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Lebanon Mulls Syrian Refugee Limits

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE - Tents house Syrian refugees in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley, near the border with Syria.

FILE - Tents house Syrian refugees in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley, near the border with Syria.

A senior UN official warns Lebanon is buckling under the strain of caring for more than one million Syrian refugees and is considering imposing control measures on Syrians trying to enter the country.

Lebanon, a tiny country, is hosting 1.1 million Syrian refugees — equivalent to one-quarter of its population.

Lebanon has the highest proportion per capita of refugees in the world.

UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Lebanon, Ross Mountain, draws parallels with other countries to give a sense of the overwhelming burden this refugee population is placing upon the country. He says the number of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon is equivalent to 18 million Mexicans coming into the South of the United States over 18 months or 16 million refugees crossing into France.
Syrian Refugees by Country

Lebanon: 1,119,772 (includes people awaiting registration)
Turkey: 743,277
Jordan: 593,346
Iraq: 223,113
Egypt: 137,056

Source: UNHCR
And, says Mountain, worse is yet to come. "At the moment, they are still coming at the rate of 50,000 a month," he said. "And, so the kind of figures that I referred to ballooned to 1.5 million in Lebanon projected by the end of this year, which is over one third of the population of the country."

Mountain wonders how many refugees Lebanon can take before it ceases to be a viable state. He notes the bulk of the refugees are living in 242 of the poorest communities. He says local residents and refugees are competing for dwindling resources and this is increasing tensions.

Fortunately, he says, religious and political leaders, so far, have managed to keep a lid on this situation. But, he notes Lebanon has been mired in civil war in the past and relationships among the different communities remain fragile because of the pressure of this enormous influx.

He says, "The Lebanese people have been remarkable in accepting this influx, but how long can one reasonably expect this to last? And I would like to suggest that it is not in anybody’s interest in that very complicated area of the world for Lebanon to go back to bad days that it has known in the past.”

Lebanon's economy is taking an enormous battering from the Syrian crisis. A joint UN, World Bank and government report says by the end of the year, the country will lose $7.5 billion from lack of commerce with the Gulf, the lack of tourism, the impact of refugees on public services and other factors.

On top of this, Lebanon is not receiving the support it needs from the international community. The United Nations only has received 17 percent of a $1.7 billion appeal for humanitarian aid to the Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities this year-and nearly half the year is gone.

UN Coordinator Mountain warns the Lebanese are being backed into a corner and are looking at control measures for Syrians coming into the country. He says the criteria still have to be worked out.

He says the government assures him that people with legitimate humanitarian needs will be allowed in, while those seen as posing a security threat are likely to be turned back.

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