BEIRUT — Caretaker Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar called Friday on a "reversal" of the UN refugee agency's recent move to grant US dollar aid to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which he called a "mistaken decision" and a "crime against Lebanon."
"We were not consulted on this matter, even though we are the concerned ministry," Hajjar accused, speaking at a press conference at the ministry's headquarters in Badaro. "Although there have been discussions on the subject, no decision has been taken. We have not received any official document on the subject," he added, calling the UNHCR initiative "a great crime against Lebanon."
The UNHCR announced Tuesday that Syrian refugees would be able to withdraw their cash aid in dollars by the end of May. Until now, payments have been made in Lebanese lira, which has lost much of its value since the start of the country's financial crisis in 2019.
Hajjar called for a "reversal of this mistaken decision."
"Cash assistance provided to vulnerable persons in Lebanon, both Lebanese and refugees, should reflect the increasingly deteriorating situation with a view to ensure that minimum survival standards are fulfilled," UNHCR spokesperson Paula Barrachina told L'Orient Today on Tuesday.
"It is in Lebanon's interest not to dollarize this aid and to obtain UNHCR data on refugees," added the minister, who is engaged in a tug-of-war with this UN agency, which refuses to provide Lebanese officials with its data.
Hajjar has previously opposed the idea of giving Syrian refugees aid in dollars, citing that this would create unfairness since public sector employees, who go on “constant strikes” due to the deterioration of the purchasing power of their salaries, are paid in lira.
The caretaker social affairs minister also called Friday for the payment of aid to refugees in Syria, to encourage them to return.
Aid was already paid out by the UNHCR in dollars, but converted by the Lebanese authorities into liras for payment to refugees, creating a shortfall due to the volatile exchange rate of the national currency against the greenback.
According to estimates by the Lebanese authorities, more than two million Syrians have taken refuge in Lebanon since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, while the UN has registered 830,000 Syrian refugees with the organization. Their presence is perceived by some Lebanese groups as a major demographic, economic and security issue, all the more so as the country suffers through a serious socio-economic crisis. But rights groups have warned that returning to Syria remains dangerous amid continued fighting, state torture and forced disappearances.
With the dollarization of aid, a family receiving food and non-food aid in cash will receive — depending on the program it is enrolled in — $25 per family for non-food needs and/or $20 per family member for food needs, with a ceiling of five members.
Since the end of 2022, Lebanese nationals and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon receiving cash assistance from the UNHCR have been able to cash in the amounts paid in dollars or liras, according to UNHCR.
This aid is in addition to that granted to the Lebanese, notably by the World Bank, which has allocated a further $300 million to pay out funds in dollars to 160,000 disadvantaged households.