Syrian residents, fleeing violence in the restive Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, arrive in Aleppo's Fardos neighbourhood on December 13, 2016, after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters. Syrian rebels withdrew from six more neighbourhoods in their one-time bastion of east Aleppo in the face of advancing government troops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Winter Wonderland No Playground For Middle East Refugees

Sub-par conditions in refugee camps have put vulnerable populations at serious risk

Winter conditions in the Middle East are severely complicating refugee aid missions, putting thousands of displaced Syrians at risk of freezing as storms continue to ravage numerous camps. Regional weather services are predicting the sub-freezing cold wave will sweep through the Arabian Peninsula for the rest of the week.

In Lebanon, Lisa Abou Khaled, a Public Information Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHR), told The Media Line that “several days of strong winds, snow and torrential rains have affected more than 570 informal tented sites all over the country, home to over 22,500 refugees.

“UNHCR and partners estimate that, in total, over 800 informal [Lebanese] settlements hosting 70,000 refugees are at risk of extreme weather,” she elaborated. “The 2018 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees states that 34 percent of refugees in Lebanon live in shelters that do not meet humanitarian standards.”

The issue is compounded by the nature of refugee settlements across the Levant, some of which are barely inhabitable.

According to Racha El Daoi, Communications Manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Lebanon, “there are tents that have been flooded by knee-level [waters] and above. Those who live in them then have to be evacuated or go to relatives or find alternative locations until organizations can dewater and dislodge the tents. This drains a lot of resources.

“In certain areas,” Daoi continued, “where there has been heavy snowfall, the temperature has fallen well below 0 Celsius, so refugees living in tents that don’t have proper heating systems, insulation, or shelter, are at serious risk of hypothermia.”

Despite the strain on available resources, aid agencies are attempting to minimize the problem by clearing affected tents, draining settlement areas and distributing to refugees important materials such as mattresses, blankets, winter clothes and hygiene kits.

“Across Lebanon, UNHCR is assisting 168,000 vulnerable refugee families as part of its $180 million regional winter assistance program,” Lisa Abou Khaled said. This includes the transfer of materials as well as “a monthly payment of $75 per family for five months, totaling $375, to help them cover additional expenses during winter such as fuel for heating, medicine and clothes.”

According to Doai, those facing the greatest hardships “are female-headed households or households with special needs or children, populations that are growing as a sizable number of families have moved from residential housing to shelters or tents.”

Amid ongoing turmoil in Iraq and Syria, in particular, aid agencies will have their work cut out for them as the heart of winter quickly approaches. There are more than one hundred agencies helping refugees, which together have developed procedures to maximize the efficient use of resources and for compartmentalizing their responses to seemingly never-ending crises.

(Victor Cabrera is a student intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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