Refugees from embattled Syrian town report harsh conditions, difficulties in reaching safety

News Stories, 4 June 2013

© UNHCR/A.Blazy
This family recently fled from the Syrian town of Al Qusayr.

GENEVA, June 4 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday said it has been seeing small numbers of refugees arriving in eastern Lebanon after escaping from the embattled Syrian town of Al Qusayr, where heavy fighting flared up three weeks ago.

The refugees, mostly women and children, have told UNHCR staff that the strategically located town in western Syria has been badly damaged and the living conditions are extremely difficult. They said the route to Lebanon was dangerous and it was unsafe to travel with men.

"From the handful of interviews we have done so far, it appears that a new route for displaced people has opened up from the Qusayr area towards Arsal in Lebanon, about 100 kilometres away," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told journalists in Geneva. "Some of those forced out of Qusayr by the fighting are fleeing into Lebanon as refugees, while others are being displaced internally to towns, including Rankous, Dahel, Qara, Flita and Nabek," she added.

The refugees arriving in Lebanon said the difficult journey to the border has to be made by foot. "Fighters are said to be targeting people as they try to flee. No route out of Qusayr is considered safe, and there are continued reports of between 700 and 1,500 injured civilians being trapped in Qusayr," Fleming said, adding that UNHCR could not verify the reports.

"Those we have spoken to say it is unsafe to flee with men, who are at heightened risk of being arrested or killed at checkpoints along the way. None of the refugees was able or willing to identify those who are manning the checkpoints," the UNHCR spokesperson said.

She noted that one woman had told UNHCR staff that people in Qusayr were faced with a stark choice, "You leave and risking being killed . . . or you stay and face a certainty of being killed."

The refugees describe Qusayr as a ghost town, heavily damaged and rocked by warfare. People are hiding in bunkers or holes dug as shelters. One lady said her family could not leave their hole for a week and had to live off the food they could bring with them.

"One of the few men to have arrived in Lebanon said he had fled after his home was bombed and his 20-year-old son had been killed. He had no belongings with him. All those we spoke to reported great fear of approaching any checkpoint," Fleming said.

UNHCR does not have access to Qusayr and the refugee accounts are hard to verify. "However, we share the concern of others over the serious humanitarian situation and the risks for the civilian population. It is imperative that people seeking a route out of Qusayr, and other unsafe locations, be allowed access to safe areas," Fleming stressed.

UNHCR is also concerned about impediments in the way of people seeking to reach safety in other parts of the region. In Jordan, more than 4,300 people managed to cross from Syria between May 27 and June 2. This compares to 26,600 people in the first 18 days of the month. Refugees continue to report difficulties in accessing the border.

Crossings into Iraq also appear to be difficult. UNHCR has just learned that the crossing points in Peshkapor district, in the north, have been closed since May 19. As other crossing points are also closed apparently due to local political reasons Iraq is in effect closed to Syrian refugees. "We appeal to the Iraqi authorities to allow border crossings to resume, so that all people in need of help have access to safe haven," Fleming said.

UNHCR is also concerned with reports from refugees about increasing difficulties they face in crossing into Turkey at many border points. Within Syria, those seeking to approach the border report controlled access resulting in diminished access to the border. UNHCR has not been able to verify this information directly. UNHCR advocates all Syrians wishing to flee be allowed to do so and are given safe passage.

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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

Displaced inside Syria: UNHCR and its Dedicated Staff help the Needy

The violence inside Syria continues to drive people from their homes, with some seeking shelter elsewhere in their country and others risking the crossing into neighbouring countries. The United Nations estimates that up to 4 million people are in need of help, including some 2 million believed to be internally displaced.

The UN refugee agency has 350 staff working inside Syria. Despite the insecurity, they continue to distribute vital assistance in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Al Hassakeh and Homs. Thanks to their work and dedication, more than 350,000 people have received non-food items such as blankets, kitchen sets and mattresses. These are essential items for people who often flee their homes with no more than the clothes on their backs. Cash assistance has been given to more than 10,600 vulnerable Syrian families.

Displaced inside Syria: UNHCR and its Dedicated Staff help the Needy

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