school-aged refugee children (three to 18 years) in an educational program by the end of 2020. So far, 200,000 Syrian children have been incorporated into public school for the 2015/16 school year. The launching of RACE II has been composed of six core objectives to fulfill over the following five years: construct, rehabilitate, and equip all schools; expand the access to education through regulated non-formal education; integrate youth aged 15-24 into vocational and technical training; improve the quality and inclusiveness of teaching and learning; and strengthen the national education system. To reach this commitment, however, Lebanon requires contributions of USD350 million per year along the five-year duration of the program.

The second pillar of the LCRP focuses on integrating Syrian refugees into the labor market without damaging the already affected local job market. Facing an unemployment ratio of 20%, and up to 30% for youth unemployment, Lebanon's labor market has been smothered by the influx of refugees competing for unskilled jobs. The economic opportunities and job creation part of LCRP seeks to stimulate the economy through investments and sustainable growth to trigger business expansion across the country. The plan expects the creation of 300,000-350,000 jobs, of which Syrian refugees will occupy 60%. The second part of this plan pledges a five-year investment of USD1 billion for the Subsidized Temporary Employment Program (STEP), which will go to the municipalities to finance employment incentives and encourage SMEs to expand production and create new permanent jobs. The plan also contemplates a conjoint project with the World Bank and the European Union to guarantee market access to Lebanese products and strengthen value chains among Lebanese exporters.

A month after the London conference UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim paid a visit to Lebanon to reinforce their support to the nation and called on the international community to not abandon the millions of refugees in need of assistance. The pledges to further increase assistance to Lebanon were again heard during the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016. Both the UN Secretary General and Prime Minister Salam mentioned the importance of maintaining the stability of Lebanon, along with monetary and physical aid to face the greatest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.