Lebanon at "breaking point" as refugee crisis deepens

Lebanon, which hosts 1.2 million Syrian refugees, says it is "stretched" for resources and the country's prime minister has warned of "civil unrest."

Photo by: AP (Archive )
Photo by: AP (Archive )

Syrians who escaped war and have gone to Lebanon have to endure a long wait to register with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Ask Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri and he’ll tell you there is a risk of a civil unrest in his country where one in every four people is a refugee vying with locals for scarce jobs and resources.

Hariri has asked for a ten-fold increase in donations to take care of over a million Syrians who have fled conflict in neighbouring Lebanon.

The United Nations has appealed for $8 billion this year to deal with a humanitarian crisis that has resulted in food shortages and deprived thousands of children from education in Syria and the countries hosting the refugees.

World leaders met in Brussels on Wednesday to pledge financial support for the refugees as the UN warned contributions to the humanitarian aid effort fall way short of meeting the target.

Leaders meeting in Brussels have pledged to do more for the countries hosting Syrian refugees but aid agencies say actual funding often falls short of the promised amount. Source: Reuters

In Lebanon, the refugee crisis is particularly dire.

Too much to handle

Lebanon hosts more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees. That's a significant number in a country with a total population of about 5 million people.

"Today, if you go around most of the host communities, there is a huge tension between the Lebanese and Syrians … I fear civil unrest," Hariri said, days ahead of the Brussels donor conference organised by Qatar, Kuwait, the European Union and the UN.

"I am going to make sure that the world understands that Lebanon is on the verge of a breaking point," he said, adding that the country has been "extremely lucky in making sure this crisis has not affected host communities, but we have stretched our luck."

Beirut has been complaining for years that it has been left on its own to shoulder a disproportionate number of refugees.

The spillover effect of the six-year war in Syria has cost Lebanon more than $18 billion, officials say.

Lebanon's gross domestic product (GDP), which represents the country's economic output, is down 0.3 percent as the flow of tourists has dried up.

A more obvious impact has been on the civic infrastructure.

In the town of Bar Elias, the population exploded with the refugee arrivals, exacerbating the garbage problem.

Authorities have had to deal with an increase in electricity consumption and many refugees aren't able to pay their bills.

The influx of families desperate for shelter has also pushed up rental prices.

More funds needed

Soon after the Syrian refugees started pouring into neighbouring countries, the UN launched a Regional Response Plan (RRP), a humanitarian aid project, in March 2012.

It started with a funding requirement of $100 million for Lebanon. This year it has jumped to $2 billion but up till now just a fraction – $135 million – has been received, according to the UN. 

Lebanon has received on average $500 million annually in international assistance between 2012 and 2015, much less than what aid agencies need to feed and take care of the refugees.

Most of the funds are distributed as food ration cards.

Difficulty for refugees

The Syrian refugees are scattered in 1,700 localities throughout Lebanon.

But unlike other countries hosting refugees, Lebanon has not designated any official camps, forcing refugees to live in derelict buildings, tented settlements, warehouses and even cattle barns.

Lebanon does not have any official camps, forcing Syrian refugees to live in makeshift settlements. Source: Reuters

Aid agencies say getting resident permits has become difficult, making it hard for people to find legitimate work.

Syrians who don’t have complete documents fear arrest and don’t venture out of the settlements.

Half of the Syrian refugee children don’t have access to education. Those suffering with chronic illnesses like cancer and renal failure are not treated by the limited health facilities.

Young boys have taken up odd jobs to help their families survive and many refugees owe debt to landlords, making them easy targets for exploitation.

Old grudges

In November 2015, suicide bombings in Beirut killed dozens of people.

Months later, more attacks followed, heightening sectarian tensions as many in Lebanon blamed terrorists hiding in Syrian localities.

Tens of thousands of children living in refugee settlements remain out of school. Source: AP

Security agencies were quick to arrest hundreds of Syrian refugees and Lebanese politicians ramped up calls for repatriation.

Relations between Beirut and Damascus have always been tense and Lebanese politicians fear that the refugees could become a political constituency for either the Syrian regime or the opposition.

The possibility of something like this happening became evident when the Syrian regime called for presidential elections in June, 2014. Syrians living in Lebanon were also allowed to vote.

What followed were tens of thousands of Syrians rallying on the streets of Beirut.