Syria: UNHCR assistance reaches Al Raqqa; Influx into Lebanon continues from Al-Qusayr

Briefing Notes, 14 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 14 June 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

On 9 and 12 June, UNHCR emergency relief assistance reached Al Raqqa, an area of northern Syria which has not been accessible for the past three months and where the humanitarian situation is reported to be extremely dire. Taking advantage of a window of opportunity, nine trucks filled with mattresses, blankets, hygiene kits and kitchen sets were dispatched from Damascus. Seven are confirmed to have reached Raqqa and confirmation is awaited for the last two. This assistance will help some 5,000 persons displaced in this area.

Also this week, UNHCR's team in Syria started distribution of financial help to displaced Syrian families in Tartus, a city on the coast. The displaced are from Aleppo, which is about 200 kilometres away. Families live in the collective shelters that UNHCR's team has visited and supported in Tartus since April.

As of Thursday 13 June, UNHCR has helped close to 800 families in Tartus with cash assistance (or over 3,200 displaced persons) out of a target of 1,110 families. All families have been selected according to their level of vulnerability. The average assistance amounts to US$150 per family. Surveys carried out by UNHCR earlier this year in Damascus and Rural Damascus during similar distributions have shown that families were using the cash mainly for rent, fresh food and cooking gas.

After Damascus and Rural Damascus earlier this year and Tartus this week, UNHCR is planning in the next months to help vulnerable displaced families with similar assistance in nine governorates across the country, starting with Homs and Damascus.

Influx from Al-Qusayr to Lebanon

Meanwhile, UNHCR teams in Lebanon continue to register and assist refugees arriving from Syria's embattled Al-Qusayr. Since the beginning of the crisis there, Arsal has witnessed a regular influx of refugees through unofficial border crossing points in north-eastern Bekaa, peaking in periods of increased violence across the border. The offensive on Al Qusayr and the ensuing clashes and shelling of the villages around Al-Qusayr led to an increase in the average daily number of new arrivals in Arsal and reports of displacement within Syria. The period of the battle itself, spanning between 19 May and 6 June, saw a decrease in the number of new arrivals which only rose again in the past week.

The civilian population that remained in Qusayr and its surrounding villages was initially displaced within the conflict area itself. Many have since decided to cross the border into Lebanon. Many told us they left family members behind with the intention of securing shelter before instructing them to cross the border. Others initially left Qusayr with the specific intention of joining relatives or acquaintances in Lebanon. A large number of families reportedly remain on the Syrian side of the border. Although they intend to travel into Lebanon, there is limited cross-border transportation capacity.

UNHCR and partners are responding to the needs of the expanding population in coordination with local authorities and community based organizations. Families are being provided with food kits and non-food help. There has been a substantial increase in the number of wounded, including 60 children.

Families we spoke to describe a city reduced to rubble, devoid of any civilians and combatants. One man we spoke to told us there was no food left in the town and no water. He said people were resorting to squeezing water from the leaves of trees for nourishment. During the fighting, people fled into fields outside the city hoping the fighting would end and they could return home. Those who fled to Lebanon took a dangerous and indirect route to Arsal.

Although many of the new arrivals seem to be securing accommodation with friends and relatives, finding suitable shelter remains the principal challenge for families choosing to stay in Arsal. Up to 20 families were staying in the municipal building's courtyard on a recent morning. Some of the new arrivals have taken the initiative of pitching their own tents in the Bebine tented settlement that was spontaneously established nearly two months ago and that has grown substantially over the past few weeks to reach 125 tents housing over 160 families.

Large numbers of refugees are travelling onward to other towns in Lebanon. The exact number of new arrivals from Qusair remains difficult to gauge as most families immediately departed with relatives to other areas in Lebanon, particularly to the area around Wadi Khaled. UNHCR will commence the registration on new arrivals on Monday, which in turn should provide a clearer picture of the exact number of refugees in need of assistance.

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