A group of Syrian refugees in Beirut have experienced a two-year delay with their planned resettlement to Ireland due to Covid-19 restrictions and housing shortages.
Many of the families sold their possessions in anticipation of departing for Ireland last year, but instead are facing the cold season in Lebanon without basic household goods and furniture.
The refugees say they have received little communication or support during their lengthy wait, amid deteriorating conditions in the Mediterranean country.
In March 2020, the Syrians were due to complete their final interviews for the Irish Refugee Resettlement Programme (IRRP). A delegation of Irish officials travelled to Beirut to conduct the interviews with families who had already been vetted by the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
The Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP) allows refugees in a host country outside the EU (eg Lebanon), who are assessed as meeting the requirements for refugee status by the UNHCR, to be resettled directly to Ireland.
The Irish delegation interviewed 227 Syrians before leaving Beirut ahead of schedule due to travel restrictions imposed following the outbreak of Covid-19. A further 150 Syrians had their interviews cancelled.
"We were holding on to it so much," says Moustafa Mohamad (42), a father of three from Aleppo whose interview was cancelled with just days' notice.
"We felt quite broken," says Nerouz Aljenko (38), a mother of three from Afrin, a city in northern Syria. They said they received no support from the UNHCR or communication about when their interviews would be held between March 2020 and September 2021, when an Irish delegation returned to complete the interviews.
A UNHCR spokeswoman in Beirut said: “Processing delays for cases submitted to Ireland in 2020-21 largely result from travel restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
According to Aljenko's husband, Ahmad Hasan (47), one family who asked to delay their interview in March 2020 due to their child being sick were never offered a rescheduled interview.
A spokesman for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth said it would not comment on individual cases.
Last September, the department told The Irish Times the Syrian group being interviewed then, after their earlier interviews had been postponed at short notice, were expected to arrive in Ireland in November 2021, after receiving their pre-departure orientation from IOM, the UN migration agency.
Since then, the pre-departure orientation has been delayed twice, initially until January 2022 and again until March 2022, according to statements from the department.
Mohamad completed his medical examination last November, and since then has not received any official communication about when his family will leave Lebanon.
“All the other countries have taken initiative [on departures from Lebanon] except Ireland,” says Hasan. “Usually when you do your medical check-up it means that your flight is days away.”
"We thought the Irish Government would work faster to get us out after the Beirut blast" [which happened in August 2020], says Aljenko.
The department said the sourcing of long-term accommodation for refugees is currently taking longer than anticipated. In addition, "the demands on the IRPP have increased since it has also opened a new programme to support Afghan refugees, as an emergency response to the crisis in Afghanistan."
“We just hope for a single email from them or something,” says Hasan. “We withdrew all our money and sold all our possessions last year, as we assumed we’d be in Ireland now.”
Aljenko says: “Even if our trip to Ireland is to take another year, they should tell us.”
The department said Ireland does not guarantee arrival dates and does not engage directly with families, as all communications go directly through UNHCR. It added that “the UNHCR liaise with families but are not in a position to provide individual updates given the very significant numbers”.
Aljenko said she received a call from the UNHCR in early February (after The Irish Times had been in contact with the UN agency). “They told me that we had been selected by Ireland and hung up before I could ask any questions,” she said.
“The conditions have been terrible for the last two years,” says Mohamad’s wife, Shahinaz Kassab (41). “I’ve been struggling just to buy diapers for my son.”
Like many Syrian children, the couple’s two oldest sons, aged 10 and nine, have not been enrolled in school since 2019, when rapid inflation put the cost of education out of reach.
“There is no more livelihood anymore; there is no more security,” says Hasan. “My children are working at a factory from 7am until 9pm each day.” Sherin (20), Morad (18) and Siar (15) earn the equivalent of €1.30 a day.
The family can no longer pay the €35 monthly rent for their apartment in west Beirut and their Lebanese residency permits have also expired. This means that Mourad can’t undertake the state examination in Lebanon and finish school, nor can Sherin apply to college (she hopes to become a dentist).
The UNHCR said it did not have funds to renew the permit and the family cannot afford the $800 cost.
IRPP officials interviewing Sherin in September told her she will not be eligible for financial support for college in Ireland until she has spent three years in the country, she said. “I’ve already lost two years here in Lebanon and I’m going to lose another three years in Ireland.”
The group of Syrians whose interviews were completed in March 2020 were relocated to Ireland in November 2020.