Beirut (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing war at home continue to stream into Lebanon, putting the small, already overburdened nation under massive pressure. The total number of refugees could reach 1.5 million people by the end of the year, UN officials said. And this, they warned, could cause tensions.
That number represents one third of Lebanon's estimated population of 4.5 million, and unlike Turkey and Jordan, Lebanon has no refugee camps for fleeing Syrians, who are scattered all over in informal settlements, living with relatives or renting homes.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that over a million Syrian refugees are registered with UN agencies in Lebanon, and 50,000 new arrivals continue to sign up each month.
These figures do not include up to one million Syrians who are believed to be living in Lebanon and who have not sought help from the United Nations.
Local political analysts and experts report that the high number of refugees mean huge pressure on public services and expenditures.
For UN's humanitarian chief in Lebanon Ross Mountain, the high numbers translates into heightened tensions between host and foreign communities.
"Already we are seeing signs of tension, not surprisingly, between the Syrians that are arriving and the Lebanese host communities," Mountain told reporters.
"But the fear that many of us have is that, that mixed with other factors could mean rising tension between communities within Lebanon."
In fact, most of the fleeing Syrians are moving into Lebanon's poorest regions, like the Bekaa Valley and Akkar, he said.
"There are 225 localities that contain 86 per cent of the refugees and 68 per cent of the poorest Lebanese. The problems that they have had before are of course exacerbated by this influx," Mountain explained.
The UN warnings come as the London-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the death toll in Syria's three-year conflict has climbed past 160,000.
More importantly, as it escalated, the Syrian conflict has come to impact the entire Middle Eastern region, with Lebanon bearing the brunt as war in its neighbour exacerbated its own economic crisis.
In the past few years, Lebanon has gone through major economic shocks due to the conflict in Syria, including a decline in trade, tourism and investment and an increase in public expenditures.
According to World Bank estimates, the Syria crisis has cost Lebanon US$ 2.5 billion in lost economic activity last year and threatens to push 170,000 Lebanese into poverty by the end of this year. With wages plummeting, many families are struggling to make ends meet.
In view of the situation, "Support to Lebanon is not only a moral imperative" another UN official said, "but it is also badly needed to stop the further erosion of peace and security in this fragile society, and indeed the whole region."