In Lebanon last month, I met Syrian families with safe homes to live in thanks to UK aid, I met girls who told me they wanted to be doctors, teachers and writers, for whom this is a possibility thanks to the UK-funded education they are receiving. I saw British-built infrastructure projects such as a new water pumping station, providing a reliable and clean water supply to 40,000 people.
British aid is ensuring that people who have fled unimaginable horrors in Syria have a home and a future, and it is helping to share the burden of their Lebanese hosts. Thanks to the support of the international community, a generation of Syrians in Lebanon has a chance to rebuild their lives.
But, as the conflict in Syria approaches its seventh anniversary, Lebanon is noticeably feeling the strain. A quarter of the country’s population are Syrian refugees. In rural areas like the Bekaa Valley, you can see informal camps dotted across the landscape, and while they only house 35% of Syrians in the country, they give the crisis a sense of omnipresence, as, in cities like Beirut, does the sight of refugees begging on the streets. Lebanon shows profound and visible signs of its role in its neighbour’s war.
While Syrians spoke of the warm welcome they had received in the country, we heard from many Lebanese people that they would like them to return home, and the country’s president has openly called for the return of refugees to some parts of Syria, despite the fact that UNHCR has declared the country unsafe for returns. From January 2017 to June 2017, 5,381 civilians were killed in Syria, including 1,159 children.
Programmatically, there is a dual imperative for UK aid in Lebanon – providing the humanitarian support required to give a future to people who have lost everything, and giving the assistance that Lebanon needs, as an ally at Europe’s border, to remain stable in the face of the pressure it is under.
But British aid must play another role too. We must use the influence it gives us to advocate for those whose voices are less readily heard. Syria is not yet a safe place for refugees to go back to, so part of our support to those who have fled the country must be to make the case against forced returns, but also to do more to give Syrians opportunities in Lebanon.
In Jordan, the UK came to an agreement with the Government that British support came on the basis of Jordanian efforts to open up its education system and its labour market to Syrians. While much has been done to get Syrian children into school in Lebanon, the same can’t be said for jobs, with Syrians restricted to a handful of unskilled sectors, and many Syrians remaining out of work.
A job is the best route out of poverty, and an increase in the number of adults in work will mean an increase in the number of children in school. There is space for innovation here, in using the UK’s world-leading aid budget not only to address the immediate problems created by the refugee crisis, but also to build pressure for systemic changes that could ensure not only safety, but also opportunity, for Syrians in Lebanon.
British aid saves and changes lives in the world’s toughest places, but we must never stop asking if it can do more to make change for the people who need it.