Winter storm and increased border restrictions bring new challenges to conflict-weary Syrian refugees

Oxfam and our partners work to reach refugee families hit hard by torrents of rain and snow.

As the icy driving rain leaked into their flimsy tent and the blustering wind rocked their makeshift home in Chekka northern Lebanon, wide-eyed Raneem, 6, huddled against her mother, unable to sleep. A major storm is sweeping through the region bringing new misery to thousands of Syrian refugees like Raneem.

According to media reports, the storm has already claimed the lives of 4 refugees. For young Raneem and others, they have little protection from the cold. Ayman a refugee from Syria told Oxfam, "Our children are all sick. The cold is unbearable, and we have no means to keep them warm."

In Lebanon, coastal areas have been battered by waves and howling winds. Deep snow has blanketed settlements in which refugees live, blocking roads and isolating towns leaving people without access to urgent medical care. Under the weight of the heavy snowfall, tents have caved in, and water tanks have frozen.

In Jordan, extreme weather conditions have also hit Zaatari refugee camp, the country’s largest with more than 80,000 inhabitants. Children, wearing plastic summer shoes, try to jump between icy puddles, as men shovel snow from above tents and caravans. "We are in desperate need of caravans, we cannot live in tents anymore," said Abu Ayman.

Six-year-old Raneem huddles near a stove in her family's shelter in northern Lebanon. Credit: Oriol Andres/Oxfam

Weeks ago, Oxfam had started preparing for the winter season by distributing plastic sheets and cash vouchers in Lebanon, and digging trenches around tents in Zaatari to avoid them being flooded by the rain. Evacuation plans had been put in place too, in close coordination with other agencies. But as the storm endures, refugees are in desperate need of food, water and shelter.

“Refugees who don’t have proper access to clean water or can’t store drinking water will be in severe difficulties if we don’t reach them in the next two days,” Laurian Gauny, Oxfam’s program manager in the valley, told Reuters on Wednesday.

In both Lebanon and Jordan, Oxfam is ramping up our aid response to keep Syrian refugees warm through the cold weather. We are working with partners in Lebanon to ensure families can rebuild damaged tents with plastic sheets, and distributing hygiene kits that include soap, diapers and sanitary pads to ensure people can meet their basic needs. While in Jordan, our teams will be addressing the most pressing water and sanitation needs.

The danger, however, will not lift when the snow stops falling. Informal settlements are likely to be severely flooded and in the Zataari refugee camp in Jordan we’re concerned that storm water may cause septic tanks to overflow, which could lead to big health risks.

In Jordan, an Oxfam team is working to ensure that the trucking of water continues so people will have a safe supply for drinking.

Oxfam and our partners will be working hard to reach people with support.

For Raneem and others facing their fourth winter in exile, this help goes a long way. But with no end in sight of the bloody conflict, and governments increasingly closing their borders to vulnerable Syrian refugees, Raneem has no choice but to huddle against her mother and pray the storm ends.

The challenge of seeking safety

Sandals offer little protection to the feet of children in a refugee settlement in northern Lebanon. Credit: Oriol Andres/Oxfam

The conflict in Syria has dragged on for nearly four years, forcing about 3.3 million Syrians, more than half of whom are under the age of 18, to flee their country and seek safety in neighboring nations.

But now, that safety has become more difficult to find as neighboring countries, struggling under the strain of the crisis, increasingly restrict their borders. In the end of December, Lebanon—where one in every four people is a Syrian refugee—announced  it was imposing new entry regulations for Syrians, requiring them to apply for one of six types of visas in order to come into the country. Extreme humanitarian cases will also be considered, though the criteria for those is unclear.

The new restrictions on entry for Syrians into Lebanon are part of a worrying, wider trend reflecting quite simply fewer and fewer opportunities for Syrians to escape conflict. Neighboring countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, have welcomed huge numbers of Syrians fleeing conflict to date in an unprecedented crisis. These countries have a clear obligation to ensure that refugees can continue to seek safety, but they are facing enormous strain. The increased restrictions should also be seen as a collective failure of the international community as a whole, as neighboring countries continue to receive insufficient support from other governments.

The international community must step up its support for Lebanon.

Oxfam has helped more than 1.5 million people across Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan with lifesaving essentials. But the needs of families remain enormous.

Photos:

1. Strong winds blew the roof off the shelter that housed Yehia, a farmer from Syria, and his family. Credit: Oriol Andres/Oxfam

2. Six-year-old Raneem huddles near a stove in her family's shelter in northern Lebanon. Credit: Oriol Andres/Oxfam

3. Sandals offer little protection to the feet of children in a refugee settlement in northern Lebanon. Credit: Oriol Andres/Oxfam

This update is from Joelle Bassoul @jobassoul, Oxfam Media Advisor, Syria Response, dated 9 January 2015. For updates, please follow @Oxfam.

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