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Syrian Refugees May Freeze to Death

More than 11,000 children living in camps in northern Syria have been affected by torrential rains that have caused floods and washed away tents. Unusually severe winter weather and storms have brought chaos to camps in Syria’s Idlib province as well as to sites in Lebanon as they are left devastated. Aid workers warn there is a real risk people will freeze to death as temperatures have already dropped to -1C, amid a shortage of blankets and heating fuel.

The situation

Storm Norma, torrential rain and freezing temperatures have devastated refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. Most camps lack adequate infrastructure, and given the poor sewage systems, wastewater has overflowed and seeped into the tents, increasing the risk of diseases in the crammed settlements. Thousands are in need of emergency assistance and many refugees have had to spend nights standing up.

“The conditions in the camps and settlements where displaced children are living are miserable, with families suffering through freezing temperatures with only the most basic protection from the elements,” said Save the Children’s Syria response director, Sonia Khush.

Caroline Anning, Syria advocacy and communications manager for Save the Children, said there were cases of babies freezing to death last year and added that more people are vulnerable this winter. Children, who make up half of those displaced, have often been forced to move up to seven times and are already in poor health.

“The number of people that moved into Idlib over the last year is huge and there is always the risk there will be more,” said Anning. “We saw, a couple of months ago, there was an escalation of violence in the south and thousands of people fled northwards. It’s a very tense situation.”

How many have been affected?

The Idlib province is home to around 1.5 million Syrians who have been displaced from other parts of the country – the densest concentrations of displaced people in the world, but the storms have also caused havoc for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. According to UNHCR, 361 sites in Lebanon have been affected. Camps in the border town of Arsal have been buried in snow, while settlements in the central and west Bekaa areas, where there has been heavy flooding, have experienced even worse damage.

At least 600 Syrian refugees in the Bekaa had to relocate because of heavy floods or damage to their shelters. Tragically, the body of a young Syrian girl who drowned after falling into a flooded stream in the north of the country was recovered on Wednesday, after she was reported missing the previous day.
Outbreaks of violence between armed groups have delayed emergency relief efforts over recent weeks and, although fighting has subsided, many areas remain cut off as a result of the flash floods, preventing families from accessing health facilities and slowing the distribution of emergency supplies.

“There is no doubt that the situation is very difficult,” said UNHCR External Relations Associate Hiba Fares. “We’ve been going around checking on families and trying to help as much as we can.”

Fleeing from the war in Syria

More than 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, according to UNHCR. Most have settled in neighbouring countries of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Beirut estimates that 1.5 million Syrians are in Lebanon, mostly living in informal settlements with bare infrastructure.

Lebanon has complained about the burden of hosting such large numbers of refugees and is applying increasing pressure for them to leave. Its government has forbidden aid agencies from establishing formal camps and permanent structures. Most informal settlements consist of tarpaulins and wood and have been set up in agricultural land prone to flooding

“We are suffering from a lack of ability to help people in these things,” said Lebanon’s Minister of State for Refugees’ Affairs Mouin Merhebi. “The aid is coming but it is going to waste. Every time a crisis happens you have to bear the substantial cost of returning things to what they were.”

The Assad government, which is reasserting control of the entire country after nearly eight years of a devastating conflict, officially says refugees should return to rebuild the war-ravaged nation. But many Syrians, young men in particular, fear retaliation by the government or forced conscription into the army if they were to return. That has stopped entire families from wanting to go back.

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