UNHCR head of protection calls for safe passage for uprooted Syrians

Briefing Notes, 4 December 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 4 December 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller, yesterday visited refugees in Jordan's Za'atri refugee camp and noted that innocent civilians were the prime victims of the on-going conflict in Syria.

On her second mission to the region in less than a month, Feller met refugees who had recently made it to safety in Jordan. Many were elderly, including one woman who had recently undergone open-heart surgery. Several were clearly traumatized.

Feller said the conflict was disproportionately affecting civilians at least 2.5 million of them and called on both sides to ensure that those who have fled their homes throughout the country were able to reach safety. In some areas, insecurity has reached to the country's borders, making escape to neighbouring states especially perilous.

As UNHCR's senior refugee protection official, Feller reviewed reception arrangements at Za'atri, which as of this week has received more than 60,000 Syrian refugees since it opened four months ago. Many of those 60,000 have since moved on, some into the local community and others have returned to Syria. Za'atri currently has about 32,000 residents.

Preparations for winter are well underway in the camp, where overnight temperatures are now dropping to 1 degree Celsius. Tents are being reinforced and better insulated to protect against the weather, including the addition of "porches" where gas heaters are being placed. Some 30,000 high thermal blankets are being distributed, along with winter clothing.

A storm drainage system is being built and a layer of crushed rock spread throughout the camp to channel water away from shelters and prevent mud and standing water. In addition, more than 1,300 prefabricated shelters have been erected and another 1,300 are expected to be in place within three weeks.

As this work continues, we have recently heard erroneous reports that refugee children have died at the camp because of the cold. This is incorrect. Since November 23, we have had four infant deaths due to other medical conditions, but not because of the weather. Medical reports indicate that two of the infants had congenital defects one of the oesophagus, and the other of the heart. Two other infants died as a result of serious diarrhoea. UNHCR extends its deep condolences to the parents, families and the Za'atri community. It is absolutely heart-breaking for us and for our partners who are working around the clock in the camp to try to help those who have already suffered far too much.

STATISTICS

Region wide, the number of Syrians registered or awaiting registration is now 475,280. This comprises 138,889 in Jordan, 133,895 in Lebanon, 130,449 in Turkey, 60,307 in Iraq, and 11,740 in North Africa.

In addition, governments in the region estimate there are several hundred thousand more Syrians who have not yet come forward for registration, including up to 150,000 in Egypt, 100,000 in Jordan, 70,000 in Turkey, and tens of thousands in Lebanon. More of these people are expected to seek registration in the coming months as their resources dwindle.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Amman: Ron Redmond (Regional Spokesman) on mobile +962 79 982 5867
  • Tala Kattan on mobile: +962 79 978 3186
  • Aoife McDonnell on mobile: +962 795 450 379
  • At the Turkish border: Mohammed Abu Asaker (Regional Spokesman, Arabic) on mobile + 971 50 621 3552
  • In Geneva: 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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