At a press conference presenting Caritas Internationalis’ annual report, the Lebanon representative of the Church’s humanitarian agency gives a harrowing account of the spiraling humanitarian crisis crippling the country.
As the planet faces exponential challenges amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Church’s humanitarian organization, Caritas Internationalis, is calling for a global ceasefire and debt relief for developing nations.
Joining Pope Francis’s appeal for a global ceasefire at a time in which the suffering of millions has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and looking to this weekend’s G20 Summit, Caritas has made a direct request to G20 Finance Ministers to annul – or at least reduce – the debt of poor countries so they can reallocate that money to development programmes.
The appeal was made during a conference to present Caritas Internationalis’ annual report. During the event, the Director of Caritas Lebanon, Rita Rhayem, spoke of the harrowing consequences of what she described as “Lebanon’s worst economic crisis ever” and its impact on millions of Syrian refugees, migrant workers and ultimately, the whole region.
“It is a crucial moment in the history of our country,” Rita Rhayem said, with Lebanon facing an economic collapse that has dramatic and far-reaching consequences on its people and the millions the nation hosts.
“The currency is losing 80% of its value; many people are now unemployed and many are pushed under the line of poverty,” she said.
The economic crisis is the result of many factors, Rhayem continued. She quoted Pope Francis, who recently said: “Lebanon is in a serious social, political and economic crisis which the Covid-19 pandemic has made even more difficult.”
The Caritas Lebanon Director explained that Lebanon, a crucial player in the Middle East, a nation that “that hosts an important number of Syrian refugees and migrant workers, is now at the verge of collapse, amid the silence of the international community.”
She explained that aid is linked to reforms “that are either difficult to achieve, or need time: meanwhile, the Lebanese people are paying a high price.”
And if Lebanese citizens are suffering, she said, so are refugees and migrants.
The burden of economic sanctions and international debt
Rhayem’s appeal to the international community is “to look beyond the economic crisis and see the humanitarian crisis that has emerged and that will impact all the regions, especially now with the economic sanctions and the debt.”
She is referring to the set of recent wide-ranging United States sanctions that target Hezbollah and others that support the Syrian regime. The “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act”, analysts warn, could foster greater political instability and conflict in Lebanon over the divisive issue of ties with Syria and Iran-backed Hezbollah’s role in the country.
Meanwhile, on the ground, Rhayem said, “the last couple of months have been really challenging for Caritas Lebanon: the number of beneficiaries has tripled while the people who used to support us can no longer do so.”
With a huge effort, she said, in the last couple of months, Caritas Lebanon alone has been able to provide 12,000 food kits, 5,000 hot meals and 3,000 food coupons to those in need, although with the inflation of prices it is becoming really difficult to buy food.
The fight against Covid-19
On the health-care level, the hospitals are facing an important shortage of medical equipment.
Lebanon has been fighting Covid-19 since 21 February; so far, the number of registered infections has reached 2,600 with 40 deaths.
Rhayem said that through its primary healthcare service centres and mobile medical units, Caritas Lebanon last month was able to offer support to 11,452 Lebanese people who benefit from primary health care services.
The plight of migrant workers
Lebanon is home to at least 250,000 migrant domestic workers, most of them women who come from African and Asian countries and who work in private households. Rhayem said that as the population is increasingly unable to cope, these migrant workers are abandoned and fired, “because Lebanese people can no longer afford to pay in USD currency which is now very rare currency” in the nation
So, she said, Caritas Lebanon is taking migrant domestic workers into its shelters, where they are assured maximum protection.
“The same applies to the Syrian refugees,” she said, whose emergency cash assistance has been increased to avoid evictions, to help them to pay the rent, to pay for food.
Lebanon fighting 2 pandemics: Covid-19 and hunger
She told of how, while the crisis deepens, hundreds of people are turning to alternatives for money. “Bartering,” she said, “has made a comeback in Lebanon as many poor people have started exchanging clothes and shoes for food.”
This is what is happening now in Lebanon, Rhayem concluded: “While the world is fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, we are fighting two pandemics: Covid-19 and hunger. And Covid-19 is not our number one priority.”
By Linda Bordoni