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Tripoli, Lebanon - More than a million people fleeing Syria's war have registered as refugees in Lebanon, the UN said on Thursday, with many now living in misery in a tiny country overstretched by the crisis.
And the number is swelling by the day. At a crowded UNHCR centre in Tripoli, Lebanon's second city, hundreds of Syrian refugees were seen on Thursday queueing to register.
The UN refugee agency says that every day it registers 2 500 new refugees in Lebanon - more than one person a minute.
Yehia, an 18-year-old from Homs in Syria, was identified by the UNHCR as the millionth refugee to be registered in the country.
He told AFP he lives in a garage in Dinniyeh, near Tripoli, with his mother and his two sisters.
His father, a carpenter, was killed by a sniper in 2011, six months after the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad broke out.
“It is a disaster,” said Yehia. “My mother sold all her gold so we could pay the $250 monthly rent. We don't know what will happen to us in the future.”
His main wish, he said, was to go back to school to finish his studies, which were interrupted by the war.
“The fact that there were one million Syrians before me who are going hungry, even dying here is very painful,” Yehia said sorrowfully.
According to the UNHCR, refugees from Syria, half of them children, now equal a quarter of Lebanon's resident population, warning that most of them live in poverty and depend on aid for survival.
It branded the one million figure as “a devastating milestone worsened by rapidly depleting resources and a host community stretched to breaking point”.
Lebanon has now become the country with “the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide,” and is “struggling to keep pace”, it said in a statement.
The massive refugee crisis is compounded by a spillover across the border of the violence that has ravaged Syria for the past three years, with Lebanon experiencing frequent bombings and clashes even as it grapples with political deadlock and an economic downturn.
UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres urged increased international action, warning that the impact of the refugee crisis on Lebanon is “staggering” and “immense”.
“Lebanon hosts the highest concentration of refugees in recent history. We cannot let it shoulder this burden alone,” Guterres said in the statement.
Lebanon's social affairs minister Rachid Derbas too appealed for greater international support for his country as it struggles to cope with the refugee influx.
“We call on the Arab and international communities to share this unprecedented burden with Lebanon; before this explosive situation takes on global proportions,” said Derbas, as quoted in the UNHCR statement.
The strain has been particularly felt across the public sector, with health and education services, as well as electricity, water and sanitation affected.
The humanitarian appeal for Lebanon “is only 13 percent funded,” even as the needs of a rapidly growing refugee population become ever more pressing, the UNHCR said.
Half the refugees are children, with the vast majority not attending school.
“The number of school-aged children is now over 400 000, eclipsing the number of Lebanese children in public schools. These schools have opened their doors to over 100 000 refugees, yet the ability to accept more is severely limited,” said UNHCR.
Because of the dire economic situation their families endure, many children are now working, “girls can be married young and the prospect of a better future recedes the longer they remain out of school,” it added.
Unlike Turkey and Jordan, which are also hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Lebanon has not set up official camps.
Tens of thousands of families live in insalubrious informal settlements dotted around the country, many of them near the restive border with Syria.
Syria's war began as a peaceful uprising demanding political change in Arab Spring-inspired protests, but it morphed into a bloody insurgency after Assad's regime launched a brutal crackdown against dissent.
The conflict has killed more than 150 000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while half of the population is estimated to have fled their homes. - Sapa-AFP