Lebanon pushed to breaking point

A slow global response to refugees threatens the nation

In its latest report on the fate of that country’s refugees who continue to struggle in various neighbouring states, the United Nations Human Rights Commission revealed that the figure of one million refugees had been reached in the small nation of Lebanon; it called the figure “a devastating milestone”.

Overall, across those nations surrounding Syria: Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, there are some 2.5 million Syrians seeking safety from the fighting in their home country, while in Syria itself, a staggering 6.5 million people are displaced.

While sympathy naturally lies with these victims of war, a key aim of the UN’s latest report was to warn of the immediate threat now posed to Lebanon, which, in doing so much to provide for refugees, finds itself, per capita, accommodating one quarter of its own population. (The UN adds that the figure for Lebanon increases by 2,500 per day.)

“The influx of a million refugees would be massive in any     country,” said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “For Lebanon, a small nation beset by internal difficulties, the impact is staggering.

“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 UN’s report references a World Bank estimate of €1.8 billion as the cost to Lebanon in terms of lost economic activity directly related to the Syrian conflict. In towns and villages across the country, refugees outnumber locals, while, Syrian children in the Lebanese school system now outnumber nationals.

“Across the country, critical infrastructure is stretched to its limits, affecting refugees and Lebanese alike,” the UN states. “Sanitation and waste management have been severely weakened, clinics and hospitals are overstretched, and water supplies depleted. Wages are falling due to increased labour supply.”

Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Noelle Fitpatrick of Trócaire’s humanitarian team, which is working with local partners in Lebanon pointed out that the million figure represents only those who have officially registered with the UN on entering Lebanon, not the true scale of those displaced.

“The Lebanese people are to be commended for their patience and generosity but the pressure on this country is unsustainable. The human cost of this tragedy continues to soar.”


Yet, despite such a stark reality, and the associated threat to yet another nation of the Middle East (in addition to Lebanon’s own political instability), appeals for help continue to be met with a lackadaisical response. Despite an appeal from the UN and numerous aid agencies in 2013 for €1.37 billion to meet refugee needs, barely €176 million has been received.

In an interview on March 31, anticipating the 1 million figure Britain’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, chided other nations for its apparent ambivalence: “Since we encouraged Lebanon to host the displaced Syrians,” he said, “we have to cater for its needs, especially since it is one of the biggest displacement crises in history.”

Likewise, Ireland’s Minister for Trade and Development, Joe Costello, TD, in a statement responding to the UN figures last week said: “Despite the great generosity being shown by the people of Lebanon, this continuing influx of desperate and traumatised refugees is stretching public services such as health, education, electricity and water beyond their capacities. Syria’s neighbours cannot and should not have to shoulder the burden of hosting millions of refugees alone,” Minister Costello insisted. 

What number of refugees it will take for the international community to up its response appropriately can only be guessed at.

Meanwhile, as that number creeps ever higher, Lebanon moves closer to breaking point.