Winter conditions adding to hardships for more than 600,000 Syrian refugees

Briefing Notes, 11 January 2013

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 11 January 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The severe winter conditions across Syria and the surrounding region this past week have brought new difficulties for refugees and other displaced people. Even with the winter preparation work that has been done in recent months, many refugees in both camp and non-camp situations are facing particularly cold and damp conditions. At the same time, there has been no let-up in the numbers of people fleeing Syria into neighbouring countries. Around the region there were, as of figures we received yesterday (Thursday), 612,134 people either registered as refugees or being assisted as such.

Jordan

The first week of 2013 has seen a surge in new arrivals with an average of more than 1100 Syrians crossing the border every day, although with reduced numbers over the past few days amid freezing rain. Many of those arriving have been barefoot, with their clothing soaked, and covered in mud and snow. Refugees report discarding their belongings to carry their children through flooded countryside to Jordan. For people arriving at the border, UNHCR managed yesterday to send 1,000 blankets, 500 mattresses along with emergency clothing. Our partners at WFP also sent 3,000 welcome meals.

At Za'atri there was flooding earlier this week, amid some of the worst weather conditions in Jordan in 20 years. UNHCR managed yesterday (Thursday) to deliver several truckloads of gravel to elevate the ground level and improve drain-off. Culvert openings were cut through the camp ring road at 4 different points to release standing water into creeks surrounding the camp. This has improved things in the eastern part of the camps and we expect the whole camp to be dry soon.

Health services in Za'atri camp are all operational with mobile clinics covering the affected area in the camp, detecting medical cases in need of transfers to the camp hospital and treating primary health care patients on the spot.

UNHCR and partners relocated affected Syrians to the prefabs during the past three nights, as efforts to assist and relocate affected and vulnerable families continue. UNICEF is placing 45 emergency latrines in the new prefab modules. UNHCR is distributing 5 blankets per person for new arrivals to Za'atri, in addition to winter clothing. UNHCR/NRC are also distributing dry blankets, mattresses and other non-food items to those whose belongings were affected.

For refugees living away from the camp, conditions have also been difficult. Many are accommodated in shelters with limited heating and insulation from the freezing conditions, along with a shortage of warm clothing and blankets. Some 6000 families are receiving cash assistance.

The Government of Jordan estimates that some 280,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into the country in the past 22 months. 176,569 of these are registered with or being assisted by UNHCR.

Lebanon

The registered and assisted refugee population in Lebanon has now swollen to almost 200,000 people (194,769). Over the past week, temperatures have in general remained above or close to freezing, but there has nonetheless been snow. Flooding has occurred in a number of tented settlements in the Bekaa, in houses in a low rise area of Wadi Khaled in the north, and at a warehouse housing refugees further south in Sidon. A collective effort in Sidon by UNHCR, the Danish Refugee Council, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre has allowed for draining of the warehouse. In Bekaa and in the Wadi Khaled we have taken action to deal with the flooding and help affected refugees in partnership variously with Action Contre La Faim, and Premiere Urgence. We're also gearing up provision of assistance with local municipalities, and NGOs. Dry mattress, bed covers and food vouchers have been handed out; Four Syrian and two Lebanese fami lies have been moved away from a flooded part of Wadi Khaled; and we are making additional room available to house people in collective shelters. In light of this week's conditions we have further increased distribution of warm blankets, heaters, fuel vouchers, winter clothing, and plastic sheeting. 6,700 families have had their homes weather-proofed, and renovation help has been provided to 5,300 others.

Turkey

Our Turkey office reports that all camps are affected by the harsh winter conditions of the past week. The Turkish authorities have done significant work in reinforcing camps against the winter conditions, including creating platforms for tents, providing electrical heaters, tarpaulins, plastic sheeting and warm clothing plus additional high thermal blankets. Nonetheless, and to further support this, UNHCR has provided family tents for 83,500 persons, blankets for 107,220 persons, kitchen sets for 110,220 persons, plus we have placed an order with the Turkish Red Crescent Agency for 18,500 winterized tents. Tragically, and despite precautions taken by the camp authorities, late December saw two fire incidents one at Ceylanpinar, another at Akcakale. Together these claimed the lives of five children, leaving two others injured.

Iraq

Heavy snow has affected the Domiz camp in Dohuk in particular. Living conditions for refugees outside the camps and in local communities are also difficult, with people affected by the cold and facing high prices for basic commodities.

While substantial winterization work has already been done, UNHCR is monitoring the situation closely. Currently, we have urgent needs for additional winter clothing, boots, and scarves, particularly for children. Refugees living in Erbil have also complained about shortages of winter medicines and the need for food. UNHCR is looking at additional measures to help including cash assistance and construction materials to help people improve the places in which they are sheltering. Thermal blankets have also been handed out in the urban areas of Zakhou, Duhok, and Semeil. We are also handing out additional plastic sheeting and kerosene.

At Al-Qaim, additional stoves and kerosene have been provided for all refugees numbering around 7,000 people. Heating systems have been installed in school tents, along with solar heaters in the women's showers. Together with partners, additional winter clothes are also being handed out.

Syria

UNHCR has in recent months provided significant winterization aid to refugees and displaced families inside Syria, including winter quilts, heavier blankets, and winter clothing. Shelter assistance work started in late 2012, with work on 40 shelters on-going, and programmes of cash assistance have been underway. As of year's end UNHCR had helped over 400,000 people in accessible areas of Syria, providing non-food aid, and in addition cash aid to nearly 15,000 families. Despite the difficult security conditions, we are continuing to work to help people where we can often working through partner organizations. However, difficulties of access mean we cannot reach all people in need.

Additional Data

Regionwide, 612,134 Syrians are either registered as refugees or being assisted as such. The following are the numbers by country:

LEBANON (as of 9 January)

Number of Syrians registered and pending registration with UNHCR: 194,769

Registered / Pending registration: 138,213 / 56,556

JORDAN (as of 7 January)

Number of Syrians registered and pending registration with UNHCR: 176,569

Registered / Pending registration: 128,628 / 47,941

PLEASE NOTE: These statistics are based on active registrations in the UNHCR database. Users are cautioned that the actual population is subject to uncertainties including incomplete camp departure information and other variables. UNHCR and its partners are implementing measures to improve registration figures accuracy.

TURKEY (Government of Turkey figures dated 10 January)

Number of Syrians registered in camps: 153,163

IRAQ (as of 8 January)

Number of Syrians registered with UNHCR: 69,282

EGYPT (as of 9 January)

Number of Syrians registered with UNHCR: 13,292

North Africa (as of 31 December)

Number of Syrians registered with UNHCR: 5,059

For more information, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • 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
  • Melissa Fleming on mobile: +41 79 557 9122
  • Adrian Edwards on mobile: +41 79 557 9120
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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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