In Depth

Syrian refugee crisis: where is Lebanon's tipping point?

As another 50,000 Syrians register in one month, Lebanese generosity is being stretched to the limit

BEIRUT - Britain's recent decision to take in several hundred of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees is to be applauded; it is the best possible kind of U–turn. But it is nowhere near enough.

Lebanon, previously a country of just over 4 million, is now officially hosting more than 900,000 Syrian refugees - more than any other country. In short, an area the size of the West Midlands has seen its population increase by 25 per cent.

And that’s based on the official refugee figure. The unofficial estimate is closer to 1.5 million, which includes those who for various reasons haven’t registered with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

The good news is that tensions between the local population and the refugees have so far been limited.

Yes, there have been examples of racism, petty crime, arbitrary detention, inflated rents, forced evictions and so on, but  resentment towards the Syrian arrivals has largely been confined to mutterings behind closed doors, blog posts and the occasional newspaper column.

"For the moment, there is still a sense that it is not acceptable to publicly protest the refugees’ presence," one UN aid worker told me quietly during a recent trip to one of the many ramshackle informal camps in the wintry Bekaa Valley. "But how long can it last?"

Lebanon’s ability to absorb the enormous geopolitical shift occurring on its doorstep has been astounding, and the generosity of local host communities has been noted at all levels.

But this is not limitless. Unemployment is estimated to reach 20 per cent by the end of 2014 and the strain on waste management facilities, electricity, water and even goodwill is becoming clear.

There is one ugly option that has so far been danced around: the possibility that at some point in the future, Lebanon might need to close its border.

Some 50,000 Syrians registered with UNHCR in Lebanon in the last month alone. At this rate, the official refugee population will reach 1.5 million by the end of this year, with no end in sight to the nearly three-year–old civil war raging just hours away from here.

No country in Europe, where immigration policy remains sensationalist fodder for popular debate, would ever dream of allowing so many people in.

Lebanon, just 20 years out of its own soul-destroying civil war, is barely able to cater for the refugees that are here. No matter how much Britain and others pump in, aid can only do so much to salve the country’s immense infrastructural and economic deficiencies.

What is needed, UNHCR said in a recent appeal, is robust economic development. There is no aid package that can provide that tomorrow.

With formal camps currently a no-no for historical and political reasons to do with Lebanon’s now-permanent Palestinian refugee population, many of the poorest Syrians have been forced to live in makeshift tents by the side of the road.

In these miserable places, where children stomp through icy puddles with nothing but plastic sandals on their feet, thousands are eking out an existence as they wait for something to change for the better.

And every day, more are arriving.

"How much longer can this continue until there starts to be a serious backlash from the Lebanese?" asked the UN aid worker as the snow began to fall. "There must be a tipping point." 

Venetia Rainey tweets at @venetiarainey 

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