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Number of Syria refugees in Lebanon passes 1 million mark

A picture taken with a smart-phone shows Syrian refugees queuing at a UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) registration centre in the northern port city of Tripoli on April 3, 2014
A picture taken with a smart-phone shows Syrian refugees queuing at a UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) registration centre in the northern port city of Tripoli on April 3, 2014

More than a million people fleeing Syria's war have registered as refugees in Lebanon, the UN said 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.

Yehia (R), the millionth Syrian refugee in Lebanon, talks to his mother as they wait to register at a UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) registration centre, after fleeing from Yabrud, in the northern port city of Tripoli on April 3, 2014
Yehia (R), the millionth Syrian refugee in Lebanon, talks to his mother as they wait to register at a UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) registration centre, after fleeing from Yabrud, in the northern port city of Tripoli on April 3, 2014

"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.

UNHCR representative in Lebanon Ninette Kelly branded the one million figure as "a devastating marker."

A picture taken on March 28, 2014 shows tents housing Syrian refugees in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley
A picture taken on March 28, 2014 shows tents housing Syrian refugees in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley

"The extent of the human tragedy is not just the resuscitation of numbers, but each one of these numbers represent a human life who, like us, have lives of their own, but who've lost their homes, they've lost their family members, have lost their future," she told reporters.

Kelly said Lebanon has become the country with the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide.

Lebanon "is literally staggering under the weight of this problem. Its social services are stressed, health, education, its very fragile infrastructure is also buckling under the pressure."

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.

In a statement, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres urged increased international action to help Lebanon deal with this "immense" and "staggering" crisis.

Syrian men construct shelters at the site of a new refgee camp in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley
Syrian men construct shelters at the site of a new refgee camp in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley

Social Affairs Minister Rachid Derbas also appealed for international support saying Lebanon "cannot carry this burden alone".

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 14 percent funded," even as the needs of a rapidly growing refugee population become ever more pressing, the UNHCR's Kelly said.

- Girls are married young -

Syrian children play outside their tents at a refugee camp in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley, on March 28, 2014
Syrian children play outside their tents at a refugee camp in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley, on March 28, 2014

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 the UNHCR's statement.

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.