UNHCR Syria assessment team finds acute humanitarian needs in Homs

Briefing Notes, 30 November 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 30 November 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Syria

A UNHCR Syria team returned to Damascus last night after a two-day assessment mission to Homs, where they reported thousands of displaced people living in unheated communal shelters. Half of the city's hospitals are not functional and there are severe shortages of basic supplies ranging from medicine to blankets, winter clothes and children's shoes.

The team, led by our representative to Syria, reported that UNHCR's partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), had so far registered 250,000 displaced people in and around the city.

During their mission, the team met SARC counterparts and briefed local officials on UNHCR's operations in the area, including the provision of non-food aid supplies. The team included UNHCR Syria's shelter coordinator to assess the feasibility to engage in shelter rehabilitation.

UNHCR, which has more than 350 staff in five locations across Syria, has been present in the city since mid-November, where it has been provided assistance through SARC since June. The team visited two communal buildings, one housing 70 families (400 individuals) and another one with over 400 families (2,300 individuals), the largest such shelter in Homs. Local solidarity networks have been formed and are providing very organized help to local residents, but the needs are acute.

Many children have not been to school for the last 18 months. Some city hospitals have been converted into communal shelters and 60 percent of Homs doctors have left, along with other medical personnel. There are serious shortages of medicine and medical equipment.

With cold weather having arrived, UNHCR plastic sheeting is being used to cover open doorways and missing windows in collective centres, as well as to partition rooms. None of the buildings were heated, and there is a shortage of blankets, winter clothes and shoes for children.

During the mission, nine UNHCR trucks carrying urgent winter assistance arrived in Homs with 6,000 quilts, 12,000 sleeping mats, 13,000 winter blankets, 1,000 mattresses and 6,000 boxes of sanitary napkins. More aid supplies are scheduled for delivery in the coming days to complete relief shipment for some 3,000 households (15,000 people). To date, we have distributed aid packages to 5,000 displaced families in Homs.

One UNHCR staff member is now deployed in Homs, and we intend to further scale up our winter response with more deliveries of heavy blankets, quilts and mattresses. We are also identifying new humanitarian partners to expand our local distribution network. In addition, agreements have been finalized with partners for the rehabilitation of some 40 communal shelters across the country.

Lebanon

In Lebanon, we are working with a recently formed inter-ministerial committee to better coordinate efforts to help Syrian refugees and affected Lebanese communities. The Government of Lebanon is working with us to resume joint registration through the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA). UNHCR, MOSA, the High Relief Commission and other partners are also working to improve identification procedures for refugees and to harmonize the criteria used for determining those in need of help.

Close to 7,000 refugees were registered last week with UNHCR in Beirut, North Lebanon, Bekaa and South Lebanon, bringing the total number of those receiving assistance from UNHCR and partner agencies in the country to 133,349.

Preparations for winter remain a priority, with temperatures now dropping below 10 degrees in some areas of the Bekaa and North Lebanon. So far in November, UNHCR, WFP and other partners have distributed food vouchers, blankets, mattresses, carpets, heaters, and most recently, much-needed fuel coupons to some 50,000 refugees.

Renovations on a variety of unfinished buildings and collective shelters to house refugees are also continuing, along with the provision of cash so refugees can make rental payments. Provision of mattresses, blankets and household items continues. All refugees live in Lebanon's towns and cities, not in camps.

Jordan

We receive ongoing reports from Syrian refugees arriving in Jordan who say they were targeted en route to the border. UNHCR calls on all sides to ensure that civilians have access to safe passage.

Refugees are citing generalized violence, targeted threats against individuals and their families, and a breakdown of basic services as the reasons they fled their country. Jordanian hospitals receive injured refugees on a daily basis.

This perilous journey is particularly tough for women and children, who UNHCR staff report are often visibly traumatized. Women still recovering from childbirth are making the journey. Some report that they are inducing the birth of their babies early, in advance of their flight. Last night a woman with a twelve-day-old child arrived. In the preceding days, we received several families with babies less than a month old. Many families are opting to sedate their children during the journey, they say to keep them calm and quiet.

Also in Jordan, we have seen recent media reports of underage marriages involving Syrian refugee girls. UNHCR is aware of this phenomenon and has been working with partners to increase awareness among refugee families, religious leaders and others. While we know there have been such marriages, we do not know the numbers. Jordanian law prohibits marriage for those who are 18 or younger.

An inter-agency assessment is currently being undertaken to determine the extent of the problem and identify future interventions. UNHCR is currently producing a series of service announcements which we hope will appear son on Jordanian national television covering the issue of early marriage.

Work on preparing for winter in Za'atri refugee camp north of Amman is continuing. More than 1,500 tent "porches" have been distributed to provide additional space for gas heaters and protection from the elements for those living in tents.

Statistics

Across the region, the number of Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration in the region is now more than 465,000.

The totals for the countries immediately surrounding Syria and in North Africa are: Jordan, 137,998; Lebanon, 133,349; Turkey, 123,747; Iraq, 60,307; and North Africa, 9,734.

In addition, authorities estimate there are tens of thousands more Syrians across the region who have not come forward yet to register for assistance, including up to 150,000 in Egypt; 100,000 in Jordan; 60,000 to 70,000 in Turkey and tens of thousands in Lebanon. As the conflict continues and uprooted Syrians already in neighbouring countries run out of money and resources, more people are expected to register for help.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • Ron Redmond (Regional Spokesman) on mobile +962 79 982 5867
  • Mohammed Abu Asaker (Regional Spokesman, Arabic) on mobile + 971 50 621 3552
  • Tala Kattan on mobile: +962 79 978 3186
  • Aoife McDonnell on mobile: +962 795 450 379
  • Dana Sleiman on mobile: +961 3827 323
  • Sybella Wilkes on mobile: 41 79 557 9138
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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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