As winter storms move into the Middle East, the most vulnerable populations will be the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing from a violent and long civil war. Perhaps the most affected areas are in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, where some 400,000 Syrian refugees live in temporary, informal tent camps under harsh winter conditions.
Temperatures in the Beqaa Valley have dipped well below freezing for long periods of time, compounding the unforgiving effects of a wet, windy winter. Snow and ice in recent weeks has led to the closure of roads surrounding the camps, making access for aid workers even more difficult. The UN reports that over 100 tents have collapsed under the weight of ice and snow. The UNHCR has set up six emergency shelters to try to negate the risk of collapse, but resources are running low around the camps.
Lebanon has no formal camps, but is now the home of 1.12 million Syrian refugees. This means that one out of every four people in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee. Because the official policy of the Lebanese government is non–intervention in Syrian internal affairs, civic organizations have had to take the lead on caring for the millions of Syrian refugees now living in the country.
The UN estimates that there are approximately 3.2 million Syrian and an additional 7.6 million people displaced by the conflict still living in Syria. Most refugees are living in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. This will be the fourth winter since the beginning of the war.
Other refugees affected by winter weather live in Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, Israel and Iraq. In Jordan, only 100,000 of a total 620,000 refugees live in formal camps. In Iraq, violence in the past year has displaced hundreds of thousands of people who are now are facing similar winter risks as Syrian refugees.
The winter months bring a whole new set of health risks to refugees, especially those living in tent camps. Besides cold-weather exposure risks like hypothermia, frostbite and chilblains, wet conditions lead to a higher risk of disease and low levels of resources and closed roads increase the risk of malnutrition and dehydration. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable populations.
Winter also brings higher risk of accidental deaths, from collapsed tents and fire-related deaths from indoor flames and heaters.
This past November, two Syrian babies died because of winter conditions. In Palestine this month, a fire killed a refugee child. And two Syrian refugees crossing into Lebanon earlier this month, a 30-year-old man and a seven-year-old child, were killed in the mountains because of exposure to extreme cold.
A shortfall of 50 percent of international funding for U.N. assistance to refugees means that Syrian refugees are getting even less help this winter than in the past. There are no additional ration cards or oil for heaters. Even though the percent of refugees living in harsh winter conditions is small compared to the overall number of people displaced by the conflict, a disproportionate amount of funding is going to them, removing funding options for other refugee settlements.
– Caitlin Huber