The UN’s days in Lebanon may now be numbered. Syrian refugees are trickling back to Syria against a shameful backdrop of UN failures.

There’s something quite odd happening in Lebanon. A weak caretaker government is ploughing ahead with the only policy objective which both sides of Lebanon’s leaders can agree on: the return of Syrian refugees back to their homeland.

This flies in the face of the wishes of UN agencies in Lebanon who would rather the refugees stayed in the country, which has thrown a rather marauding spotlight over the credibility and integrity of the role of the UN itself.  

The president’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, angered by the UN’s resistance to comply with the host country’s demands, recently ordered that all foreign UN workers would no longer have their residency permits renewed lunging himself at the jugular of the two big agencies UNHCR and UNICEF.

The decision for Bassil to work with the Syrian government and start repatriating Syrian refugees comes after months of complaints from Lebanon’s leaders that Lebanon needed much more money for their presence to no longer be deemed detrimental to the economy. 

Barely an opportunity passed by the country’s prime minister, Saad Hariri to have a photo op with an EU figure or for Hezbollah-aligned leaders pointing out that the country can no longer take the strain.

Indeed, in recent days, even Hezbollah an ally of Assad, has had to be called in to put the contentious dossier in order and get the process started. It was a message to the UN agencies here: “you might be able to drag your feet with Lebanon’s government, but for sure you’re not going to mess around with us”.

The Syrian refugee repatriation is slow and so far has only amounted to a few hundred. But the initiative is hugely embarrassing for the UN and will be a milestone for many who will be tempted to use the Lebanon fandango to ask ‘what is the point of the UN?’

A culture of zero accountability

In Lebanon’s case both the UNHCR and UNICEF have failed spectacularly to justify their presence for over five years. They administer an $8 billion annual budget to protect almost a million registered refugees, but at what cost to Lebanon? Is there another more devious and dubious reason why they refuse to comply with what Lebanon wants?

Or is it just that the UN’s senior people in those two agencies don’t want to appear to be the architects of a failed project?

The Lebanon case may well have helped over a million refugees fleeing the war in Syria, but it failed to compensate Lebanon for the impact on its economy.

Just before 2011, Lebanon had 8-10 percent growth and was looking forward to tourism and foreign investment flows. These days, Lebanon’s economy has almost sunk to that of war-torn Syria with now this tiny country close to falling into the abyss of being an IMF basket-case economy.

The next time hundreds of thousands of people flee a war from one country to a neighbouring one, the host country will say ‘no way we want the UN to administers a refugee program, not after the Lebanon case’.

Lebanon’s government saw the UN as just another militia feeding itself. 

Something had to give. And you can’t say the Lebanese elite weren’t patient. They did the walk-n-talk for long enough but all they got in return was an $11 billion aid rescue package with a long list of conditions. No one believes that Lebanon has any chance of rebuilding its economy with a million refugees still here and both the UN and the West had their chance to put more money into its failing economy, but didn’t.

That’s where we’re at.

Perhaps if the UN ran its two main agencies in Lebanon with more accountability and employed better people, the Lebanese government would have seen it as a valued partner to state building rather than just one more corrupt confessional group draining money from the coffers and giving nothing back.

In fact, I believe it is UN corruption which has brought about this crisis.

In my own investigations in recent years I have seen first hand how these two agencies behave like benevolent lords of poverty, giving jobs to their friends, presiding over hundreds of NGOs which plunder and loot the money given to them, while the top officials in Beirut live the high life. 

UNHCR insiders told me that corruption itself mainly centred on staffing; a Lebanese official would get to a mid management level and then employ his family and his political cronies. This was particularly evident in the NGOs which they funded, where my research revealed some cash rich organisations which had an entire fleet of pick ups, and an entire family of drivers. From the same family. 

There were also a considerable amount of ‘tender shopping’ where an NGO would set it self up superficially with the requirements of a huge multi million dollar UN grant – only to take all the cash once it arrives and not even genuinely go ahead with the requirements of the contract. This kind of corruption is rife and the fact that Lebanese UN officials do nothing about it suggests they are part of the problem.

My insider also told me that sexual harassment was rampant inside UNHCR and single women were under a certain amount of pressure to give into the demands of middle aged men who prayed on them. 

A French NGO chief revealed to me in an interview how concerned he was about UN corruption, giving me a string of examples how hundreds of millions of dollars are squandered and absorbed into the outstanding accountability-free tendering system with NGOs. 

One senior official at UNHCR even brazenly told me that she thought it perfectly “normal and to be expected” that a Lebanese doctor working for a UN funded program in a Syrian refugee camp would charge patients money and make a mint in the process.

UNICEF was also no different with a breath-taking level of arrogance from most of its officials about accountability.

And the attitude towards the media would also make Gebran Bassil blush - recently a Lebanese journalist was sentenced in absentia to four months in jail for merely criticising Bassil. Just recently I contacted a UNICEF chief by email and asked her about child slavery in Lebanon, which is rather like asking a miner about the hazards of coal dust in his lungs or a mercenary about the risks of taking a bullet. 

Remarkably, she not only denied that it even existed, but went further to say that she was “unaware” of it and refused to do an interview for TV.

The grizzly truth about the UN in Lebanon is that it shamelessly used the refugees as a justification for their almost colonial presence in the country, to live high salary lifestyles in Beirut, while child slavery flourished in the Bekaa valley and the prostitution sector in the entire country was taken over by young Syrian girls.

In a poor country, which for over two years has had no president, it was easy for the UN to behave like a state within a state. The incumbent government and check book media got used to it and even became numb to such figures of  “sixty percent of all UN funding for refugees is swallowed up by salaries” being bandied about - which corroborates well this report that states that three quarters of the entire UN budget goes to personnel costs including salaries.

What the UN has left behind is a loathsome, tainted legacy of human misery tacitly endorsed by the lords of poverty in Beirut in air conditioned offices who see the aid industry as a tawdry rout to self fulfilment and financial gain.

They did the bare minimum to set up programs and feed the refugees but at the expense of driving the Lebanese economy into the ground and making refugees human cattle in the process. In the end, many starved, many stole each others’ shoes to burn in stoves during winter and the UN couldn’t even organise a burial program for their dead – forcing them to bury their loved ones at night in fields, due to fear of arrest by Lebanese police.

No wonder UN workers a week or so ago harangued a bus load of Syrians returning to their country, as they boarded the vehicle which would take them back to Syria. According to reports, UN officials begged the Syrians to change their mind at the last moment and get off the bus.

And the Lebanese government’s anger and despair just grew. Meanwhile the Lebanese economy sinks even further and more Lebanese consider taking up fake Syrian refugee status in Europe, due to desperation.

The UN also needs to take the shameful, calamitous  saga of the Lebanon dossier as a low point, which should be used to begin a reform process. 

The UN agencies here should thank Bassil for not shutting them down entirely and administering the money to the NGOs itself. But throwing out the foreign UN officials is a good start at making the UN at least not entirely useless.

Correction: July 13, 2018 

An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that a Lebanese journalist was placed in jail for criticising Gebran Bassil. The journalist, Fidaa Itani, was sentenced in absentia to four months in jail. 

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