Syrians now outnumber Afghan refuges. That is according to the official 2014 registry by the United Nations agency the UNHCR. In June, the Syrians had already surpassed three million, now it’s estimated there are some four million Syrian war refugees.
Not to ignore the some five million Palestinians helped through the separate UNRWA agency, the Syrian escalation moved UN refugee chief Antonio Gutierres to say: “We are facing what I really consider the most dangerous crisis for global peace and security since the Second World War.”
The number killed is thought to be in the range of 200,000. Last year was the deadliest year of the conflict, with a toll of 76,000. Syrians increasingly fled to other countries.
At the outset, March 2011, they were welcomed, but as the fighting raged on and numbers increased, problems developed. The UN confirms Lebanon is harbouring 1.1 million Syrian refugees, foremost among host states after Pakistan. The Lebanese population itself is around five million.
The refugee intake has pushed salaries lower and raised rents.
Further unease stems from the Syrians’ Sunni Muslim faith. Before the influx, Sunni and Shia Muslims in Lebanon were fairly balanced in numbers, among the other religions, mostly Christian Maronite, Orthodox and Catholic.
On Monday, the overwhelmed authorities decided to introduce visas.
The UN’s Gutierres called for countries to keep their borders open: “I think these measures should make the international community enhance in a very meaningful way the support to host countries, including Lebanon in this case, in order to help them cope with this enormous challenge.”
The visa categories are for tourism, work, medical treatment, study, transit or limited stay. Each application requires specific documents, such as a work offer from a Lebanese company. The tourist visa fee is around one thousand euros. Syrians already registered with the UNHCR are told they needn’t worry. Others risk expulsion.
One Syrian worker already in the country said: “Some will manage to find a Lebanese sponsor, but for others it will be impossible. It’s going to hurt a lot of Syrians. Many will lose their jobs. Some can’t afford the visa. They don’t have enough money to live on as it is.”
Thousands of refugees are blocked at the Syrian border, prey for illegal traffickers.
Last week, after European leaders offered to take in just some 12,000 Syrian refugees, Amnesty International said the leaders should hang their heads in shame.