Winter storm is compounding Syria refugees' plight

  • Article by: LOVEDAY MORRIS , Washington Post
  • Updated: December 11, 2013 - 9:55 PM

Humanitarian groups struggle as influx continues. U.N. “extremely concerned.”

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Humanitarian groups rushed to provide emergency kits to incoming refugees. Above, a Syrian refugee boy outside his tent.

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– With snow and freezing temperatures descending on the region, the United Nations said Wednesday that it is “extremely concerned” for the plight of Syria’s refugees.

Syria and the countries that border it have been bracing for what is expected to be the worst winter storm for years. Snows hit Lebanon, Turkey and northern Syria overnight on Tuesday, with sharp winds and cold, heavy rains battering areas closer to sea level, causing misery for hundreds of thousands in camps and makeshift shanties.

In Lebanon, despite the wintry conditions, the flow of Syrians fleeing the war is unrelenting. Local officials in the border town of Arsal, which saw some of the heaviest snows overnight, on Wednesday reported the arrival of 200 more men, women and children who had risked the treacherous journey across the mountains on foot.

Aid agencies, the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and the Lebanese army rushed to distribute emergency kits containing plastic sheeting and blankets to the newcomers, but poorly funded humanitarian groups are struggling to meet the overwhelming needs. Authorities remain reluctant to establish permanent refugee camps in Lebanon, and so far have opened only one official, 100-tent “transit camp.”

In the town of Minieh, just outside the port city of Tripoli, a muddy, makeshift collection of tents and shacks spills down from the side of the highway to the coast. Despite biting sea winds and regular flooding, the 400 Syrians who have sought refuge here do not qualify for the UNHCR’s winter fuel assistance, as their camps are too close to sea level.

On Wednesday, children dug rocks out of the ground with their bare hands to weigh down plastic sheeting that covered their tents. The tarpaulins nailed to wooden frames provide poor shelter in driving rains and winds.

Abu Khalid, 47, who declined to give his real name for security reasons, pointed out where water had flooded his tent overnight. He expressed fear that the storm — which is expected to continue towards the weekend — will get worse.

“I don’t know where to go,” Khalid said. “I don’t know where to take my children. It’s much worse than last year, and it’s only the beginning.”

Abu Allah, 51, his wife and 13 children gathered around a small barbecue in their tent in the camp. The cheap, cut-price charcoal, virtually dust, is difficult to light. When the rain started a few days ago, the tent flooded, Abu Allah said.

In the corner, 9-year-old Ibrahim was curled under a blanket. “He’s already almost dead,” his mother said, pulling one scrawny arm out from under a blanket.

UNHCR spokeswoman Roberta Russo said the agency’s top priority was refugees at higher altitudes, where snow was falling.

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