Thousands brave freezing conditions to escape fighting in Syria and reach Lebanon

News Stories, 19 November 2013

© UNHCR/M.Hofer
Syrian refugees queue to be registered on the outskirts of the Lebanese town of Arsal.

ARSAL, Lebanon, November 19 (UNHCR) Mohammed, a construction worker from the western Syria city of Homs, had been forced to flee his home six times since the Syria crisis erupted in March 2011. Until now, he had managed to stay inside his own country.

But a fresh round of violence starting last week levelled his latest home and drove him and what was left of his extended family to cross 40 kilometres over the mountains into Lebanon. "We lost our homeland, we lost everything," he said at a wedding hall in the town of Arsal, where he had taken shelter with some 60 other Syrian families. "There is no security in Syria."

Mohammed is part of the latest surge of refugees to flee Syria's war; above 1,200 families, or 6,000 people, arrived in Arsal in the Bekaa Valley over the past week, adding to the more than 800,000 who have crossed to Lebanon to escape the conflict. The families are escaping the region around Qalamoun, home to an estimated 200,000 people. As violence there continues, residents fear more refugees will arrive in coming days.

UNHCR and its partners are providing temporary shelter, blankets, stoves and other materials to help the families survive. The weather has been harsh; freezing rain fell yesterday and forecasts are for one of the harshest winters in years. Across Lebanon, finding suitable shelter for those desperately in need is becoming increasingly urgent.

"We are urgently dealing with the needs that exist here in Arsal," said Maeve Murphy, senior field coordinator for UNHCR, which is responding to the crisis. "We are working with … partners to see how they can [support] people who have moved into buildings such as basements and garages that are not suitable for the weather, which as you can see is raining and cold." On Tuesday, UNHCR began erecting tents at a small transit site "for those who are most vulnerable … until we find a better location for them," she said.

Arsal, where the new refugees are arriving, is overwhelmed . Even before the latest influx began, more than 30 months of war have swollen a peacetime population of 40,000 to 60,000, an increase of 50 per cent.

Like Mohammed and his relatives, many families have been displaced before. Some 80 per cent are originally from Homs. "God knows where this war will take us next," sighed one Syrian mother who had escaped two other towns with her five children before being caught up in the fighting in the town of Qarah, in the Qalamoun area.

Many of the new arrivals have lost family members. Mohammed has with him two children who lost their parents in the war as well as a young girl whose father is missing. He says he cannot find his own uncle and grandmother. "We started looking for them and we couldn't find them. People cannot find each other in this place," he said.

The refugees are sheltering in cramped conditions in four collective shelters, including a hall used for wedding celebrations and a local mosque. UNHCR and its partners are providing food parcels, kitchen sets and hygiene kits to help with washing and cooking. Work is also under way on local buildings to insulate them against the wet and the cold.

War-wounded and expectant mothers are getting assistance first. Aisha, 24, is eight months pregnant and wanted desperately to give birth in Syria, holding out in Qara until the last possible moment, with shells landing around her home. She had prepared a room for the newborn, bought baby clothes and a crib. But several days ago she had to leave it all behind. She accepts that her child will now be born a refugee. But she fears for her family's future. "I'm not sure where I'll be living tomorrow," she says.

By Zahra Mackaoui, Lisa Abou Khaled and Dana Sleiman in Arsal, Lebanon

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Syrian Refugees: Influx into Arsal, Lebanon.
Play video

Syrian Refugees: Influx into Arsal, Lebanon.

In Syria, an estimated 6,000 people have fled their homes in Qarah, making their way over the border into eastern Lebanon. The spark for the displacement is the reported escalation of violence in Qarah and surrounding villages. Most of the newly arrived refugees are now in Arsal, in north-east Lebanon. Arsal, which lies not far from the border area, is home to a population of some 60,000 people, including - already prior to the latest influx - 20,000 registered refugees.

UNHCR country pages

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency has named the British coordinator of a UN-run mine clearance programme in southern Lebanon and his civilian staff, including almost 1,000 Lebanese mine clearers, as the winners of the 2008 Nansen Refugee Award.

Christopher Clark, a former officer with the British armed forces, became manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre-South Lebanon (UNMACC-SL) n 2003. His teams have detected and destroyed tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and tens of thousands of mines. This includes almost 145,000 submunitions (bomblets from cluster-bombs) found in southern Lebanon since the five-week war of mid-2006.

Their work helped enable the return home of almost 1 million Lebanese uprooted by the conflict. But there has been a cost – 13 mine clearers have been killed, while a further 38 have suffered cluster-bomb injuries since 2006. Southern Lebanon is once more thriving with life and industry, while the process of reconstruction continues apace thanks, in large part, to the work of the 2008 Nansen Award winners.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

Lebanese Returnees Receive Aid

UNHCR started distributing emergency relief aid in devastated southern Lebanese villages in the second half of August. Items such as tents, plastic sheeting and blankets are being distributed to the most vulnerable. UNHCR supplies are being taken from stockpiles in Beirut, Sidon and Tyre and continue to arrive in Lebanon by air, sea and road.

Although 90 percent of the displaced returned within days of the August 14 ceasefire, many Lebanese have been unable to move back into their homes and have been staying with family or in shelters, while a few thousand have remained in Syria.

Since the crisis began in mid-July, UNHCR has moved 1,553 tons of supplies into Syria and Lebanon for the victims of the fighting. That has included nearly 15,000 tents, 154,510 blankets, 53,633 mattresses and 13,474 kitchen sets. The refugee agency has imported five trucks and 15 more are en route.

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Lebanese Returnees Receive Aid

Lebanon Crisis: UNHCR Gears Up

The UN refugee agency is gearing up for a multi-million-dollar operation in the Middle East aimed at assisting tens of thousands of people displaced by the current crisis in Lebanon.

Conditions for fleeing Lebanese seeking refuge in the mountain areas north of Beirut are precarious, with relief supplies needed urgently to cope with the growing number of displaced. More than 80,0000 people have fled to the Aley valley north of Beirut. Some 38,000 of them are living in schools.

In close collaboration with local authorities, UNHCR teams have been working in the mountain regions since early last week, assessing the situation and buying supplies, particularly mattresses, to help ease the strain on those living in public buildings.

Lebanon Crisis: UNHCR Gears Up

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A former nurse, Fadia found life as a refugee in Lebanon to be especially difficult without employment. She counts herself lucky to be living in a shelter paid for by aid agencies, but food and other necessities are harder to come by. Fadia's is one of 145,000 Syrian families in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq headed by women. Poverty, isolation and fear of exploitation are just some of the hardships they face.