UNHCR steps up aid as displaced Syrians brace for winter

Plans in place to help protect 3.8 million vulnerable individuals from harsh weather this winter, but programme currently only 63 per cent funded.

Syrian refugees Nazih, his wife Fatima and their children warm their hands next to a stove inside their shelter at an informal settlement near Terbol in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.
© UNHCR/David Azia

Sitting in the single, unheated room that serves as their home in a run-down neighbourhood of the Lebanese capital Beirut, Samira and her husband Hussein have a familiar sense of foreboding at the prospect of their sixth winter in exile since fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

Like the majority of the roughly one million registered Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, the couple – originally from Deir Ez-Zour – have good reason to fear the arrival of colder temperatures and winter storms. Already struggling to cover their rent, food and medical expenses, they are ill-prepared for the harsh conditions and additional costs that winter brings.

Their main concern is for the welfare of their two-year-old son Haytham, who suffers from asthma and for whom the cold weather and heightened risk of infection pose a real threat.

“He’s had asthma since birth. When it gets bad his breathing becomes heavy and his face turns blue, and we have to give him oxygen or take him to the hospital,” Samira, 30, explains. “If he gets sick with the flu, his condition intensifies and then he can barely take a breath.”

It is a similar picture across the country, where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live in flimsy structures made of wood and plastic sheeting in informal settlements. Flooded shelters are a familiar sight in Lebanon’s mountainous areas during winter, which also brings heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures to many areas.

“He’s had asthma since birth. When it gets bad his breathing becomes heavy and his face turns blue."

To help vulnerable refugees prepare for the cold temperatures, from November UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, began providing winter cash assistance of between US$225-375 to help with additional costs such as fuel, clothing and medical expenses. So far around 650,000 people have received such payments out of a planned total of 800,000.

Samira and her family, who are among the beneficiaries of the scheme, say the extra support will help keep them warm in the coming months. “For sure it will be of assistance,” she said. “For heating for example, especially with the harsh weather here, it will be of great help in dealing with my son’s condition.”

Across the region as a whole, UNHCR aims to assist a total of 3.81 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people with its winter assistance programme in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt.

The programme targets the most vulnerable families with a mixture of cash assistance, building materials to repair and weather-proof shelters, and distributions of winter items including high thermal blankets, gas heaters and warm clothes.

It also includes plans to assist more than 1.1 million individuals displaced inside Syria, with priority given to those most recently displaced and others living in hard-to-reach or besieged areas.

Across the region as a whole, UNHCR aims to assist a total of 3.81 million Syrians and Iraqis

Of the total US$228 million requested to finance this year’s winter programme, donations so far received amount to US$143 million - leaving a shortfall of around 37 per cent still needed to provide assistance to more than a million people.

Meanwhile, the approaching winter is also threatening the safety and welfare of refugees in other areas of the Mediterranean, including Greece, which was transited by more than 1 million people at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis.

UNHCR has been urging the Greek government to accelerate winter preparations for thousands of refugees and migrants in the main reception islands of Lesvos, Chios and Samos, warning of a possible repeat of the winter of 2016/17, with hundreds braving conditions in small tents and makeshift shelter.

See also: More speed needed to help refugees stranded on Greek islands

UNHCR has also helped directly by more than 240,000 aid items to authorities to be used on the islands, including tents and winter clothing, and continues to support the transfer of people to the mainland to avoid winter spent in unheated tents with poor facilities.

Almost 20,000 have come to the islands since July. Most are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and include many families with young children, and other vulnerable people in need of dignified accommodation and conditions. .

Additional reporting by Leo Dobbs in Athens and Alex Court in Tyre, Lebanon