Crush of Syrian refugees overwhelming efforts to help, aid groups say

Hannah Allam

Only weeks ahead of what forecasters say could be a brutal winter, humanitarian aid agencies working on the Syrian conflict are sounding the alarm that little is being done to provide assistance to a refugee population that’s expected to reach 3 million by the end of the year.

The United Nations has collected only half of the $5 billion it needs to provide assistance, and humanitarian aid groups say they’re resigned that they’ll be able to provide help to only a portion of the 2 million refugees outside Syria and the millions more who’ve fled their home but remain in Syria.

“The reality is, a huge amount of aid is needed and as long as countries are sending guns and ammunition rather than food or blankets, the crisis is only going to worsen,” said Noah Gottschalk, senior humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam America, an international aid group that focuses on poverty and hunger.

“It’s not too late, but it’s getting closer and closer. The clock is ticking,” Gottschalk added, referring to the narrow window of opportunity to mobilize winter aid before communities begin to suffer and roads to some areas become impassable.

There’s no sign of an urgent aid mobilization on the scale that would be needed to assist hundreds of thousands of refugees, particularly the so-called invisible Syrians who are living, unregistered, in urban areas in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. While there are stepped-up efforts to get families winter kits with items such as plastic sheeting, heating stoves and blankets, the need greatly outpaces the resources.

Winters are always hard on vulnerable populations, humanitarian workers say. But this year, Syrians are expected to face even more miserable conditions because of several dovetailing factors.

In Lebanon, the huge flow of refugees has forced tens of thousands of families to sleep under flimsy shelter in areas with high altitudes and heavy snowfall. The conflict has gone on so long that families’ savings are depleted, just as rents go up because of the high demand.

The situation will only get worse, aid officials say. The already slim prospects for finding work – both in Syria and in neighboring countries – grow even slimmer in winter, when construction and agricultural jobs dry up. Fearful of not having sturdy shelter when the cold sets in, some refugees already are selling portions of their aid on the black market in order to avoid eviction.

“It is sort of a perfect storm of negative market forces combined with a bigger and bigger influx of refugees with a total lack of means,” said Erin Weir, the protection and advocacy adviser for the Middle East at Norwegian Refugee Council, an Oslo-based humanitarian nonprofit organization.

Lebanon, home to perhaps as many as 1 million Syrian refugees, will be hardest hit because of the proliferation of what aid workers call “informal tented settlements,” with clusters of refugees living in makeshift tents, unfinished buildings and other vulnerable structures. Last winter, there were 41 such settlements across Lebanon; today there are 450, with their populations accounting for 16 percent of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according to Oxfam America.

Aid workers say that even the phrase “tented settlement” is a misnomer because much of the shelter is cobbled together from scraps of cardboard, tarpaulins and other materials that aren’t waterproof and are sure to buckle under snowfall.

Another place of concern is the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, where 63,000 Syrians have fled in just the past couple of months, bringing the total to more than 220,000 according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Weir just returned from a trip to northern Iraq, where she found Kurdish officials frantically trying to keep up with the flow, putting refugees in stadiums, youth centers, practically any free space. But even with the construction of several new camps, she said, there’s little more than tents for shelter, and Iraqis are so overwhelmed by the influx that they haven’t had time to reinforce them before the area’s notoriously bitter winter.

“They’re really struggling,” Weir said. “All these new camps are tents, and I don’t think winterization has begun on anything like the scale that’s needed.”

By Hannah Allam
McClatchy Washington Bureau