07/01/2013 03:00 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

In Lebanon, Refugees and Residents Alike Struggle to Survive

"Our neighbors provide us with bread. We are four families, 25 people. They have been letting us stay in this apartment even though we have not been able to pay rent for three months. They keep asking us, but we are not able. I don't think they'll kick us out, but we don't know." --A Syrian refugee in northern Lebanon

On June 7, the United Nations launched its largest humanitarian appeal in history: $5.2 billion to aid people affected by the Syrian civil war. It may surprise some that the U.N. is seeking the lion's share (32 percent) of that money for one small country -- Lebanon -- but numbers tell the story.

A country of 4.2 million people, Lebanon now hosts more than 500,000 Syrian refugees, and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) expects that number to double by the end of the year. At that point, nearly one in five people in Lebanon will be a Syrian refugee. If we consider everyone affected by the conflict -- the 1.2 million Lebanese in the communities struggling to absorb the Syrian refugees, plus the 80,000 Palestinian refugees and 49,000 Lebanese who had been living in Syria -- the staggering figure would exceed 2.25 million, about half the prewar population of Lebanon.

These UNHCR projections mirror recent findings by my organization, the International Rescue Committee, that indicate needs are fast outstripping resources and that everyone is impacted. One town official in northern Lebanon told us that both refugees and residents are struggling. "Rent has increased while wages have decreased," he explained. "Jobs are so scarce that people fight for the few that appear. And certain items are going missing from the market. Bread sometimes, and vegetables."

Public services are also stretched beyond capacity. Refugees, residing in makeshift settlements spread across more than 1200 communities, are incurring large debt and becoming destitute. Some have been driven to marry off their teenage daughters to lessen their financial burden. Others are forced to put their children to work.

With no end to the conflict in sight, tensions between refugees and their Lebanese hosts are rising. "The locals are telling us to go home," one young Syrian mother told the IRC. "They are saying terrible things to us."

While the humanitarian community must first respond to the most vulnerable refugees -- women, children and those not registered with the UN -- it must take a long-term view, as difficult and controversial as that may be. This requires stepped up support for local social service providers such as schools, hospitals, Lebanese nonprofits and development centers with the dual aim of helping locals survive the upheaval in their communities and helping refugees become self-reliant.

Lebanon is not the only country in the region deeply affected by the Syrian conflict. Jordan, another small country of six million, currently hosts 500,000 displaced Syrians. Iraq hosts not only Syrians but also 168,000 Iraqi refugees who have returned from Syria, adding to its large number of internally displaced people. Turkey is spending millions of dollars to host hundreds of thousands of Syrians in camps and in urban areas. But Lebanon, we believe, is closest to the breaking point. "Lebanese families want to give more but we can't," another local official told us, summing up the situation.

Donor countries have been generous in their support, but the immense needs have overwhelmed available assistance. For Lebanon, further assistance cannot wait. The world must act now.