In recent months, thousands of Syrian citizens have managed to reach Lebanon through illegal crossings in search of a better life. But Lebanon has been going through its own crisis for four years, with a bankrupt economy pinning its hopes on tourism and crumbling infrastructure where power and water cuts are widespread.
In the first years after the outbreak of the conflict in Syria in March 2011, Lebanon hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees. This changed in the following years, especially after the outbreak of the economic crisis in Lebanon in October 2019.
The Syrian conflict has killed half a million people and displaced half of the country’s 23 million inhabitants before the war, including more than 5 million Syrians who have fled the country, mostly to neighboring countries. Refugees usually pay smugglers to bring them to Lebanon via the long common border.
The Lebanese army said in a statement on Thursday that it had stopped just 1,200 Syrians from entering Lebanon this week. According to the statement, an additional 1,100 Syrians were unable to reach Lebanon the previous week.
Speaking at the start of a Cabinet meeting on Thursday in Beirut, Mikati said what is worrying about the influx of refugees is that most of them are young men and women.
“This threatens the independence of our entity and could create serious imbalances that could affect Lebanon’s demographic balance,” Mikati said.
The demographic factor in question could be religious affiliation, since the vast majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Lebanon, known for its religious diversity in the region, is struggling to maintain peace between its 18 religious sects. Today, Christians make up nearly a third of the population, while the remaining two-thirds are split almost evenly between Shiites and Sunnis.
Mikati said another Cabinet session would be held next week with the army commander and heads of security agencies to discuss the refugees.
Lebanon hosts some 805,000 UN-registered Syrian refugees, but authorities estimate the actual number to be much higher: between 1.5 million and 2 million.
Issam Sharafeddine, the Lebanese minister in charge of displaced persons, told a local radio station that 8,000 Syrian refugees have entered Lebanon through illegal crossings since the beginning of August. According to him, 20,000 refugees have crossed the border since the beginning of the year.
Living conditions are deteriorating in Syria, where inflation jumped after President Bashar al-Assad’s decision in August to double public sector wages and pensions. The crisis has given rise to demonstrations mainly in Soueida, the southern province bordering Jordan.
Syria’s economy is struggling after years of conflict, corruption and mismanagement, as well as sanctions imposed by the West over accusations of government involvement in war crimes and the illicit narcotics trade. The UN estimates that around 90% of the population lives in poverty. The value of the Syrian pound against the US dollar fell to an all-time low of 15,000 pounds to the dollar in August. At the start of the conflict in 2011, the dollar was trading at 47 pounds.