BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The head of a United Nations refugee agency said Thursday that refugees from Syria's war were on the verge of overwhelming the United Nations and the countries bordering Syria.
"This is the type of crisis that humanitarian agencies at some point cannot handle any more," Filippo Grandi, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is responsible for Palestinian refugees, said in an interview with The New York Times during a two-day visit to Lebanon. "It's unmanageable and dangerous."
He predicted that by the end of the year, the flow of refugees will have swamped the resources of the United Nations and Lebanon and Jordan, two of the countries that border Syria.
Mr. Grandi, whose agency has its headquarters in Jerusalem, met with Lebanon's prime minister and president this week to enlist their help in pressing international donors to pay for the swelling refugee crisis.
He said he asked them to keep Lebanon's borders open to Palestinians fleeing the fighting in Syria. So far, Mr. Grandi said, 36,000 Palestinians already living as refugees in Syria have crossed the border into Lebanon, mostly cramming into already overcrowded, dilapidated refugee camps.
Lebanon has kept a wary eye on the flow of Palestinians. It was the mass movement of Palestinians to Lebanon in the 1970s that catalyzed the Lebanese civil war. And even before the Syrian crisis, now in its third year, 460,000 Palestinian refugees were registered in Lebanon, an overwhelming number in a country with a population of four million.
Lebanese officials have expressed concern that any Palestinian newcomers will become part of the permanent refugee population here. "Because of the extreme sensitivity of the presence of Palestinians here, it's putting pressure on a country whose political setup rests on a very delicate balance," Mr. Grandi said.
According to United Nations estimates, 3.6 million Syrians have been displaced within the nation's borders since the uprising began in March 2011. At least 1.3 million more have left the country, mostly seeking refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. About half a million Syrian refugees have registered in Lebanon.
For now, Palestinians account for a fraction of the human wave pushed from their homes in Syria, but the United Nations fears that the situation will change once fighting intensifies in Damascus. There are 530,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Mr. Grandi estimated that half of them have been displaced from their homes to calmer neighborhoods, but so far almost all of them, more than 90 percent, have stayed in Syria.
Jordan houses Syrian refugees in a camp near the border, but officially bars any Palestinians from entering the country. Lebanon, on the other hand, has kept an open-door policy to anyone fleeing the Syrian conflict, despite the country's sectarian tensions and the specific fears about Palestinian refugees.
Until now, Lebanon has kept its borders open to all refugees, and has not restricted where they can move. In recent weeks, politicians have bandied about the idea of establishing transit camps for Syrians crossing the border, but no consensus has emerged and the government is hamstrung by the prime minister's resignation in March. The current caretaker government is struggling to pave a path toward elections, originally scheduled for June, and is unlikely to take any action at all on the questions of refugees from Syria and the Lebanese government's official position of neutrality in the conflict.
Humanitarian agencies have struggled to keep up with the Syrian refugee crisis and are still waiting for pledged funds to arrive. The relief and works agency operates schools, clinics and aid distribution sites throughout the region, so Palestinians fleeing the war in Syria have it better than others; they can almost immediately continue drawing benefits, enroll their children in agency schools and obtain health care. In contrast, regular Syrian refugees face six-month waits just to register with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which handles all non-Palestinian refugees.
Funds have been scarce. The relief and works agency has received about 60 percent of the financing it requested when it expected a much smaller number of refugees than it is already managing. It has given irregular cash payments of about $100 to Palestinian families who have fled to Lebanon. Other refugee agencies have received less than half of what they need.
If fighting intensifies in Damascus, the Syrian capital, Mr. Grandi said, the trickle of fleeing Palestinians could quickly become a tide. But the half a million Palestininans in Syria who might join the exodus if the capital falls into chaos would be just one part of a greater humanitarian catastrophe.
If United Nations predictions of an additional two million to three million displaced people in Syria this year materialize, Mr. Grandi said, Syria's neighbors, and international humanitarian agencies, would simply crumble.
"We need to keep sounding this warning," Mr. Grandi said. "A political solution needs to be found."
Hania Mourtada contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.