Lebanon has severely trimmed entry to refugees from Syria. The move, signaled by Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, bears out previous UN warnings that Lebanon is overwhelmed and needs international help.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) confirmed on Saturday that "many fewer" refugees from war-torn Syria were being taken in by Lebanon, which is already hosting 1.1 million displaced Syrians.
Lebanon's Al-Akhbar newspaper quoted Derbas as saying that "Lebanon is no longer officially receiving any Syrian refugees" except for those with pressing "humanitarian reasons."
"This will be decided by the Interior and Social Affairs Ministries," Derbas said.
High refugee intake
The small eastern Mediterranean nation has the world's highest refugee concentration, with one refugee to every four Lebanese residents.
The UNHCR's representative in Lebanon, Ninette Kelly, said "many fewer people are being allowed in."
She recently called on the international community to step up investment in Lebanese infrastructure - such as health care and schooling - to help Lebanon cope.
Restrictions had started on Lebanon's northern border in August and were extended to Masnaa, Lebanon's main eastern crossing in September, Kelly said.
Some refugees also traverse Lebanon's difficult-to-patrol border areas.
Since Syria's war erupted in March 2011, some 3.2 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Seeking arms in Iran
The French news agency AFP reported on Saturday that Lebanon's defense minister, Samir Moqbel, had begun a visit to Iran to obtain military equipment to resist jihadist groups operating in Syria.
Syria's three-year conflict has often spilled into Lebanon, raising tensions between Shiites who tend to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and Sunnis who largely back the anti-Assad rebel forces.
The presence in Lebanon of the Iranian-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah has further stoked tensions.
Also in the 'eye of the storm'
Analysts said Lebanon, with its sectarian and ethnic complexity, including Palestinian refugees from past conflicts with Israel, has been overlooked internationally while warfare unfolded in Syria and Iraq.
Fadia Kiwan, a political scientist at Beirut's St. Joseph University said Lebanon too was "in the eye of the storm."
ipj/slk (AP, AFP, Reuters)