Syrian refugees in Lebanon surpass one million

Press Releases, 3 April 2014

Lebanon faces intensifying spillover; host communities stretched to breaking point

Beirut/Geneva, 3 April 2014 The number of refugees fleeing from Syria into neighbouring Lebanon surpassed 1 million today, a devastating milestone worsened by rapidly depleting resources and a host community stretched to breaking point.

Three years after Syria's conflict began, Lebanon has become the country with the highest per-capita concentration of refugees worldwide, struggling to keep pace with a crisis that shows no signs of slowing.

Refugees from Syria now equal one-quarter of the resident population, with over 220 Syrian refugees for every 1,000 Lebanese residents.

"The influx of a million refugees would be massive in any country. For Lebanon, a small nation beset by internal difficulties, the impact is staggering," said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "The Lebanese people have shown striking generosity, but are struggling to cope. Lebanon hosts the highest concentration of refugees in recent history. We cannot let it shoulder this burden alone."

The influx is accelerating. In April 2012, there were 18,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon; by April 2013, there were 356,000, and now, in April 2014, 1 million. Every day, UNHCR in Lebanon registers 2,500 new refugees: more than one person a minute.

The impact on Lebanon has been immense. The country has experienced serious economic shocks due to the conflict in Syria, including a decline in trade, tourism and investment and an increase in public expenditures. Public services are struggling to meet increased demand, with health, education, electricity, and water and sanitation particularly taxed.

The World Bank estimates that the Syria crisis cost Lebanon US$2.5 billion in lost economic activity during 2013 and threatens to push 170,000 Lebanese into poverty by the end of this year. Wages are plummeting, and families are struggling to make ends meet.

Children make up half the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon. The number of school-aged children is now over 400,000, eclipsing the number of Lebanese children in public schools. These schools have opened their doors to over 100,000 refugees, yet the ability to accept more is severely limited.

Local communities feel the strain of the influx of refugees most directly, with many towns and villages now having more refugees than Lebanese. Across the country, critical infrastructure is stretched to its limits, affecting refugees and Lebanese alike. Sanitation and waste management have been severely weakened, clinics and hospitals are overstretched, and water supplies depleted. Wages are falling due increase labour supply. There is growing recognition that Lebanon needs long-term development support to weather the crisis.

"International support to government institutions and local communities is at a level that, although slowly increasing, is totally out of proportion with what is needed," Mr. Guterres said. "Support to Lebanon is not only a moral imperative, but it is also badly needed to stop the further erosion of peace and security in this fragile society, and indeed the whole region."

And while the scale of the humanitarian emergency expands, and the serious consequences to Lebanon mount, the humanitarian appeal for Lebanon is only 13 per cent funded.

Aid agencies struggle to prioritise equally compelling needs and target assistance first and foremost to most vulnerable of a needy population. Limited humanitarian funding coupled with a steady erosion of refugees own reserves can have dire consequences. A growing number of refugees are unable to afford or to find suitable accommodation and are resorting to insecure dwellings such as tents, garages and animal sheds. 80,000 urgently need health assistance. More than 650,000 receive monthly food aid to survive.

The vast majority of children are out of school, many work, girls can be married young and the prospect of a better future recedes the longer they remain out of school.

"The Syrian children of today," said Ninette Kelley, "will be the shapers of Syria tomorrow. We must ensure they have the skills to meet the vast challenges they are now consigned to confront in years to come."

UN and partner agencies have mounted an unprecedented response, targeting both refugees and Lebanese host communities. Late last year, they appealed for US$1.89 billion for 2014. Only US$242 million has been received so far.

"Lebanese communities are increasingly hard-pressed, and tensions are rising," Ms. Kelley said. "Yet relocation spaces to wealthier third countries remain limited, and the appeal remains woefully underfunded. Morality and pragmatism demand we do more."

Photos, video, infographics and other media materials can be downloaded from http://www.unhcr.org/lebanon1m

For more information, please contact:

  • Beirut: Dana Sleiman (+961 71 910 626) including for interviews with Ninette Kelley
  • Beirut: Joelle Eid (+961 70 176 969)
  • Bekaa Valley: Lisa Abou Khaled (+961 71 880 070)
  • Tripoli: Bathoul Ahmed (+961 70 100 740)
  • Geneva: Dan McNorton (+41 79 217 3011)
  • Geneva: Ariane Rummery (+41 79 200 76 17)
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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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