Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Winter without Hope: Why Time Has Just Run Out for Syrian Refugees

 by Nomad

Child Syria Refugee
As you read this, the refugees of the Syrian civil war are facing yet another challenge in the wake of an intense snowstorm that hit the region this week. Resources of aid agencies are dwindling fast and time is running out for families who have been left without food and heat.

Back in early October, we reported in a blog post how things were going to get worse for Syrians who fled their country and who now live in refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.
At that time, an official at the UN warned that As things stand at the moment. The World Food Programme (WFP) would no longer be able to distribute food and water to Syrian refugees.  Without new funding, officials warned, the program could remain operational for only the next two months. After that, the refugees would be on their own.
That was three months ago.

The Storm 
This week the situation has gone from miserable to catastrophic. Having faced the loss of everything they own, faced with life in a tent and having endured a brutally hot summer, Syrian families might have thought that things could not get much worse.
They were absolutely wrong.

An unusually intense winter storm has swept across the region, with temperatures well below freezing, winds up to 55 miles an hour. For people reduced to living in the most primitive of shelters, a heavy blanket of snow threatened to destroy what little they have now.

Frigid winds, driving rains and layers of snow have hit encampments in Syria’s neighboring countries, flooding settlements, collapsing tents and leaving refugees shivering in the cold and increasing the chances for illness, aid groups say.
Lebanon's Bekaa Valley is home to 402,000 registered refugees in the Bekaa, who are presently living in a variety of shelters - ranging from abandoned buildings to sheds to 'informal settlements'. 

When the storm hit, the area was closed down due to heavy snowfall, leaving thousands with little food or heating oil. Aid agencies are only now reaching the camps. (There are currently 1.1 million registered refugees in Lebanon, but the number of unregistered ones is uncertain.)

One aid worker described the situation like this:
"It's really bad up here and no one is able to come in to help the refugees; there is no food and no heat..The refugees are very scared, we're all very scared."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that there have been more than 100 tent collapse reports already. Teams from the UN  aid organization have been attempting to distribute kits to reinforce shelters, as well as blankets, mattresses and other aid. These efforts have been hampered by logistics in camps where roads are little more than dirt paths buried under mounds of snow.

Death and Fear 
Al Jazeera reported that the winter storms and the appalling living conditions have already proved lethal.
At least four Syrian refugees have died as a result of the huge storm that is currently sweeping across Lebanon, as more than a million refugees try and survive against the onslaught of snow and rain.
Said one refugee:
We've been without heating oil for two months now. An aid agency came before but were only able to provide fuel for a quarter for the families here. We are actually freezing to death."
Another refugee told the Al Jazeera reporter that she is afraid for her children and the possibility of hypothermia.
"We are slowly dying here, no one is coming to help us and we have nothing."
All of Syria's neighbors, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, have been hard-pressed to cope with the flood of survivors of the civil war. The majority in these camps arrived with nothing, not even warm clothing.

Lebanon, in particular, has been unable to deal with massive migration. Last week, the government in Beirut set up new visa restrictions on Syrians. in a clear effort to restrict - or at least, control- the flow.

Clearly this action is an admission that the Lebanese government has run out of options. Fears are also growing that the refugees will bring the Syrian war across the border into Lebanon, a country barely treading water as it is. (Other neighbors share the same apprehensions.)

While Lebanese officials there have assured aid agencies that the government will still permit and facilitate humanitarian cases, critics charge that requiring visas will  most affect the poorest refugee the hardest.

A New Threat on the Horizon
Huddled by fires and in tents, the refugees have very little to look forward to. The possibility of peace in Syria and of returning home seems extremely remote at this time. Spring, when it finally comes, will only bring mud and flooding and more misery.

In addition, the threat of disease and malnutrition, particularly for the children, inside the camps is another grave concern. According to experts:
The underfunding of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) and other humanitarian organizations has reduced the medical subsidies to refugees, leading many to forgo necessary yet unaffordable treatment.
 Amnesty International  reported at the beginning of last month that a study by UNICEF in Lebanon had found that malnutrition had increased from 4.4% percent in 2012 to  5.9% in a single year. Since that study, the figure is likely to be much worse. with thousand of children at risk.

Malnutrition is recognized around the globe as one of highest occurring underlying causes of death for children under the age of five. It is responsible for nearly half [45%]. and amounts to a shocking 3.1 million children who die each year. For all of its immediate effects, malnutrition will, doctors say, also weaken the immune systems of children making them more susceptible to disease.
But that's only half of the miserable story.

The devastated health care infrastructure inside Syria left many children un-immunized and prey to vaccine-preventable diseases. Of the 1.8 million Syrian children born since the conflict, over 50% are unvaccinated.

Refugee camps are not even able to provide the basic living conditions, like food, water, and warm shelter. When a vaccination program can be set up is anybody's guess.
The squalid conditions of the camp are therefore an excellent breeding ground for diseases like polio, measles  hepatitis A, leishmaniasis, meningitis, scabies  and other infectious diseases.

Unless something is done immediately, not only is the humanitarian crisis going to spin out of control (more than it already has) but an entire future generation of Syrians could be wiped out.

Epidemics are not discriminatory, and borders- even the porous borders of the region, mean nothing once an infectious disease catches hold. 
Leaving the Syrian refugees to fend for themselves will eventually and inevitably lead to profound health consequences for the entire region.
The immediate end of war is inextricable from efforts to spare innocent lives and control this global threat of infectious diseases. Yet while the political borders of a conflict can be delineated, health care repercussions are uncontained by geopolitical borders. The spillover of refugees and communicable diseases into Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq demonstrates the rippling consequences of the protracted Syrian conflict.
Doing nothing is simply not an option.

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