GENEVA (Reuters) - Up to 30,000 Syrian refugees may have crossed into Lebanon in the past 48 hours, in a sharp increase of people fleeing fighting in the country, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday.
That would match the number of Syrians who already fled to Lebanon during the 16 months of fighting.
“We have gone from an average of 1,000 a day to possibly up to 30,000 in the last 48 hours. This is really significant, it is clearly a massive upscaling in displacement,” UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes told Reuters.
Thousands of Syrians crammed into vehicles lined up at the main crossing into Lebanon, roughly mid-way between Damascus and Beirut, before the outflow tapered off late on Friday afternoon as Ramadan began, Wilkes said.
A Lebanese security source told Reuters that 31,000 had arrived over the past two days, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), citing Lebanese authorities, put the figure at 18,000 as of Thursday night.
“As soon as the extent of the influx became clear on 19 July (Thursday), the Lebanese Red Cross stationed an emergency medical team with three ambulances at the Masnaa border crossing, providing medical care and water,” the ICRC said.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appealed for Syria’s neighbors to keep their borders open to allow people to reach safe havens, as Syria’s forces fought to recapture border posts and parts of Damascus from rebels.
But the Iraqi army sealed the main border crossing to Syria at Abu Kamal with concrete blast walls on Friday to guard against any escalation in fighting after Syrian rebels seized a border post on the other side from government forces.
The checkpoint, some 300 km (185 miles) west of Baghdad on the road to the Syrian town of Deir al-Zor, is on one of the major trade routes across the Middle East.
On Tuesday, Iraq told its citizens to leave Syria immediately, including about 88,000 who are refugees there, most of whom live in Damascus.
About 80 buses carrying Iraqi refugees have crossed from Syria into Iraq in the last few days, UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told a news conference.
“We’ve also heard reports that two Iraqi government airplanes came to Damascus to evacuate their citizens.”
A Reuters photographer overlooking the desert frontier from the Iraqi side said civilians had burned the main border post building at Abu Kamal in Syria and stripped it of electronic equipment and cables - leading to the closure.
In all, 120,000 Syrian refugees had registered with the UNHCR in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey as of Wednesday. Many more Syrians have entered those countries without applying for international protection, it said.
The UNHCR has been bracing for an exodus from Syria and a month ago it doubled its forecast for the number of refugees who could flee this year to 185,000.
One million Syrians are also believed to be displaced inside the country as of last week, Fleming said. The figure came from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent whose previous estimate was that 500,000 were uprooted.
Refugees in Syria are also increasingly caught up in the violence and some have received death threats, UNHCR said.
An Iraqi family of seven was found shot dead in their apartment in Damascus last week, while three other refugees were killed by gunfire, Fleming said.
Thousands of refugees in Syria - Iraqis, Somalis and Afghans - have fled their homes due to the violence and “targeted threats” in recent days, she said.
About 2,000 refugees had taken shelter in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana in schools and parks, where they have been joined by “many Syrians” on the run.
Syrian banks are reported to be running out of cash and a rush to find safe housing has caused rents in some places to spike to $100 per night, she added.
“We’ve heard reports that many of the banks have just run out of money,” Fleming said. “I just have a report from our staff that says state and private banks are reported to be out of funds. Whether this is all banks, I don’t know.”
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Saad Salash outside Qiam, Iraq; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Robin Pomeroy