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Guterres: Syria war ‘existential threat’

Bushra (C), who is the 1000000 registered Syrian refugee at the UNHCR meets with the UN High Commissioner for Refugee's Antonio Guterres (L) at a community center in the Al-Mina nrighbourhood of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on March 15, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID)

BEIRUT: The crisis in Syria is accelerating at a pace unseen in decades, the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned Friday in Beirut, describing the 2-year-old conflict across the border as an “existential threat” to Lebanon.

“Two years after the beginning of the Syria crisis, we are witnessing the staggering escalation of the conflict with an impact that is the acceleration of the humanitarian crisis in a way that is unprecedented in recent decades,” Antonio Guterres said at a news conference in Beirut.

Guterres arrived in Lebanon Thursday to meet with the country’s leaders and refugee families. He traveled to Syrian refugee areas in Mount Lebanon and Tripoli and described the refugee situation in stark terms, calling for more to be done to avert a looming humanitarian and political crisis here.

“The impact of this crisis in Lebanon is huge, and the international community should be fully aware of that,” he said. “They should recognize the Syrian conflict represents an existential threat for Lebanon and should show to Lebanon, its people, its government, its institutions, much stronger solidarity, a much stronger support than what has happened until now.”

The UNHCR is currently helping more than 350,000 Syrians in Lebanon, according to a report issued Friday. Government leaders say there are more than 1 million Syrians in the country, most of whom don’t receive official aid. The U.N. and the Lebanese government are hundreds of millions of dollars short on the amount of money they say is needed to aid the refugees.

The huge number of refugees in Lebanon has heightened tensions in the country as the conflict has polarized the divisions between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime.

In Tripoli, Guterres visited the UNHCR’s new registration point in an unfinished warehouse where about 800 refugees are registered every day. But the sheer weight of numbers has overwhelmed UNHCR personnel, as those who flee the war take refuge in makeshift houses and open areas on the outskirts of the city.

At any time, dozens of refugees wait in line outside the massive building filled with administrative tents to be interviewed by a U.N. official. They then have their name and location added to the U.N.’s database to receive regular assistance, such as food and heating or protection aid.

For months, the number of refugees who have contacted UNHCR for help but remained unregistered has grown steadily. The organization is scrambling to expand and speed up the registration process, which can take up to four months in some areas.

Guterres promised major steps to reduce the registration waiting time to under a month but said the UNHCR would need much more money to speed up the process and to help people.

“There is a widening gap between the needs of the people suffering the impact of the Syrian crisis and the resources available to support them and to support those families,” Guterres added.

At a donor conference in Kuwait, governments pledged large amounts of aid, much of which has not been delivered. That has left the UNHCR with a $700 million gap in its funding regionally. It has called for over $250 million in funds for its Lebanon operation and the Lebanese government has asked donors to give an additional $200 million.

“This is why I appeal to all governments and all parliaments to approve extraordinary funds to support the Syrian victims and countries hosting them,” he said.

The fighting in Syria has dramatically raised the political temperature in Lebanon. Clashes take place along the border periodically as shelling and gunfire wound civilians inside Lebanon. Most observers say the chances of violent conflict have markedly increased.

Guterres stressed that what was at stake for Lebanon went beyond just a humanitarian concern. “Lebanon needs support to be able to overcome the enormous challenge, not only of the Syrian refugees, but what the Syrian conflict represents for Lebanon,” he said.

“There is a real risk for an explosion in the Middle East, and then there will be no way to cope with the challenge of the humanitarian, political and security perspective,” he added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 16, 2013, on page 2.

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