Corruption creeps into refugee aid in Lebanon

Local partners and major international organizations have been accused of corruption and financial mismanagement in the implementation of support programs for Syrians.

al-monitor Syrian refugees receive aid from UNHCR in Batroun, northern Lebanon, Jan. 13, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim.

Topics covered

unhcr, syria, refugees, lebanon, humanitarian aid, corruption

Mar 8, 2015

For four years, Syrian refugees have flooded into Lebanon, fleeing the ongoing war in their country. They have been followed by international aid organizations and nongovernmental organizations that assist them in overcoming the crisis and meeting their needs. As the war in Syria has entered its fourth year, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has exceeded one million. The refugees have used tents, food, heating supplies and fuel provided by these organizations. They have also been provided with literacy programs, as well as awareness-raising programs about early marriage and women’s empowerment.

But in the name of “aid,” refugees have the goose that lays the golden egg. Aid organizations have become fountains of corruption, while “humanitarian mafias” accrue massive sums.

Sources of funding

There are two main sources of funding for aid projects provided by international and nongovernmental organizations. UNICEF oversees projects that take care of the rights of children; provides financial and material aid in emergencies; and deals with infrastructure and guarantees logistical essentials. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides medical aid and logistical essentials and oversees special projects. There are also various other funding bodies that some organizations rely on, including governments, corporations and private charities.

Fountains of corruption

According to information provided to An-Nahar, the process of exploiting aid to Syrians begins with a familiar and trusted process. A group runs a field study to define the basic necessities for a project that will benefit Syrian refugees, and will request an amount of money to implement the project. Then the group will allocate the money according to a particular timeframe. Once UNICEF and UNHCR agree on the project and the requested amount is allocated, the group will alter the allocation to distribute huge amounts of money to non-refugees. There are many examples of such behavior.

One nongovernmental organization set up an education project for refugees in one of the northern camps. It requested $1.5 million to implement the project and specified a particular allocation of funds. They said $900,000 would be allocated to teach children, provide them with books and train them, and $600,000 would be allocated to rent cars and offices, employ experts, and buy computers and office supplies. After UNICEF agreed to the terms of the project, the group changed those terms. It did not employ the experts that it identified, but increased its employees’ tasks without increasing their wages. It implemented the project at the lowest possible cost, and those who implemented it received the remaining profits.

Another project designated for nutrition and health also targeted one of the northern camps. It was proposed by an aid organization, which requested $1 million to implement the project within a span of six months. After it gained the acceptance of UNHCR, the organization did not employ enough personnel to administer it. It also did not provide the required equipment, like water filters, soap and basic cleaning products. The employees began to implement the project after four months without receiving the needed supplies. Sources confirm that this corruption takes place at high levels of the organization.

Other signs of extravagance

There was also evidence of utter extravagance, represented by excessive wages earned by some of the foreign employees who occupy high positions in most organizations. In some cases, these people constitute 5% of employees but receive 40% of the wages. Their wages start at $8,000, along with benefits that include car rentals, drivers, furnished rooms, electricity, water, phone, heating fuel and paid gasoline bills, in addition to private school tuition for their children and other expenses.

Sources also indicate that many of them enter Lebanese territory with a three-month tourist visa. They work and receive high wages while avoiding paying taxes on their income to the Lebanese state. There are questions as to how they enter Lebanese territory with another tourist visa days after the expiry of their first visa, which they receive from General Security. There are indications that family connections within General Security allow such exceptions for international organizations.

There are other examples of this type of corruption. One organization that works with specialized companies, after receiving its permission and budget, contracted its project to a single individual who lacked experience in the relevant field. In one instance, a foreign employee was asked to implement a project instead of a specialized company. He received $17,000 in exchange for his services, which involved normal administrative duties.

In addition, sources indicate that within a single organization, thefts have exceeded $500,000 following the sale of gasoline rations and aid packages. A bribe was also paid to the auditors of the Social Affairs Ministry to get them to improperly fill out forms recommending the provision of aid which never reached refugees. Other bribes are given to the heads of some municipalities to cover up the pitiful state of refugees, caused by the organizations’ failure to fulfill their tasks. In one example, a bulldozer was purchased for $80,000 for a Bekaa township, and the mayor profited by renting it out.

The decline of funding

In light of these violations, sources within these organizations confirm that international funding for these aid projects has declined. They have been forced to reduce the number of their employees and cancel their programs, including an education program that began six months ago. The employees who worked on this project received their wages without doing any field work.

The same sources confirm that observers are sent to monitor the implementation of projects in the camps of the Bekaa and the north. Direct aid granted to refugees in the camps has decreased, first because of the large number of refugees who have come to Lebanon just to benefit from handouts, or to sell carpets, kitchen appliances, air conditioners and the LCD televisions that they receive, or to work in agriculture and construction while simultaneously benefiting from aid.

Precision in combating corruption

UNHCR pays great attention to the process and how its partners spend money, engaging in internal monitoring and investigating administrative and financial issues. Media spokeswoman Dana Suleiman told An-Nahar: “UNHCR includes a project and program monitoring unit that observes … the specified expenses of the budget, in order to achieve the goals of the projects within a clear timeframe. This is stipulated by investigations according to legal mechanisms in case any complaints reach UNHCR, and partners are directed to operate according to strategies and programs that limit corruption and prevent fraud.

“UNHCR follows up on any cases of corruption, including exceeding the specified budget. Previously, we faced some cases in which some parties tried to benefit from the programs, and we investigated the issue, confronted the problem and contacted them. But on the issue of refugees, we make it known that all of our services are free, and there is a box for suggestions and comments, which go straight to management. Refugees can present complaints directly to the legation’s investigation unit.”

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