BEIRUT: Lebanon can expect a “great flood” of refugees in the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack in Syria and the possible U.S.-led military strike, the country’s caretaker social affairs minister said.
Wael Abu Faour said up to 300,000 additional refugees could arrive in the coming weeks, as the U.S. Congress ponders military strikes in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack against civilians and opposition members in the suburbs of Damascus.
In a rare pronouncement by a Lebanese Cabinet official, Abu Faour blamed the Assad regime for the chemical weapons attack.
“Since the regime used chemical weapons, additional refugees began arriving,” he said.
Abu Faour said the number of refugees had been declining before the chemical weapons attack, saying the figure fell from 1.2 million to 950,000.
But the trend reversed in the wake of the attack, and the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has risen to 1,030,000, he said.
“And the numbers are increasing,” he said. “We can expect a great flood of refugees at any moment.”
Lebanon is struggling under the strain of a massive refugee crisis caused by the violence in Syria, which has now lasted over two-and-a-half years and killed more than 110,000 people.
There are over 700,000 Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but the actual number is likely much higher, taxing the nation’s infrastructure with no sign that the fighting across the border could come to an end soon.
“The needs are beyond the capacity of the Lebanese state and people,” Abu Faour said.
Abu Faour was speaking after a meeting with caretaker Education Minister Hasan Diab to discuss the status of refugee children as the country gears up for the new academic year.
At a news conference, both officials sounded the alarm over an impending crisis in Lebanon’s education sector if the state did not receive more assistance to absorb additional refugees.
Public schools “are no longer able to absorb a large number of Syrian students,” Abu Faour said.
The education minister said 33,000 Syrian refugees had registered in Lebanon’s public schools last year, in addition to 18,000 Syrians who were in the system prior to the crisis.
Abu Faour said the Lebanese state was hoping to increase the capacity of its education and health system through assistance from the international community, most of which failed to materialize.
“This assistance did not occur,” the minister said.
Abu Faour said that much of the assistance from the international community went directly to international aid organizations, who have their own set of priorities in dealing with the refugee crisis.
He said the government hoped it would receive more pledges on the sidelines of the upcoming U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York.
“If this assistance does not occur, then I say ... that we are heading toward a major crisis in education,” he said.
Diab said Lebanon’s 1,300 public high schools could only absorb around 40,000 new students at all levels, which includes Lebanese students entering the public system for the first time.
He called for pumping additional funds into the education system to stave off a possible shortage.
“We want to avoid reaching the point where we say we can no longer take additional students in the public sector,” he said.
Diab said Syrian students would be distributed geographically throughout Lebanon to limit the impact on any one area of the country. He added that all Lebanese students who wished to enter the public school system had all been accommodated.
He said the vast majority of students from Syria were registered below ninth grade, with only 1,000 out of the 33,000 refugees registered in schools last year studying at a higher level.
The figures possibly indicate that higher level students are pursuing jobs instead of finishing their schooling.
In response to a question on security incidents involving Syrians, Abu Faour said Syrians should not be blamed for the declining security situation in Lebanon.
“There are transgressions by Syrians and against Syrians,” he said. “We should not transform Syrians into a scapegoat for all security incidents.”