BEIRUT: Jurg Montani arrived for his mission at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lebanon in the spring of 2011, just as the Syrian uprising was taking off. Little did he know then that two and a half years later his position would be at one of the world’s most challenging delegations at a pivotal time in history.
This week, as he prepares for his next station in Myanmar, he reflects on his time in Lebanon, describing it as a privilege to have worked here during one of the most difficult refugee crises in modern history. Montani hands over the reins to Fabrizio Carboni, who arrived from Geneva three weeks ago.
At a meeting with journalists at the headquarters of the ICRC in Hamra, the outgoing Lebanon delegation head discussed the scope of the ICRC mission, starting with its ongoing projects that predate the Syrian crisis – including following up on families of the missing from the 1975-1990 Civil War, the rights of the detained and imprisoned to health care, and infrastructure work in rural areas.
“I’m optimistic,” Montani said, while acknowledging that Lebanon was “less stable” than one year ago.
Since his arrival, the staff at the ICRC in Lebanon has increased by 30 percent to respond to the crisis in Syria and the refugee flow into Lebanon.
“I believe Lebanon can manage [the Syrian refugees], but there will be more support needed at the political level,” he said.
“Last year, when there were 20,000 [registered Syrian] refugees people wondered if Lebanon could cope. Today, there are nearly 700,000 and Lebanon has coped. So far it has been relatively good,” he said, noting that while the situation had been much better than it could have been, it was far from perfect.
“Yes, there have been shortcomings, and Lebanon has been a little late in recognizing the problem. But they’ve been exemplary at keeping their borders open and Lebanese communities have been incredible in hosting refugees.”
In response to a question about the recently reported stricter measures at the Lebanese border for refugees coming from Syria, particularly Palestinians, Montani said it was too early to comment and that every country had the right to control its borders.
He said that there had been discussions about having refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon, but stressed that he didn’t expect to see that happen, making the point that “you can’t put 600,000 people in a refugee camp.”
As Montani wrapped up his briefing, the discussion inevitably turned to the conflict in Syria, where volunteers for the Red Crescent, the local affiliate of the Red Cross, have repeatedly come under attack in spite of – or perhaps because of – the organization’s neutral role in all conflicts in which they work.
“The ICRC has access at one point or another to everywhere in Syria, but not always at the time we want to go,” said Montani, acknowledging that “it’s not satisfactory.”
He noted that during the June conflict in the Syrian frontier town of Qusair, where rebel forces battled the Syrian army that was aided by Hezbollah fighters, his colleagues at the Red Crescent had difficulty accessing civilians.
Montani was however able to report that the Red Crescent did have a team in the largely rebel-held northern city of Aleppo and they have also been able to serve opposition-held areas, although he emphasized that their reach was far from what he would like to see.
Montani also noted that as they do their best to reach civilians throughout Syria, he was concerned about the safety of his colleagues. Since the Syrian conflict began, at least 20 Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have been killed – in some cases by sniper fire – while carrying out their humanitarian duties.
“We need to be with civilians in the conflict. Security management is incredibly difficult,” Montani explained. “We don’t have bodyguards. Our only protection is the ICRC emblem. We rely on trust and respect from all parties of the conflict.”
He added, “We’re trying to convince people in a very polarized situation.”
Indeed, neutrality is key to humanitarian work – one reason that delegation leaders need to rotate positions as Montani is now doing.
“We need to remain neutral. And it’s more difficult to [do that] the longer you stay in a place,” he said.
“Even though we’re with the ICRC, we’re still human, and we still need to be protected from the political environment.”