Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

Syrian refugees despair as wind and snow batters Lebanon

Lack of sufficient aid has increased frustration among residents of displacement camps

Syrian refugees stand in a pool of mud and rain water at a refugee camp, in the town of Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. AP
Syrian refugees stand in a pool of mud and rain water at a refugee camp, in the town of Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. AP

As this winter’s second storm reaches its peak in Lebanon this week, Syrian refugees are bracing themselves for the worst.

Storm Miriam is expected to bring freezing winds and snow, one week after Storm Norma affected more than 20,000 Syrian refugees across the country, flooding their tents and sweeping away belongings.

Children walk barefoot in sandals in the mud, ill-equipped for the icy winds coming down from the snowy mountains of the Bekaa Valley. A few lucky ones wear rain boots.

“It’s really bad”, says Hiba Fares, UNHCR’s external relations officer for the Bekaa region. “The flooding is much worse than previous years."

Fleeting smiles light faces as people collect mattresses and blankets from a UNHCR team, but the frustration is growing. Work has been put on hold, food has become scarce and the cold has settled in.

“My family can only spend 2,000 Lebanese pounds ($1.32) a day on heating oil”, says Abir, 10. “That lasts from early morning until about 2pm”.

Some camps have not received any external assistance yet. Their inhabitants shuffle over to watch the aid distribution with envy. Voices rise as people flock to UNHCR employees, airing their grievances.

“Our situation is just as bad as here”, complains a woman in a makeshift camp close to the Syrian border, north of the Lebanese town of Anjar. “Why don’t we get any help?” she asks. UNHCR says that the most extreme cases are being prioritised.

One man points out it would be faster and more efficient if they all received cash to buy whatever they need themselves. Like many others, he regrets having been cut off from UNHCR’s monthly cash assistance of $175 a month for every family.

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“It gave them the choice of what to spend money on: vinyl sheets, medicine or visiting a doctor,” says Mrs Fares. “Unfortunately, refugees are becoming increasing vulnerable and with limited resources we have to prioritise cash assistance to poorest of the poor”.

According to the 2018 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees, jointly released by UNHCR, WFP and UNICEF, 34 per cent of refugees in Lebanon live in shelters that do not meet humanitarian standards, an increase from 28 per cent in 2017. Over three quarters of them live below the poverty line.

The roughly million and more Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Lebanon are also bearing the brunt of donor fatigue. By the end of 2018, UNHCR Lebanon’s funding requirements of $463 million were 68 per cent funded only.

“We need wood and tarpaulin to protect us from the next storm, clothes and shoes for the children, but there’s nothing”, says Ahmad, a refugee from Aleppo, as he shows the damages caused by flooding in his camp, including an overflowing septic tank. He says a new tarpaulin costs over $100, a considerable amount for him.

The UAE has announced emergency aid worth $5 million (Dh18.4m) for displaced Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

According to UNHCR, nearly 900 Syrian refugees had to relocate because of bad weather in Bekaa. Some, like Ramia, 25, a single mother of two from Homs, have been taken in by their neighbours. “We are over 30 people living in one tent,” she says, her colourful earrings peeking out from under a yellow veil. She lost contact with her husband after he deserted the Syrian army seven years ago.

The murky brown waters still stand nearly a metre high in her tent, over a week after the first storm. Pumping the water out here is pointless as the ground level is lower than the overflowing Litani river.

“I think I’ll have to wait at least a month until it dries up and I can go home”, says Ramia.

The abandoned tents stand empty, each one of them securely closed with a padlock. Local children say that after people left, thieves stole what the water had not carried away.

Updated: January 16, 2019 04:47 PM

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