Pain Relief

UNHCR’s representative to Lebanon talks to Foreign Policy about the worsening refugee crisis that threatens to stretch the country to a breaking point.

In June 2012, Lebanon had about 25,000 Syrian refugees. Today, that figure has multiplied by a factor of more than 30. The numbers, however, don't tell the whole story: Lebanon was already a haven for Palestinian refugees, and it is grappling with longstanding sectarian tensions and the consequences of a government collapse this spring. It hasn't opened new camps to accommodate the Syrians pouring over the border, and, in the absence of sufficient funding and upgrades to support the population influx, Lebanon's infrastructure is under extreme pressure. Resentment among local communities toward Syrian newcomers is also reportedly mounting.

The crisis has been described as "out of control." One of the key people seeking to bring some order to the situation, by working with the Lebanese government, a dozen U.N. agencies, and over 80 NGOs to track refugees and provide them with aid, is Ninette Kelley, the representative to Lebanon for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Foreign Policy sat down with Kelley this week while she was in Washington. She discussed the challenges of assisting a wildly dispersed population living in garages, sheds, and empty buildings; her frustration that international journalists seem more interested in covering Jordan's Zaatari camp than other aspects of the refugee crisis; and why Lebanon feels like it's been abandoned by the world.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

FP: Today, how many Syrian refugees does UNHCR estimate are in Lebanon?

NK: Over 800,000.... We're registering between 11,000 and 15,000 every single week. It's a lot of people in a tiny country.

FP: The government has opted against opening new refugee camps. So where are most of the refugees?

NK: They're all over the country. When they first started to arrive, they settled in the north, and they gradually spread.... There are some 300,000 in the Bekaa [Valley], which is a large area in the east. There are around the same number, or slightly less, in the north, and around 90,000 in the south and in the Beirut area.... There is not a single area in Lebanon that is not touched by the Syrian refugee presence, and, in some communities, there are more refugees than there are Lebanese.

FP: What challenges has the government not opening camps presented to UNHCR?

NK: Certainly with the crisis, it was better to have people in communities rather than in camps. Camps are very easy to put up but very difficult to take down. People don't like being in camps.... It's much easier to distribute aid [in camps], but it comes with other risks

Around December of last year, we said, "This is not sustainable over the long term, and you [the government] need to think of a mix of shelter solutions, including some settlements, some camp-like settlements with up to 10,000 persons." We mapped areas in the country where that could be done, but the government still has not given its permission. That's very difficult because it means we don't have adequate shelter for people, and they are living in terrible circumstances.

FP: You're describing what sound like compromise solutions, where there are not camps, exactly, but concentrations of people that make it easier to deliver aid.

NK: What we're saying is you need a mixture of shelter options. You need cash-for-rent so people can rent apartments. You need to finish unfinished buildings so people can reside there....  But, for those people who still have not found adequate shelter, you need a place for them to go. We call it a transit center, but, in fact, it's a camp of manageable size, so it doesn't threaten any local communities, where we can put the necessary infrastructure in quickly and make sure that people are safe and secure.

FP: The government has also placed restrictions on the sort of shelters that can be constructed. What are the restrictions, and what is the rationale behind them?

NK: They [Lebanese authorities] don't like tents, but they don't want anything that looks like a permanent structure. The rationale is that they have had Palestinian refugees now for so many decades, they believe that anything that looks permanent will be permanent. They have this instinctive reaction against that.

FP: Obviously, interventions take a lot of money. What are your needs?

NK: In the middle of last year, we came up with an international appeal of $1.6 billion. A little over 30 percent is funded, when you include what the government also asked for. We're having great difficulty meeting the very basic needs of refugees in terms of shelter, health care, and education, but also in helping hosting communities that are really suffering because of the presence of refugee communities. There are pressures that come to bear on water and sanitation networks, on the loss of wages, on increased demand for limited health care services. The humanitarian appeal is not nearly adequately funded for us to be able to do our job appropriately. This is most disappointing to the Lebanese. They feel they have been abandoned by the international community.

FP: In what ways do you think more assistance for refugees could also be economically beneficial, socially beneficial for Lebanon?

NK: Many refugees are living in areas that are the most socially and economically depressed within the country. They were like that before the crisis, and they weren't getting the right services. So if we do interventions to help the school system, to help the primary health care system, if we improve water and waste management, if we can take vacant building and improve them, then that can all be to the benefit of the Lebanese as well. That is really our rallying cry right now in the world: Please come forward and help this tiny country with this disproportionate burden.

FP: You mentioned before we began the interview that you think Jordan gets more international attention because it has a very large camp and that makes for better optics.

NK: That's what journalists tell me: It's much easier to go to a camp and see what going on there. I've had many journalists come to Lebanon and say, "It's just not easy for us because we have to travel distances to tell the whole story."

FP: Lebanon has its own ongoing political crisis, and there have been reports that the presence of refugees is inflaming tensions with Hezbollah. What impact do you think refugee crisis might have on Lebanon's overall stability? 

NK: With all of the refugees, there are Lebanese who feel under threat, and there are different confessional groups who say, "We are becoming a much smaller minority in our country." That creates great anxiety and a great risk to stability. But I can't say that we've seen a spike in terms of outright confrontation between groups in the last two years. The rhetoric has always been relatively [charged], but the stability that has been maintained is amazing. I can't think of a single situation in living memory when a country as small has taken in so many without more political instability than we're seeing.

FP: Let's talk about winter. This will not be the first winter Syrian refugees have spent in Lebanon, but it may be the harshest. What steps is UNHCR taking to prepare?

NK: Winter is something that you expect and you know about, so our shelter strategy and our distribution for non-food items necessary for winter starts at the beginning of every planning year. We have been working on a priority basis making sure that the most vulnerable shelter situations are sealed off from the elements, whether that's tented settlements or rented garages, unfinished buildings, animal sheds. Then, in November, we start to distribute fuel and thermal blankets. But people continue to come and continue to settle, and keeping track of them is a challenge.

FP: Already, many refugee children are missing critical years of schooling. What sort of assistance for education have you been able to provide the government of Lebanon?

NK: Right at the outset, they said Syrian children can come to Lebanese schools. This year, we have 280,000 [school-age] Syrian children, almost equal to the entire number in the Lebanese public system, so the government said, "We think we can accommodate 100,000: 30,000 in regular classes and, if UNHCR and other partners come in, we can put in a second shift [in the school day] and accommodate another 70,000." That's enormous. But it depends on funding, and it also tells us that nearly 200,000 children won't have that opportunity. It's not that the government isn't willing, it's just that the capacity has been reached. So now we have to work at finding other informal education options and plan for the longer term, because these kids are spread all across the country in all kinds of precarious circumstances and they need to be able to have some kind of educational support.

FP: What would informal options look like?

NK: It could be setting up mobile schools, which UNICEF has started for informal tented settlements. It's also trying now to map out the skill sets of the refugees themselves [including teachers], to give them materials so they're able to teach the children. It's going to be a really new area for us, and the numbers are staggering, so we need all the help we can get.

FP: Children have particular needs, and there are other groups within refugee communities that fall into similar, special categories-for instance, LGBT individuals and women. What is UNHCR doing to support needs beyond the immediate, emergency ones, like food and shelter?

NK: We try to ensure a diversity perspective is in all our interventions, so that you're also looking to the needs of children, women, the disabled, the elderly... street children, young people at risk of forced marriage. Our teams in the field are well-capacitated to identify them and refer them to appropriate services.... Can I say we are 100 percent successful? Absolutely not, and it's one of the biggest challenges when you're dealing with an emergency.

FP: In a similar vein, are there particular health concerns in Lebanon at the top of your list of what to pay attention to? There have been recent reports of polio spreading in Syria.

NK: You always worry about the spread of disease. When people leave their home country and their vaccinations have been interrupted, you worry about them not being immunized and being conduits to the hosting community. We do a number of things. First off, UNICEF has a vaccination center in all of our registration centers.... On polio, UNICEF, the WHO [World Health Organization], and government of Lebanon will be vaccinating everyone under age 5 throughout the country, regardless of nationality. In addition, we have health referral networks where we're trying to ensure primary health care.... But the health care needs are astronomical. Lebanon is primarily a privatized health system, our scarce dollars are stretched very thin, and there are many cases that we are unable to treat. We try to treat all infectious disease, and, on secondary health care, we prioritize life-saving efforts. But those people who have a hip needing reconstructive surgery, or a baby that needs a cataract operation to be able to see, or someone who has a cleft palate, those are off the table. For those individuals, those are great disabilities they carry for the rest of their lives, but we just don't have the money to pay.

FP: Look ahead, where do you see Lebanon in five or 10 years, in terms of the refugee situation?

NK: I cannot imagine a good scenario absent a good political solution in Syria. I think that has to be the focus of everybody because the consequences of that not happening are so incredibly dire that the world should not be sitting around accepting them. Short of that, if the situation continues as it is now, Syria will continue to be completely devastated, refugees will continue to flee, the stability of the surrounding countries will be challenged, and what we're seeing in Syria could really expand to the rest of the region, to the detriment of global stability.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


The Name's Bond, Larry Bond

Meet the man who inspired Tom Clancy and The Hunt for Red October.

Writer Tom Clancy, who died last week, co-wrote the 1986 bestseller Red Storm Rising with former U.S. Navy officer Larry Bond. "I wrote like 1 percent of [that] book," laughs Bond -- but as the designer of the popular naval wargame Harpoon, he played an important behind-the-scenes role as a naval warfare counselor to Clancy. Foreign Policy caught up with Bond this week to reminisce about his long relationship with the master of the military thriller. 

Foreign Policy: How did you and Tom Clancy meet?

Larry Bond: Harpoon was published in April 1980. I would get letters from enthusiasts with questions about naval systems and stuff. Tom Clancy's was one of the letters I got with questions about naval warfare. I answered it. Didn't think more anything about it. Tom sent a follow-up letter with more questions, and we eventually started talking on the phone. We became good friends. He would call and we would chew the fat for hours. That's why I always answer my mail. You never know where a letter is going to lead.

FP: What was Clancy like?

LB: He was knowledgeable and asked questions. He was always playing with concepts. Can you do this in real life? How does this thing work under the hood? For instance, electronic support measures (ESM), which is using an enemy's radar and radio signals to determine his location. And he not only figured out how to use cross-bearing to triangulate the target, but he would ask, how wide is that beam? What is your margin of error? He really wanted to know how things worked. He was always exploring whatever issues interested him. He would bang the rocks together and come up with very correct answers.

When we were plotting Red Storm Rising -- the core of the story is a NATO-Soviet war in the North Atlantic -- he looked at Iceland and said, "this is a strategic piece of real estate. The Russians are going to want this." I told him the Russian Navy wasn't set up for this. They didn't have the amphibious groups we have. Tom goes, "no, no, they need to take this." We set up a Harpoon battle called the Great Keflavik Turkey Shoot that sort of validated what Tom was saying. If there are U.S. fighters based in Iceland, and Soviet Backfire bombers tried to strike convoys in the Atlantic, even just a few fighters would indeed tear a hunk out of the bomber stream. But what I couldn't tell him at the time was that I had been working at the Center of Naval Analyses where there were several very classified studies going on about the strategic nature of Iceland. People were thinking about this hard, and Tom just pulled it out of the air.

FP: Is it true that Harpoon was the basis for the Hunt for Red October?

LB: Harpoon was one of the data sources for Hunt for Red October. The real basis for the book was the Storozhevoy Incident (where a Soviet destroyer unsuccessfully attempted to defect in 1975). Tom looked at that and thought, "What if that hadn't been a surface ship that could be stopped easily, but a sub which couldn't be easily found? And what if it was a brand-new ballistic missile sub?"

As far as technical stats, there are very few numbers in Hunt for Red October. People always focus on where he got all his information. If you pick up The Boy's Book of Submarines, and The Boy's Book of Sonar, you have 90 percent of what Tom had. What he got out of Harpoon was some weapon names, speed of ships, and so on.

When I wrote Harpoon, I was still in the Navy, so I deliberately did not go to any classified data sources I had. But there was a Navy training game called NAVTAG [Naval Tactical Game]. It was classified, which made it hard to distribute. So I wrote Harpoon as a training game. It wasn't classified so we could leave the game lying around. I wrote it with simple rules because most naval officers are not gamers. But I was thinking about making Harpoon a commercial release, so in the game, I explained things like what a convergence zone was, or how passive sonar worked. And I think that's what Tom liked. There was so much explanatory text in the game.

There was some stuff that Tom got wrong. In that era, the Soviets didn't name their submarines. They had letters and numbers: "K" for the nuke boats and "B" for the diesels. But what I think what was important about Harpoon was that it served as a bridge for his next project, Red Storm Rising. It was the basis for our relationship.

Tom would have done okay without Harpoon. I'm not saying that because I'm humble. Harpoon only gave him some names and some speeds. So much of what he did in terms of creating characters and plots was independent of Harpoon. Tom was a born storyteller. Whenever he talked with people, he always used stories and anecdotes. After he wrote Patriot Games, Tom decided to take a year off from writing. And whenever I talked with them during that year, he would have ideas for books. He couldn't stop thinking about creating stories.

FP: So it sounds like Tom wasn't so much interested in creating realistic stories as he was plausible ones?

LB: If somebody who does this kind of stuff in the real world says this is bogus, the general public will pick up on it. It's cooler to use the real stuff and come up with unusual ways of using it, even if this can be a challenge. Tom actually wrote himself into a corner once, with that knife fight at the end of Hunt for Red October between Red October and the Alfa-class sub. There are two U.S. subs there, but they don't want to shoot at the Russians, and Red October can't shoot because the torpedoes aren't there and so on. How the hell are we going to get out of this one? Tom came up with the idea, after much head-scratching, of having Red October ram the Alfa. Everybody was like, what? But I've got models of both subs on the shelf in my office, and an Alfa-class sub is a fifth of the size of a Typhoon-class sub like Red October. If a Typhoon rammed it, the Alfa would be toast. Tom had an ability to come up with unusual yet plausible solutions.

FP: How did Red Storm Rising come about?

LB: The book came about because of another game. I was doing analysis for the Center for Naval Analyses, which was doing things like, how many carriers will we need in 20 years? We're doing all this deep thinking about REFORGER [reinforcements to Germany in the event of a Soviet attack] and Atlantic convoys. There were so many variables. I was explaining this to Tom, blathering on about the Atlantic and the convoys and the SOSUS net (underwater sonar network). And Tom goes, "you could turn that into a good book." And I'm like, really? How would you do that? [laughs]. That was how we decided upon Red Storm Rising. The core is about the Atlantic and the convoys to Europe.

I got to watch Tom's genius. I'm listed as co-author, but I wrote like 1 percent of the book. Tom was fast. He could do 10 pages a day without breathing hard. I was doing staff studies and operations analyses of how the Russians would take Iceland, and that was the structure that Tom would hang everything else on. But I was basically his apprentice and his reality check.

FP: Did you and Tom ever play Harpoon together?

LB: He was in rural Maryland and I'm in northern Virginia. But we did play sometimes. There was one chapter in Red Storm Rising called "Dance of the Vampires." We played it out in Harpoon with Tom as the Russian commander. We gamed out some of these carrier battles. We weren't looking for a particular plot for the book. We already knew how the plot would run. You know, it's early in Act II, and the bad guys have to win at that point. But after gaming a couple of those carrier battles, Tom and I both had a better sense of what the flow of the battle would be and how it would take shape. Any kind of research like that simplifies writing fiction. I tell high school English classes time and time again that it's so much easier to go and find out about something than have to make stuff up.

FP: What was Tom like as a player?

LB: Very aggressive. He was always looking for an angle or an unusual tactic. I'm Mr. Doctrine. I try to emulate real-life tactics. Tom wanted to go one step further. He would come up with these strategies that were very unconventional. He noticed that the speed of an AS-5 Kelt [an old Soviet air-to-surface missile carried by bombers] very closely matched the cruise speed of a Backfire bomber. Tom was the one who asked, what if the Russian fired these missiles as drones -- the Russians had converted many of them into target drones -- so on radar they look like a Backfire formation coming at a carrier? I was the one who told him how you could tell the two apart. But the Russians could hang a radar reflector on them so the itty-bitty missile would look like a big bomber. So we worked it out. It wasn't part of Soviet doctrine, so the U.S. wasn't ready for it. It's a viable tactic, even if you can only use it once.

FP: Do you think Tom Clancy's novels had an influence on the Cold War?

LB: There is a very strong rumor that I've heard about Red Storm Rising. Iceland gets invaded, and when Tom and I were researching this, we discovered that NATO and Iceland had a basing agreement that was very strict. NATO could not bring any new equipment to Iceland without agreement at the ministerial level. In the book, it became clear that the reaction times for reinforcing Iceland had to be a lot quicker. So there was a renegotiation of basing rights based on what was depicted in the book. Red Storm Rising was also used at the Naval War College.

Harpoon has also had a positive effect. It's been used as tactical training at the Naval Academy and elsewhere, though not officially. There are games and simulations. A game is two or more opponents in a closed system where theoretically everyone has an equal chance of winning. But a simulation is more open-ended. I can set up a simulation where there is no hope that one side can win. That was an argument I used to have with Tom all the time. He would look at the Soviet Northern Fleet and their Backfires, and the U.S. Second Fleet, and go, "well, each has a 50-50 chance of winning." And I would go, no, no, Tom, don't make that assumption. It's not a closed game. There could be a change in tactics. If there is a fat carrier target out there, they can bring over Backfires from Long-Range Aviation [the Soviet strategic bomber force] to join the Red Navy Backfires, and now instead of two regiments of bombers, the carrier is facing five. That's no longer a simulation. That's a murder mystery.

FP: A lot of information has come out of the former Soviet archives. Did you find anything that changed Tom's novels or Harpoon? 

LB: Harpoon has been almost completely revised after what we found in the Russian literature. For example, nobody had heard of the Kh-31 Krypton, a Mach 3 anti-radiation missile. We're like, where did that come from? And then there was the Kh-41 air-to-sea missile, which the Russians called the Mosquito. Who said the Russians had no sense of humor? It's the size of a Greyhound bus. We confirmed that Soviet doctrine was entirely defensive. The further we penetrated into their defensive zones and got closer to their bases, the more stuff they were going to throw at us.

FP: So if you could redo Red Storm Rising or Red October knowing what we do now, how would you change the plot and weapons? 

LB: Good question. Obviously I'd tweak the weapons and hardware to use the newest data, but I believe in both cases, the premise and story hang together pretty well. A very small example of that is that I updated the Dance of the Vampires scenario a few years back, and I didn't have to change the basic structure of the scenario at all.

FP: Why do you think books like Red Storm Rising were so popular?

LB: Red Storm Rising has to be the greatest "what-if" of that genre. You have to jump back into your wayback machine. In the 1980s, we were out of Vietnam, and you have to remember how frozen the two militaries were. We didn't want to shoot at the Russians, and they didn't want to shoot at us. Remember when we shot down the two Libyan aircraft? The actual use of American military force during peace time was a huge issue back then. Today, people are dropping bombs all over the place and no one notices. But it wasn't just that the book had huge force-on-force war. There was so much stuff we wrote about that had never been used before, like cruise missiles. So much of it was untested. Then Desert Storm came along, and now everyone knew about these weapons. So the guys who came along after us and wrote these novels didn't have the same success that we did.

FP: How do you feel about your books being called technothrillers?

LB: I always use the term "military thriller," because the focus is on military action. If you look at some books, they focus so much on military technology. They throw numbers at you. I don't like to use numbers in my stories. If you use more than one or two, people's eyes start to glaze over.