Lebanon: Syrians Refugees Facing Deadly Winter with Little Aid

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Syrian refugees, fled their homes due to the civil war in their country, try to live under harsh living conditions at a refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon on January 09, 2014. Anadolu Agency/Bilal Jawich

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Friday, January 16, 2015

For the refugees living in tents in Lebanon, the storm has yet to subside. The fear of death stays with them like the snow that has swept through their tents. Noura, who escaped from the hell of Aleppo to end up in an unofficial camp in Bar Elias, expresses grave concern over the situation. Carrying her baby in her arms to give him warmth, she says: “I only received food aid twice in the past four months. If the cold doesn’t kill us, we will certainly die of hunger.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — or “the nations” as the refugees call it — has negligently failed to provide relief to them, while the Lebanese government has distanced itself from the tragedy and only intervenes to punish them.

In the Bekaa town of Bar Elias, at an altitude of 900 meters, there are several camps for Syrian refugees, though they are not clearly visible at first because of the white blanket of snow. There are 150,000 refugees in Bar Elias alone, according to Mohammed Habash, member of the Union of Aid Organizations for Syrian Refugees and manager of one camp. The storm ended a few days ago, and with it the concerns that the tents would collapse under the weight of the snow. Those who endured the storm came out of their tents.

Now an old concern has resurfaced: frost. The ice storm that swept the country, especially the Bekaa region, poses serious risks to around 409,000 registered refugees, 144,000 of whom are distributed among 852 unofficial camps (out of a total of 1,435 camps on Lebanese soil). At one o'clock in the afternoon, the temperature was 2 C. At night, “the temperature drops to minus 7 C,” reckons a refugee named Khalid, basing his estimation on the feeling of cold piercing his bones.

According to figures provided by the Ministry of Health, 11 people have died as a result of the storm: three Syrians froze in Shebaa and were buried there, four Bangladeshi nationals died in Danniyeh, a Palestinian was found frozen on the sidewalk in Rashaya last Friday, and three Lebanese citizens died from storm-related health complications. These figures do not cover the town of Ersal or camps in Bekaa, where an infant and a child reportedly died on the second day of the storm. Three days ago, two girls died in the camps of Ersal; the first is two months old, and the second only one-and-a-half years old. Up until January 14, six children have died in Ersal because of the storm and the cold weather. The figures also omitted 50-year-old Umm Khalid, who died five days ago in a camp near the Bekaa Village Complex in Bar Elias. She died from the cold, say her “neighbors,” who watched her die at night when the temperature was minus 6 C. Eighteen people died in just one week; and these are just the cases we know about. Certainly the actual number is much higher.

During the storm, international organizations refused to acknowledge any deaths except for the three cases in Shebaa. In their view, only scenes like the one in Shebaa qualify as storm fatalities — a child and two young men buried under the snow and freezing to death. Deaths from pneumonia caused by the cold, or deaths from suffocation due to the burning of nylon bags in an attempt to get warm, do not qualify as deaths resulting from the ice storm.

Health Minister Wael Abu Faour bluntly stated: “The international organizations disappeared with the arrival of the storm.” The disappearance is confirmed by the refugees, who did not receive any aid from “the nations,” as they call the UNHCR. The refugees in the Bar Elias camps are enraged by the international organizations. They say that “all of them come to take pictures and then leave. They disappear.” However, these organizations are their only saviors. The refugees approach visitors in the hope that they could help them put their names on the UN aid lists, from which many have been removed without notice.

The storm has exposed many shortcomings in the rescue and relief efforts. It revealed that preparations to deal with the weather are inadequate, although the same happened last year with “the storm “Alexa.”

Speaking to Al-Akhbar, UNHCR Representative to Lebanon Ninette Kelley said that “the commission made extensive preparations for this storm, and the recorded damages were far less than they would have been had we not acted. The distribution of winter aid started a month ago covering more than 600,000 refugees, and we have so far spent $56 million on winter aid alone.”

All they want is diesel fuel. This is their only demand today. Fatima, whose tent collapsed under the heavy snow, moved into her neighbors’ tent, where nylon bags burning in the heater to provide warmth may prove lethal. They are aware of the risks, and say, sarcastically, “between pneumonia, asphyxia, or death from cold, we prefer the first.” Thus, the refugees are given a choice between death and death. The international community does not want to help them. It wants to combat terrorism, finance wars, and fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but cites a lack of funding when it comes to helping refugees. The threat of a sudden suspension of food aid by the World Food Programme (WFP) still stands, and is likely to become a reality. Sandy Maroun, WFP’s spokeswoman to Lebanon, says that WFP is in critical need of $212 million to support operations in Syria and the five neighboring countries for the first three months of 2015. Lebanon needs $27 million per month to cover 900,000 refugees most in need of assistance.

Ahmed al-Khamshari, who comes from Muadamiyat al-Sham and lives in a camp in Bar Elias, complains that his name was not put on the UN aid list although his hands and feet are deformed by exposure to hazardous chemicals. Khaled, 17, received a message a few months ago saying,” We apologize for not providing aid.”

The situation in the camp is not good. Tension is apparent on the faces of the refugees. Just now, two women got into a fight over children's clothing. This reflects the anxiety and tension in the camp, which may turn violent in a fight for survival. According to statistics, 86 percent of the Syrian refugees live in marginalized areas alongside 66 percent of the marginalized Lebanese citizens. The latter face similar conditions every year leading to increased tensions: 61 percent of the host communities acknowledged the perpetration of acts of violence against refugees in the past six months. These incidents took place in poor areas, which brings to mind the geography of deprivation; once again, the Lebanese and Syrians are equal in poverty.

Kelley talked about 600,000 refugees, while the figures provided by the commission put the number of refugees at 1,16 million. This means that 560,000 refugees have not received aid, and may thus need to fend for themselves, especially given the pressures exerted on them by the government and the harassment they face from their poor host communities.

Kelley admits that funding from the international community is not sufficient to cover the needs of all refugees. She notes that “55 percent of the refugees live in unsafe places that require reinforcements.” UNHCR is facing major challenges in terms of making reforms at the refugee camps. “Most unofficial camps have been set up on private land, whose owners often refuse to approve any project aimed at improving conditions there,” she adds. Out of 1,435 camps, 200 camps are susceptible to flooding; the commission cannot make any improvements in that regard. Abdel Hadi pays 500,000 Lebanese liras ($333) a year to the owner of the land in Bar Elias, and faces expulsion if he fails to pay the rent for the tent.

This brings back to the forefront the issue of establishing refugee camps that meet safety and protection standards. Kelley reiterates that this step requires a political decision by the government, and says “we made ​​a few suggestions, but the main concern for the government is controlling security within these communities.” She notes that “official camps are not less costly than unofficial camps. To the contrary, they cost more but enable organizations to provide assistance more efficiently at a logistical level.”

The government does not want more camps, and, at the same time, refuses to transfer the refugees in Ersal to safe areas. Kelley says that following the clashes with the army in Ersal last August, the commission proposed to the government transferring the 400,000 refugees to another location, but the government refused. Since last August, no UNHCR teams have operated in Ersal citing a threat to their lives. Kelley says that they are operating through their partners.

What has the government done in the face of the failure of the international community? It adopted various methods of revenge. The General Security Directorate applied tough measures under the pretext of regulating the entry and residence of Syrians in Lebanon.
Kelley says that the UNHCR's position is “clear” in this regard. “We are still discussing the issue with the government, and our current priority is the refugees most in need of assistance.” She notes that “the government will set criteria for humanitarian cases, which would allow the entry of certain refugees.”

She stressed the need to set clear regulations at the border, and to provide training to public security personnel on the proper implementation of these decisions. The humanitarian cases the commission will discuss with the government are the following: minors (under 16 years) who are unaccompanied by their parents and have relatives in Lebanon; the elderly; people with special needs; and extreme medical cases that cannot be treated in Syria.

Rameh Hamiyeh

Rama Mohammed Tahrani was a displaced Syrian woman. Hers is another name to be added to the list of deaths resulting from the ice storm and low temperatures, and the lack of adequate heating and assistance. The mother of three died in the house she used to live in with her family on the outskirts of the city of Baalbek. Her weak heart was defeated by the cold. She left a five-year-old daughter and two boys behind to face the harshness of life and displacement. Hikmat, her eldest son, is now “without a mom,” as he says. He is not 15 yet, and his father is still in Syria. Hikmat says that he returned home to find his mother “frozen.” He asked for help and took her to a hospital in the city. After examining her body, the doctors said that “the death resulted from freezing temperatures that caused her blood to freeze.” The boy says that the family did not receive aid from the “relief organizations and the United Nations,” adding that they live on contributions from their Lebanese neighbors and the landlord.

Qarqaf Municipality expels refugees

Municipalities continue to make racist and illegal decisions against the Syrian refugees. The latest decision was made by Sheikh Yahya al-Rifai, mayor of Qarqaf Municipality in Akkar, who banned the residence of Syrian refugees in the town as of January 19. The decision cites the municipality’s inability to bear the effects and costs of serving the Syrian refugees living in the town, especially as services relating to the Syrian refugees living in Lebanon are unfairly distributed by the Lebanese government, and the Minister of Education has excluded the town from the list of schools accredited to teach the children of Syrian refugees. The municipality asked the refugees to leave the town or face legal prosecution. The decision, which will be implemented by policemen Khaled al-Rifai and Ibrahim al-Rifai, comes after a series of racist actions taken by more than 45 municipalities — according to a Human Rights Watch report issued on October 9 — imposing a curfew on Syrians during specific hours.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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