Refugees from fighting in Syria's Al Qusayr report harsh conditions, difficulties in reaching safety

Briefing Notes, 4 June 2013

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 4 June 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

With the battle for Al Qusayr in Syria now into its third week, UNHCR has been seeing small numbers of Qusayri refugees arriving in eastern Lebanon.

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. 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 Qara, Nabek, and Hasyah.

Refugees in Lebanon tell us of an extremely difficult journey, made on 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 1500 injured civilians being trapped in Qusayr. UNHCR is not in a position to verify these details, or to establish who is targeting whom.

Most of those who have fled so far are women and children. 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. From one woman, we heard that people in Qusayr are faced with a stark choice: "you leave and risking being killed by a bomb, or you stay and facing a certainty of being killed."

Qusayr itself is described as a ghost town, heavily damaged, and filled with the sound of bombs. People are said to be hiding in bunkers or holes dug as shelters. One lady told us, "'we couldn't leave the hole for a week. We ate the little food had brought down with us. My children were crying constantly." 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.

UNHCR does not have access to Qusayr and the accounts we have are limited and 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.

Meanwhile, we continue to be concerned about impediments in the way of people seeking to reach safety in other parts of the region. In Jordan, 4,323 individuals managed to the cross from Syria between Monday 27 May and Sunday 2nd June. However, this is still sharply down on the numbers from earlier in May when 26,600 people crossed the border in the first 18 days of the month. Refugees continue to report difficulties in accessing the border. Access to safety and protection in neighbouring states is of life-saving importance given the reports of insecurity in some areas.

Crossing into Iraq is also difficult. Since May 19th, the Peshkapor border crossing in the Kurdistan region, where most Syrians have been entering Iraq, has been closed to refugees. Consequently, people trying to escape violence and conflict in Syria by seeking refuge in the Kurdistan Region are no longer able to do so. Nearly 150,000 refugees have been offered asylum in the Kurdistan Region. Given the level of insecurity many more are expected to come. In addition, the closure of the border at Al Qa'im, since October 2012, is impeding those Syrians seeking refuge in Anbar Governorate. This has, in part, led to the return of many registered refugees to Syria as they can no longer bring family members into Iraq, in addition to not being able to access the labour market in Al Qa'im town.

UNHCR is also hearing reports from refugees of increasing difficulties at many crossing points with Turkey. People seeking to approach the border from inside Syria report controlled access, resulting in fewer people getting across. UNHCR has not been able to verify this information directly. All Syrians wishing to flee should be allowed to do so, and be given safe passage.

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