How serious is Lebanon's Syrian refugee crisis? Imagine 80 million Mexicans flooding U.S. -- in 18 months

McClatchy Foreign StaffMarch 18, 2014 

Mideast Syria Peace Talks

Dozens of Syrian refugees watch a tent and a trailer on fire, October 2013.

MANU BRABO — ASSOCIATED PRESS

— The influx of nearly 1 million Syrian refugees into Lebanon -- equal to 25 percent of Lebanon's population -- is stirring social tensions and putting mounting pressure on public services and the fragile economy, a senior U.N. official warned Tuesday.

It is imperative that the international community "helps to bear the brunt of the pressure on Lebanon," the official, Ross Mountain, said.

"Lebanon is the largest per capita recipient of refugees anywhere in the world," said Mountain, the U.N. resident humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon.

"This is equivalent to 80 million Mexicans arriving in the U.S. in 18 months," he added.

Mountain, 69, a New Zealand national, has been a U.N. representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, East Timor, Haiti and Afghanistan. He doesn't see the end coming soon to Syria's refugee flow to its neighbors, who already have absorbed 2.57 million Syrian refugees, according the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. To date the agency has 962,000 registered refugees in Lebanon, 585,000 in Jordan, 642,000 in Turkey, 227,000 in Iraq, and 135,000 in Egypt

That flow will continue, Mountain said, "as combat continues in Syria."

In a similar vein, a report by the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council Tuesday said civilians are getting it from all sides in the war. Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the commission, said civilians "are repeatedly the victims of terror from car bombs targeting civilians by non-state armed groups" and from "the government campaign of barrel-bombing, targeting areas such as Aleppo city."

Mountain said UNHCR has projected that the influx into Lebanon might rise to 1.5 million refugees by the end of 2014.

"Unfortunately we are currently on track for that and that will be over a third of the population of the country," Mountain said.

"When you look at the growth of the refugee population from a trickle to a few thousand to now a million over three years, that goes far beyond the resilience that one expects of Lebanon," he said.

Mountain told McClatchy that the result is likely to be "exacerbation of inter-communal tensions" -- sectarian violence -- and "security incidents by extremists."

The refugees problem in Lebanon has been building fast. Last fall, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns warned delegates to a UNHCR conference here that "The scale and scope of the crisis in Syria is staggering."

"We are witnessing the world’s largest mass displacement in over three decades," Burns said. "The demographic landscape of the region is transforming in front of our eyes.

About 40 percent of Lebanon's population is Christian, while Sunni and Shiite Muslims make up about 27 percent each. But the vast majority of the refugees now arriving in Syria are Sunnis, and their presence will seriously unbalance Lebanon's carefully structured society.

Mountain said he bulk of the Syrian refugees also are coming into Lebanon's poorest areas: 225 "localities" have received 86 percent of the refugees, Mountain said. Those same communites hold 68 percent "of the poorest Lebanese people," he added.

Mountain said that UNHCR has sought $1.9 billion to help refugees in Lebanon, but that so far it's received pledged for only 14 percent of that amount.

The World Food Program, meanwhile, plans to assist 1.1 million people in Lebanon mainly through food vouchers, and a total of over 2.9 million people in neighboring countries including 710,000 in Jordan; 300,000 in Turkey; 290,000 in Iraq and 140,000 in Egypt.

Conditions are also hard for refugees in Jordan, according to a joint survey by UNHCR and the U.S. charity group International Relief and Development.

Dan McNorton, a UNHCR spokesperson, told reporters a survey of 92,000 interviews with refugee families conducted between June 2012 and October, 2013 found that refugees are struggling to pay their rent, that 61 percent of children did not go to school during the last academic year, and that 49 percent were dependent on humanitarian assistance and charities for their income.

Zarocostas is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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