News / Middle East

UN: Lebanon's Syrian Refugee Crisis Could Explode into Sectarian Violence

Syrian refugee family members break their fasting outside their tent at a refugee camp in the eastern town of Marj in Bekaa valley, Lebanon, June 29, 2014.
Syrian refugee family members break their fasting outside their tent at a refugee camp in the eastern town of Marj in Bekaa valley, Lebanon, June 29, 2014.
Lisa Schlein

A senior U.N. official warns the growing Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon could explode into inter-sectarian violence.  The official says competition between the Lebanese and Syrians for limited resources is increasing tensions between these communities to a dangerous level.  

Lebanon has the highest proportion of refugees of any country in the world.  The U.N. refugee agency has registered more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees and those numbers are going up by 12,000 a week.  It is estimated the refugee population will reach 1.5 million by the end of the year.  
 
U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Lebanon, Ross Mountain, said refugees now comprised one quarter of Lebanon's population, and this was rising to one-third.  
 
"It would be equivalent to a million people coming into New Zealand in 18 months...or 100 million Mexicans going into the United States or 2.5 million people coming into Switzerland in 18 months.  The proportions are just extraordinary.  I do not know any other country that could withstand this pressure," said Mountain.  
 
Competition

Lebanon has no refugee camps.  So, most of the Syrian refugees live in some 240 of Lebanon's poorest communities in the northern Akkar and Beka'a regions.  Mountain told VOA the reality of Lebanese and Syrians living side-by- side, vying for the same jobs and basic needs including food, scarce water and health was a formula for insecurity and rising conflict.
 
"We have already statistics of something like 37 percent of the prison population now is Syrian.  And, obviously if people cannot get jobs, they are not in school and so on-this is storing up even further trouble-not just for Lebanon, but for the neighborhood," he said.  
 
Ross Mountain is on a tour of several major cities in Europe to draw attention to the dilemma facing Lebanon.  He said the stability of the country did not hinge solely on money.  But, he noted it was not helpful that only 29 percent of the U.N.'s $1.6 billion humanitarian appeal for 2014 was funded.  He said this lack of international support was only adding fuel to an already explosive situation.
 
He said tensions at the moment were being kept under control.  But, Mountain noted Lebanon went through a wrenching civil war 25 years ago and many of the same elements present then were present now.  This, he said was raising the specter of rising inter-sectarian problems in Lebanon getting out of hand.

Mountain said so far hard work by political and religious leaders and by Sunni and Shi'ite communities has managed to keep a lid on growing tensions and resentment between the Lebanese people and Syrian refugees.  But, he warned this was a time bomb waiting to explode.

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