UNHCR warns of winter crisis ahead for almost a million displaced people in Iraq, Syria

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 11 November 2014, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

With efforts underway across Syria and Iraq to prepare displaced populations for the coming winter, UNHCR is increasingly concerned by a US$58.45 million funding shortfall that - coupled with this year's sharp recent growth in internal displacement - could leave as many as a million people without proper help.

The shortfall affects our winter preparedness programmes, although we have already invested $154 million on winter aid for Syrian and Iraqi refugees and internally displaced, and means that UNHCR is having to make some very tough choices over who to prioritize: Factors we are considering include the elevation of refugee settlements, the composition of the family unit (e.g. number of children and female-headed households), family health concerns, new arrivals, available family resources, shelter conditions and other considerations.

For those we're unable to prioritize, the conditions could nonetheless be very tough.

While the problem is most acute in Iraq and Syria, there are also needs in other parts of the region. This will be the fourth winter away from their homes for many Syrian refugees and the first for the 1.9 million Iraqis who have become internally displaced this year. Many fled with nothing.

In the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, winter has already arrived in the higher elevations of Dohuk Governorate. Come December, temperatures can range from +5 degrees Celsius in more temperate areas to minus 16 degrees Celsius in the mountains. Snow and freezing temperatures are also common in many other parts of the region.

But protecting people from cold requires funds. Right now, we estimate the overall winter shortfall for UNHCR's programme alone to be at least $58.45 million for some 990,000 people - mainly newly internally displaced people in Iraq and Syria (including a gap of $27.4 million for internally displaced inside Syria, and $25 million for internally displaced in Iraq.)

In Iraq, the needs are massive but funding has not kept up apace with the new displacement. With 1.9 million internally displaced people and 225,000 refugees - and 300-500 more arriving daily in Northern Iraq from Kobane - UNHCR is deeply concerned about its ability to meet urgent winter needs. Approximately 800,000 people are in need of shelter assistance, while 940,000 lack basic winter household items. With current funding, UNHCR now expects to reach only 240,000 displaced Iraqis with winter aid instead of the 600,000 we had planned to reach as part of an inter-agency effort. For example, our funding gap means we cannot provide tent insulation kits and boards for 140,000 people and 150,000 people cannot receive supplementary material like heaters and kerosene.

New and multiple displacement inside Syria - with people having to move several times inside the country in search of safety - has fuelled an increase in the need for winter aid. Here, as part of an inter-agency effort, we are focusing on providing relief items including thermal blankets, winter clothing, extra plastic sheeting and reinforcing collective and private shelters currently housing thousands of displaced families. Priority areas for distribution of these items are in Aleppo and northern parts of the country as they are the coldest. UNHCR was planning to help 1.4 million people with winter but only has enough funds to provide kits for 620,000 people through December.

NOTE: Amin Awad, Director of UNHCR's Middle East and North Africa Bureau also spoke at this briefing and took questions from media representatives - Audio version here -.

Country-by-country Overview: UNHCR's winter aid programmes

IRAQ: UNHCR is facing a current shortfall of $25 million in the face of massive winter needs. With 1.9 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and 225,000 refugees - and 300-500 more arriving daily in Northern Iraq from Kobane - UNHCR is deeply concerned about the ability of the international community to meet urgent winter needs, and for the recently displaced in particular. Approximately 800,000 people are in need of shelter assistance, while 940,000 lack basic winter household items.

UNHCR and other agencies had initially planned to assist 600,000 of the most vulnerable IDPs, but available donor support will not enable this target to be reached. With current funding, UNHCR now expects to reach 240,000 displaced Iraqis countrywide; comprising 180,000 people in the Kurdistan Region, and 60,000 people in central and southern Iraq. The support will include core relief items and shelter assistance. But it does not incorporate costs for the emergency weatherproofing and safety-proofing of unfinished buildings in which so many IDPs live, including waterproofing of dwellings and construction of drainage systems in newly built camps. UNHCR will likely be required to airlift some aid, which will increase funding requirements.

For the refugee population, most of the 225,000 Syrians in Iraq have already received essential support. However, with some 15,000 new arrivals having arrived from Kobane since late September, UNHCR is targeting almost 34,000 people who have not yet received winterization aid.

Distribution will give priority to new arrivals, refugee families who did not receive winterization kits in 2013, extremely vulnerable refugees in camps requiring replacement of winterization items or tents, as well as IDPs who are currently living in the open and those in the growing number of camps. Implementation of winterization activities for refugees began on 1 October and is targeted for completion at the end of November. Materials for insulation and relief items have already been procured and/or distributed to 180,000 people in the Kurdistan region. More is needed for the IDPs throughout the country.

Given budgetary constraints, UNHCR will not be able to provide tent insulation kits and polyester insulation boards to 28,000 families in need, and 30,000 families will not receive supplementary materials such as heaters and kerosene.

The coldest months are January and February, and UNHCR is concerned over how to provide heating fuel for those months. The estimated cost of this alone is some $40 million.

INSIDE SYRIA: UNHCR'S winter preparations inside Syria are part of a UN inter-agency effort for IDPs. We are focusing on two main areas - provision of winterized kits containing core relief items, and the winterization of collective and private shelters currently housing thousands of displaced families. Priority areas for distribution of these items are in Aleppo and northern parts of the country as they are the coldest.

The UN country team has established a target population for core winter relief item kits of 2.05 million people, with UNHCR covering some 68 percent of them - or 1.4 million people. The distribution of these kits, sufficient for a family of five, has already begun. Each kit includes five high-thermal blankets, extra plastic sheeting, winter clothes, mattresses, sleeping mats, jerry cans, and hygiene supplies. Currently, however, we only have enough funds to provide kits to 620,000 people through December, and require another $27.4 million to cover all 1.4 million people through the winter.

The second activity, winterizing collective and private shelters for 13,700 families, includes the provision of various materials to keep families warm and dry. These materials include insulating nylon sheets and floor carpets, roof insulation, transparent sheeting for windows, and expanding foam to close gaps in walls and doors. The average cost per shelter is between $250 and $300 and the total required for 13,700 families is $3.8 million.

In addition to IDPs, UNHCR is also assisting Iraqi and other refugees in Syria. Among the refugees targeted for winter assistance are 3,746 newly displaced Iraqis in Newroz camp. Given the uncertain situation in the region, UNHCR is maintaining a contingency plan for up to 10,000 people. The winter plan for newly arrived Iraqis focuses on three sectors - non-food relief items, shelter and protection. The budget of $2.55 million is currently $550,000 short.

LEBANON: UNHCR and its partners estimate some 132,000 refugee households (660,000 people) in Lebanon are in need of some kind of assistance during the winter to keep them warm and dry. With refugees scattered across Lebanon in 1,700 localities, providing that assistance is a huge undertaking.

Our planned priorities in Lebanon are based on a combination of factors based largely on altitude and economic vulnerability. Vulnerable refugees living at cold, higher elevations are given precedence - starting with those over 1,000 metres and going down to 500 metres. Our $42 million winter programme consists of activities and aid items that include ensuring that sub-standard shelters are sealed off against the elements, and provision of high-thermal blankets, stoves, fuel vouchers and cash to purchase fuel and other items that refugees need to stay warm.

This winter, we plan to provide weatherproofing kits for some 37,200 households (186,000 people) living in sub-standard dwellings, including warehouses, garages, unfinished buildings and in improvised, informal settlements.

Monthly fuel vouchers of $100 will also be provided to 34,000 vulnerable families living above 1,000 metres. The program also aims to provide blankets for up to 420,000 people as well as stoves for up to 90,000 people living above 900 meters who did not receive them last year. In addition, up to 10,000 extremely vulnerable families living above 500 metres will be immediately referred to the monthly cash programme and receive $175 in assistance to meet winter needs.

Another 59,000 families living above 500 meters will receive $80 vouchers for four months.

Distributions of blankets, stoves and fuel vouchers began in the first week of November.

JORDAN: UNHCR's $16.5 million winter programme in Jordan for some 240,600 refugees requires another $5.5 million, primarily to cover cash assistance in January and February 2015, for about 55,000 people.

The winterization programme consists of four main components: supplemental cash for Syrians in urban areas, camp winterization, financial assistance to non-Syrians, and contingency stocks for new Iraqi arrivals.

In Azraq and Zaatari camps, work will include provision of concrete floors in 6,480 shelters in Azraq, distribution of 10,000 plastic sheets for better insulation in Zaatari, provision of 50,000 high-thermal blankets in both camps, distribution of 4,000 gas heaters and refill tanks to all families in Azraq and new arrivals in Zaatari.

In urban areas, cash assistance averaging $360 per family is to be provided to 27,800 of the most vulnerable Syrian families to cover winter needs. Only half of the $10 million required has been received. Also in urban areas, 2,200 non-Syrian vulnerable refugee families (mainly Iraqis but also Somalis and Sudanese) already receiving monthly cash assistance will get an additional $360 to cover winter needs.

Even though over 90 per cent of Syrian refugees living outside the camps in Jordan are staying in apartments, half of these structures are in bad or emergency condition.

Winter contingency funds for possible new Iraqi refugee arrivals will cover 2,000 families at a cost of $400 per family.

EGYPT: Egypt's refugee population is almost entirely urbanized, scattered across the country. The winterization effort in Egypt will focus on cash assistance, with commodities available locally. Since early November, UNHCR has started receiving calls from refugees seeking help to purchase warmer clothes and blankets for their children.

Approximately 56,000 Syrian refugees (40 per cent of the registered population), are in need of such assistance. Those in need are concentrated in Greater Cairo, as well as the coastal governorates of Alexandria and Damietta, which are known for their low temperatures during the winter season, which can drop to less than 8 degrees Celsius.

Due to funding shortfalls, UNHCR will only be able to reach 38,000 of the most vulnerable refugees - or 60 per cent of those in need of winterization assistance. Each refugee will receive $28 as a one-off contribution, provided through Egypt Post, with a maximum ceiling of $168 for families with six or more members.

TURKEY: Since the beginning of the Syria emergency, the response in Turkey has been led by the Disaster Management and Emergency Presidency of the Prime Ministry (AFAD) and includes winterization activities. UNHCR Turkey is providing winter support both to camp- and vulnerable non-camp refugees.

UNHCR will provide winter assistance to all Syrian refugees living in camps in Turkey (approx. 220,000 people). The assistance will include two high-thermal blankets per person, three plastic mats per family, anoraks, and high-thermal top and bottom clothes. Heaters were already provided last year (for refugees in camps).

UNHCR is will also provide winterization assistance to some 120,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees living outside of camps. Additionally, UNHCR is in the process of procuring blankets, thermal clothes, plastics mats and anoraks for the estimated 200,000 refugees (according to government estimates) who entered Turkey in the most recent influx.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Beirut, Ron Redmond on mobile +961 3 390 499
  • In Beirut, Bathoul Ahmed on mobile +962 7 9022 4281
  • In Erbil, Ned Colt on mobile +964 780 917 4173
  • In Damascus, Firas Al Khateeb on mobile +963 930 40 3228
  • In Geneva, Ariane Rummery on mobile +41 79 200 7617
  • In Geneva, Melissa Fleming on mobile +41 79 557 9122