Beirut (AsiaNews) - The war in Syria continues to drive hundreds thousands of people across the border into Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. By the end of 2013, the number of refugees fleeing the conflict could rise to more than 3 million, this at a time when winter is setting in.
In Lebanon, the situation is even more serious according to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), whose November report, AsiaNews received today.
According to the World Bank, since the refugee emergency hit Lebanon in 2011, Lebanon has spent US$ 2.6 billion to cope with it.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati travelled today to Doha (Qatar) to discuss with local authorities and other Arab countries supporting Islamist insurgents a proposal to create areas within Syria designated for people displaced by the war.
This is meant to prevent Lebanon's economic and political collapse, as it increasingly shaken by clashes between pro-rebel Sunnis and pro-Bashar al-Assad Shias.
According to UN estimates, Lebanon has received so far 812,000 refugees. The Lebanese government put the figure at more than 1.3 million, or about one-third of the Lebanese population (4 million people).
The refugees are mostly from Homs, Idlib, Damascus, and Aleppo, scattered among 960 unofficial camps in some of the poorest and most inaccessible parts of the country.
About 53 per cent of refugees are in northern Lebanon, 42 per cent are in the Bekaa Valley. The rest are in Beirut (1 per cent), Mount Lebanon (2 per cent) and the south (2 per cent).
Lebanese authorities have tried to settle Syrian refugees with families or local charities rather than set up refugee camps in the country.
People with the right papers can claim refugee status but most of those who are fleeing now come from the rebel camp and entered the country illegally. According to CNEWA, these people are in a desperate situation, living out in the open or piled in in tents or shacks.
Most families in the Bekaa Valley do not have access to lavatories or the means to cook food. New arrivals are staying in muddy clearings where they built their own shacks from scratch, out of cast-off material.
Before the war, many of the refugees worked as doctors or teachers. Now, to survive they pick potatoes and vegetables in the few local farms willing to pay them money or in kind.
With winter approaching, the situation could get worse and the CNEWA is raising funds for mattresses, blankets, warm clothes, stoves and fuel.
Out of 2 million Syrian refugees, about 52 per cent is made up of children under the age of 17. In Lebanon alone, they are more than 400,000.
To help these refugees, especially the children, the Pontifical Council Cor Unum in partnership with Rome's Bambin Gesù Hospital for Children and Caritas Lebanon has set up a health mission for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon.
Cor Unum president Card Robert Sarah chaired the press conference where the initiative was unveiled today. Caritas Lebanon president Fr Simon Faddoul, Rome's Bambin Gesù Hospital for Children president Giuseppe Profiti, and Mission Project leader May El Hachem were also at the meeting.
The project will start shortly in Deir el Ahmar, a mostly Christian town in the Bekaa Valley. Surrounded by various camps and Muslim villages, it will soon have its first outpatient centre for children.
Taking his cue from the pope, Card Sarah said the mission will "help the Syrian people, beyond ethnic and religious groups to provide a direct contribution to build a society open to all its members."
The prelate will be in Lebanon from 4 to 8 December to meet with local bishops and various charities.
In describing the activities of Caritas Lebanon, Fr Simon Faddoul pointed out that since April 2011, the Church has helped about 160,000 people, 90 per cent of whom were Muslim, with 5 per cent Christians.