In the four years since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes, causing one of the biggest refugee crises the world has seen for years. One-third of the country's 23 million inhabitants have been displaced, within which at least three million have registered as refugees in other countries. Syrians have now displaced Afghans as the world's largest refugee population, according to a UN report released this week.
The country most affected is Lebanon, which shares a border with Syria. There are currently 1.1 million registered refugees in Lebanon, with an estimated 300,000 further unregistered. It is worth considering that the country's original population was only 4.4 million. Until recently, travel between the two countries has been largely unrestricted, and all Syrians could automatically stay in Lebanon for up to six months. However, under new rules introduced by the Lebanese government aimed at slowing the influx of asylum seekers into the country, Syrians will now have to obtain visas. Those seeking to enter Lebanon will have to fulfil certain criteria in order to be granted entry at the border.
"We have enough," interior minister Nohad Machnouk told a news conference this week. "There's no capacity anymore to host more displaced." Other lawmakers echoed his tone. Khalil Jebara, an adviser to Machnouk, said that Lebanon "will only allow refugees under very limited and exceptional cases." Member of Parliament Basem Shabb was even more unequivocal, telling the BBC that "this situation cannot continue… because it will affect not only the Lebanese but finally it will affect the Syrian refugees in Lebanon if Lebanon descends into chaos."
There is certainly no doubt that the huge number of displaced people is placing a strain on resources and creating tension. Levels of poverty in Lebanon have risen by two-thirds since March 2011, and unemployment has doubled. A report in early 2014 found that more than 90 per cent of Lebanese surveyed in the Bekaa valley and the north – the areas with the largest numbers of refugees – perceived Syrians as a symbolic and economic threat. In addition to this direct tension between the two populations, the ongoing conflict in Syria has also impacted the domestic political scene in Lebanon. It has caused a resurgence of sectarian violence, with Sunnis broadly supporting the Syrian rebels and Shias the Alawites, and has furthered political polarisation in Lebanon.
Yet, for all this, the tightening of entry for Syrians is still a matter of grave concern. For Syrian refugees, already in a desperate situation, this is just one more avenue of escape shutting down. It comes at a time when a harsh winter in Lebanon is already making conditions nigh on unbearable. On Tuesday night, a three-month-old baby died after being stuck at the border crossing for four days. Three people, including a six-year-old boy, were killed by a storm as they attempted to cross into the Shebaa area in southern Lebanon. Thousands of refugees in the Bekaa Valley have been stranded with very little food or heating oil. Aid agencies are struggling to reach them, as roads have been closed by the heavy snowfall. Refugees have been forced to dig their way out of camps, which are blanketed in snow.
While aid agencies struggle to reach refugees to provide them with support for the winter, some in the local communities have argued that this will only encourage them to stay. The UN, which has previously acknowledged that Lebanon and other countries, such as Turkey and Jordan, are overwhelmed by the number of Syrian refugees, has expressed concern about the new visa rules. It has asked for clarification about whether "the most vulnerable refugees" will still be able to gain access to Lebanon. However, with insecure conditions within Lebanon, tighter border controls, and harsh weather closing in, it is difficult to see how such a concession would help.
What is the solution? It would certainly make a difference if more countries outside the region signed up to the UN's resettlement plan, which would mean giving a set number of Syrians temporary refugee status. So far, 28 countries have pledged to resettle a total of 100,000 refugees – a tiny drop in the ocean of the millions displaced. The UK, which did not sign up to the programme, initially agreed to take in 500 Syrians but so far has only accepted 90. Like many other European countries, the UK is rife with anti-immigrant sentiment. Governments do not want to risk a domestic backlash by offering sanctuary to Syrians. This means that the burden is continuing to fall disproportionately on neighbouring countries – which are now at capacity. Ninette Kelly, the UNHCR representative for Lebanon, has said that the numbers being taken in by Western countries is "not in proportion to the burden that is being carried by the host countries. This is the issue."
As storms continue to rage across Lebanon and avenues for escape for Syrian refugees continue to close, one must hope that a change will come soon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.