Meet the Galway man working to resolve Lebanon’s housing crisis
05 September 2016
Lebanon, a country of four million people, hosts more than one million Syrian refugees.
The urgent need for basic shelter has pushed many Syrian families to live in poor conditions, frequently in spaces not designed as shelters. The situation is further exacerbated with the arrival of new refugees, reducing the availability of housing and increasing the risk of eviction.
In this challenging context, Irish solicitor Tom O’Sullivan works with UNHCR in Lebanon to resolve housing, land and property (HLP) issues related to the Syrian refugee crisis.
What attracted you to working with UNHCR? Is it rewarding?
I was attracted to working with UNHCR as I have interacted with that organization quite a lot over the years and had received UNHCR training when I worked as a solicitor in the Refugee Legal Service in Galway for a few years in the early 2000s. My first deployment with Irish Aid was with UNHCR in South Sudan. I completed two deployments in South Sudan (6 months each) at an interesting time in S Sudanese history – I was there for the referendum and the coming into existence of the new state of South Sudan in an air of guarded optimism. UNHCR interested me due to their work they do – but also it was the first deployment I was offered.
Could you give me a description of your day to day work?
I have been in Lebanon for just over a month. Most of the first few weeks were spent at a desk doing desk research on issues related to Civil Status Documentation and HLP issues regards the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon in the context of a future return to Syria. From this week onwards I will be holding Focus Group Discussions and One-to-One and Family interviews with Syrian refugees in relation to the above issues. Therefore my day to day will be a mix of sitting behind a desk doing research and getting out to meet refugees.
What are the changes and challenges that Lebanon is facing, in the light of the current refugee crisis?
The challenges facing Lebanon are many and diverse. There are approx. 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon: 1 person in 4. This places enormous stress on the administrative system here and is a highly politicized issue as if they were to be granted any level of permanent status it would disrupt the very delicate religious balance in Lebanon. Lebanon has not signed up to the Refugee Convention and regards the Syrians as being “displaced” rather than as refugees. Lebanon sees itself as a country of transit rather than settlement. Initially, there was an almost open door policy but there has been a hardening of attitudes and an introduction of much more stringent regulations since 2014.
There are no refugee camps in Lebanon. How does this impact on the lives of refugees and the ability of UNHCR to reach them?
The fact that there are no camps does make it more difficult as the population is spread all over the place. As regards how it affects the refugees - it varies. Many of them have little resources left at this stage and rents are quite high. There would appear to be a significant number working unofficially.
You are part of the Rapid Response Corps. Why – in your opinion - is the support of Ireland important for the work of UNHCR?
The work of Irish Aid is important for UNHCR and for the other international organizations supported by Irish Aid. The provision of expert personnel by Irish Aid is an important addition to international humanitarian efforts at a time of increasing demand.
What, if anything, do you miss about Ireland?
My family and my garden, Joe Canning and the way he might hit a hurling ball, Lough Corrib, Galway Bay and West Kerry but I will only be gone for a few months.
By Giulia La Scala