Lebanon is sheltering more than 1.2 million Syrians, whose growing presence poses “the most dangerous challenge” the country faces, Caretaker Social Affairs Minister Wael Abou Faour said.
The influx, swollen by refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria, threatens to upset the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon, a country of 4.3 million, according to 2011 World Bank figures. It is also driving up prices and pressuring government services, Abou Faour said.
“The security, economic, social, political and demographic pressures are huge, and the situation is very dangerous,” he said in a phone interview yesterday.
The Syrian community in Lebanon includes more than 500,000 refugees from Syria’s civil war, and affluent Syrians who fled the fighting but aren’t registered as refugees, Abou Faour said. The balance are Syrian workers and their families who were in the country before Syria’s war began in March 2011, he said, citing police records for the total number.
Unlike Turkey and Jordan, Lebanon has not set up camps for Syrian refugees, amid fears that would heighten sectarian tensions already inflamed by the war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels. Shiites, Sunnis and Christians each make up roughly a third of the Lebanese population, and the country fought its own sectarian civil war from 1975 to 1990.
Lebanon already houses 455,000 mostly Sunni Palestinians in 12 refugee camps, and the majority of Syrian refugees are Sunni. The Palestinians, like Syria, were a major player in Lebanon’s civil war.
Abou Faour said there have been discussions about setting up camps for Syrians for the past year, “but some political powers” have not agreed to it. He did not identify them.
The Syrian presence in Lebanon has pushed up the prices of basic commodities and rent and created “extraordinary” pressure on Lebanon’s institutions, including hospitals, Abou Faour said. Public schools have absorbed Syrian students and some private schools have afternoon shifts for Syrian students who want to study their country’s curriculum, he said.
Energy Minister Gebran Bassil said in an April 18 interview that power demand has increased 27 percent in the past two years because of the influx of Syrians. There’s an acute shortage of hospital beds, especially in emergency units, because of the Syrian influx, Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said June 10.
Lebanon is campaigning to persuade other countries in the region to take in some of the refugees, Abou Faour said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Lebanon at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com