Massive, chaotic influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon stirs fears, resentment among many

For many Lebanese, the massive, chaotic influx of Syrians fleeing their country's civil war is evoking painful memories and real fear. They say the refugees pose far too much of a burden on this fragile nation still recovering from its own civil war — nearly a quarter-century ago.

According to the United Nations refugee agency, more than 265,000 Syrians are now in Lebanon, a tiny country of 4.5 million with a dilapidated infrastructure which routinely suffers widespread shortages of electricity and water. There are more Syrian refugees in Lebanon than in any other country.

Unlike in Jordan and Turkey, where authorities quickly established border camps, the refugees here are scattered across the length of the country, straining services in health, education and housing and pushing up rent prices. That's causing friction with Lebanese, some of whom resent the Syrians' presence and blame them for everything from rising crime to traffic jams.

The issue is particularly sensitive because of Lebanon's long and complicated history with the tens of thousands of Palestinians who fled here with Israel's creation in 1948. Now numbering about 450,000, the overwhelmingly majority of Palestinians in Lebanon live in 12 refugee camps across the country.

Following the 1967 Mideast war, some militant Palestinian groups began using Lebanese territory to launch attacks against not only Israel, but occasionally against the Lebanese army — actions that eventually helped ignite the country's 1975-1990 civil war.

Nowadays, gunmen fighting the Syrian regime cross relatively freely across Lebanon's porous borders in some areas, with Lebanese authorities largely unable to control the flow or keep tabs on the whereabouts of rebels and other Syrians pouring into the country.

Authorities say about 2,000 Syrian newcomers arrive every day, with the numbers expected to rise sharply if rebels enter the Syrian capital of Damascus, a 2½-hour drive from Beirut.

A controversial new video circulating on social media sites and blogs urges the government to put a lid on the numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing to Lebanon "before it's too late."

"Act before we become guests in our own country," warns the video, which has been viewed more than 15,000 times on YouTube.

The video shows a white Lebanese map splashed with red stains marking areas where Palestinian refugees settled and multiplied since their arrival in 1948. "Will history repeat itself?" it asks.

Complicating the refugee issue, Lebanon is also sharply divided between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, exacerbating sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis that have already spilled over into deadly street fighting. Assad and much of his inner circle belong to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the overwhelming majority of rebels fighting to topple him are Sunnis.

Lebanon's population is divided between 18 sects, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Druze, and every community is sensitive to anything that could tip the balance of power.

Last month, a Christian minister in the Lebanese Cabinet suggested the huge influx of Syrian refugees, who like the Palestinians are mostly Sunni, was beginning to affect the country's traditions, culture and demographic makeup. He argued that the borders with Syria should be closed.

"Lebanon is not a garbage dump for the world's problems," Energy and Water minister Jibran Bassil said, suggesting the government should deport refugees back to their own country.

"You invite people to your home, you have an empty bed that sleeps one or two. Three others sleep on the floor, four on the roof, five in the garden. And then what? The house cannot take any more," he added.

Critics were quick to jump on Bassil for those remarks, but his words resonated with many who resent the Syrian presence.

"We have suffered enough because of the Syrians," said Jamal, a shipping executive, referring to Syria's long dominance of the country's politics. He declined to give his full name because the issue is still sensitive in Lebanon, despite Syria's troop withdrawal from the country seven years ago.

Syrian troops controlled Lebanon for three decades. They were forced to withdraw under international pressure following a Lebanese uprising triggered by the 2005 truck bomb assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese blamed Syria for Hariri's death.

Wael Abu Faour, minister for refugee affairs, said lack of Lebanese consensus over the refugee issue has led to some shortcomings in dealing with the arrivals.

The Lebanese government, dominated by Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group backed by the Syrian regime, initially balked at establishing camps for the refugees. It was eager to avoid fostering an image of a humanitarian crisis from the Syrian civil war — not to mention a repeat of the Palestinian experience.

Across the country and particularly in the impoverished northern city of Tripoli and eastern Bekaa region, many of the Syrians are staying in unfinished houses, construction sites, schools and sometimes even parking lots.

Arsal, an impoverished Sunni town of 40,000, has had more than a 30 percent population increase because of refugees.

Many Lebanese have accepted Syrian families into their homes. In Palestinian refugee camps, residents have built a camp within a refugee camp for their compatriots escaping the violence across the border.

Reading rooms, offices, hallways and even bathrooms have been partitioned with makeshift walls, boards and even blankets as families try to carve out space to cook, eat and sleep.

A report by Doctors Without Borders issued last week said Syrians who seek safety in Lebanon do not receive anywhere near adequate levels of humanitarian assistance and are living in extremely precarious conditions.

More than 50 percent of people surveyed by the organization are housed in substandard structures in inadequate collective shelters, farms, garages, unfinished buildings and old schools.

Mohammed Ghazaleh, 22, rejects the notion that Lebanese are xenophobic.

"That is not a racist approach, that is just simple mathematical sense," said the Lebanese mechanical engineer student studying in Austria. "Lebanon doesn't have enough drains for rain water. Lebanon doesn't have enough electricity for its own citizens. How can it possibly take half a million Syrians?"

Fed up with the Lebanese complaints that the refugees were to blame for the country's ills, including inflation, street harassment and rising crime, a group of activists from the Beirut-based Anti-Racism Movement created a video urging the Lebanese to take responsibility for their own shortcomings.

"This morning on my way here, I was harassed by a man on the street. He had a Lebanese accent, he was not from Homs nor from Aleppo," says a woman activist on camera, referring to two cities in Syria. "Stop whining about the refugees, nobody's asking you to do anything for them," says another.

"The problem is not the refugees, the problem is us," the video concludes.