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Winter of 2015-16: Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants in Europe and millions displaced in the Syria region face a winter in the cold

Briefing notes

Winter of 2015-16: Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants in Europe and millions displaced in the Syria region face a winter in the cold

23 October 2015


The first winter weather, including freezing temperatures, rain and storms, has arrived in many parts of Central and South Eastern Europe and is already affecting refugees and migrants arriving or transiting through there. UNHCR has responded by distributing raincoats, blankets and basic relief items. Between now and February 2016, and subject to funding being available, winter relief packages will be distributed to the most vulnerable. The contents of the relief packages will vary depending on needs and circumstances but the standard package includes sleeping bags, thermal blankets, raincoats, socks, clothes, and footwear.

Our winter plans also include targeted provision of emergency shelters including family tents, refugee housing units and emergency reception facilities (rubb-halls), and supporting efforts to improve reception and waiting areas and preparing or adapting them to winter conditions. Work is also envisaged for the "winterization" of existing sanitation facilities. We are also identifying people who might be more vulnerable to the cold and the elements, including the elderly and children, both unaccompanied or traveling with their families, to refer them to where they can receive the care they need.

Syria & Iraq situations

The Guest Speaker for this item was Amin Awad, Director of the Bureau for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Refugee Coordinator for the Syria and Iraq situations.

In the coming weeks, 15 million displaced Syrians and Iraqis in the Middle East will face another winter away from home. Winter will be especially tough for the many who are living in insulated garages, basements or unfinished buildings, animal stalls or other flimsy makeshift structures.

For many Syrians, this will be their 5th winter in exile as the war gripping their country digs deeper. Today, refugees are now more vulnerable than ever: their savings long gone, jewellery and other valuables sold off, and increasing numbers in debt to cover basic needs. People are skipping meals, begging, pulling children out of school, or resorting to high-risk or degrading jobs. In Iraq, 3.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) uprooted from their homes by fighting since the start of last year will face their 1st or 2nd winter away from home.

Last winter was particularly brutal, with multiple snow storms hitting the region between November and January. In Lebanon's Bekaa valley, temperatures fell to -15 degrees centigrade while refugees were shovelling up to 50 cm of snow off roofs of their makeshift dwellings. In Jordan, refugees in camps saw damage to their shelters from high winds and flooding while thousands outside camps, half of whom live in substandard shelters, suffered through bitterly cold winter nights.

For the coming winter, UNHCR's $236 million aid programme to help 2.5 million Syrians and 700,000 Iraqis is already underway. The programme targets the specific living conditions of various displaced populations and includes a mix of extra cash, high thermal blankets, plastic tarpaulins and other forms of shelter insulation (from tent liners to polystyrene foam boards and insulated floor mats), heating fuel, stoves or heaters and winter shoes and clothing. Despite this, a current funding shortfall, especially for our Iraq situation which is only 52 per cent funded, will leave almost half a million people including uprooted Iraqis and Syrian refugees without fuel for cooking, or for heating their homes.

UNHCR's winter plan for the Syria situation requires $US 171 million to reach 2.5 million people, and is 89 per cent funded with $147 million received by mid-October. Our plan for the Iraq situation to reach 700,000 people requires US $66 million and is only 52 per cent funded, with $34 million received as of mid-October.

Country by country overview of UNHCR's winter aid programme:


In Lebanon, where more than half the country's 1 million plus refugees live in sub-standard shelters preparations are in full swing to protect the most vulnerable families from a possible repeat of last year's winter storms. Last winter hit early in November and continued until late March, with several villages experiencing waves of snowfall, strong winds and heavy rain making access difficult, especially in locations above 1,600 metres.

At a time when the vulnerabilities of Syrian refugees have increased by 100 per cent in some areas, UNHCR and partners estimate that 195,000 Syrian families (975,000 people) will suffer from winter and will need assistance to keep warm and dry.

UNHCR has doubled the number of people receiving cash grants for winter in Lebanon this year because of this increased vulnerability among the refugee population. We are giving four consecutive months of cash grants to more than 151,000 families (750,000 people) starting in November. This will allow refugees to stagger purchases such as fuel for heating.

Among these, 75,000 Syrian families living above 500 metres will receive $147 per month, while 76,000 families below 500 metres will receive $100 per month. Another 10,000 families in remote areas such as Arsal - where cash programmes cannot be administered due to a lack of ATM systems - will receive $100 fuel vouchers per month. UNHCR will also provide assistance during the four winter months to vulnerable Lebanese families identified by the Ministry of Social Affairs under the National Poverty Targeting Plan.

UNHCR and partners are also distributing aid to 65,000 families (325,000 people, vulnerable Lebanese and Syrians), such as stoves, heavy blankets, winter clothes, and fuel for schools to help them survive winter. And, we are ensuring shelters are weatherproof and insulated and that classrooms in elevated areas are warm by providing fuel in schools.

As with last winter, we are giving out weather proofing kits including plastic sheeting, plywood and timber to reinforce weak small-scale shelters for 27,000 families and protect 135,000 people from the elements. In addition, we are introducing insulation kits for 15,000 families (about 75,000 people) this year for those living in larger spaces like unfinished buildings where it is hard to conserve heat, especially for those in very exposed parts of the country like the Bekaa Valley. The kits, which cost $270 each, include timber, plywood construction materials rolls of compressed insulating foam, stretched into wooden frames and installed inside rooms and shelters to improve heat retention. These materials are more durable than plastic sheeting, and will also help keep shelters cool in summer. We will also provide floor raising kits and extinguishers to mitigate flood and fire risks - a recurrent problem in informal settlements last winter. Our programme also includes improving sites by putting gravel on high traffic pathways and installing drains.

We are also planning to assist 7,500 refugees, some 47 per cent of the Iraqi refugee population in the country, with thermal blankets and cash assistance to help them through the winter.


In Jordan, UNHCR's winter plan will support 229,400 vulnerable Syrians, representing 37 per cent of the population, through cash assistance, provision of relief items, and reinforcing shelters.

For urban refugees, UNHCR will give cash to allow refugees to buy heating, blankets, clothing, shoes and other items. Special attention will be given to women heading households alone, the elderly, people with disabilities, children alone, working or otherwise at risk, people with serious specific medical needs or survivors of violence or torture. 30,000 families, or 150,000 people, will receive either US$421 if they had not received winter cash in the past or US$276 if they have benefited from previous winter support. The cash will be accessible through iris-scan enabled ATM machines.

UNHCR teams and partners will also improve shelters for 1,000 families living in deplorable conditions in Mafraq, Irbid, Ajloun, Jerash and Amman -- repairing ceilings and floors, and installing windows and floors.

In camps, all new arrivals will receive thermal blankets and extra gas will be distributed to all camp populations between November and February. Refugees in Zataari camp will also receive cash vouchers to buy winter clothes, while refugees in Azraq camp will receive winter clothing through our partners.

Work is also continuing in Azraq camp to ensure all shelters have cement floors providing insulation ready for new arrivals. In Zataari, refugees will receive a voucher to buy tools and materials to improve insulation on their shelters and make repairs to keep out rain, snow and wind.

Our Jordan winter aid plan also includes cash for another 8,800 vulnerable families (some 30,000 people) of other nationalities, including 7,000 Iraqi households.

Inside Syria

Winter conditions in Syria can be harsh especially in remote and hard to reach areas. Last year temperatures dived to -13 degrees centigrade in many parts of the country. In January, snowstorm Salam caused chaos, rendering roads impassable and disrupting telephones and internet communications. Electricity and fuel shortages compounded the problem, leaving hundreds of thousands unable to heat their homes.

As part of an inter-agency effort, UNHCR's winter aid programme aims to help almost a million Syrians with winter kits including thermal blankets, extra plastic sheets and winter clothes. Distribution is already underway. We have already airlifted winter clothes, household items, blankets, and plastic sheets for 25,000 people from Damascus to Qamishli in the north-eastern governorate of Hassakeh, which is currently inaccessible by road and experiences very cold weather in winter.

We are also giving extra winter aid to some 32,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in Syria (including Iraqis) giving out average grants of around US$140 to help cover kerosene or heating oil, winter clothing, extra blankets and other household items or insulation materials. This aid is in addition to existing monthly allowances.


In Egypt, UNHCR will give a one-off cash grant of $28 to 48,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees living mainly in Greater Cairo, Alexandria and Damietta to help them survive the winter. These grants are distributed through the post office system across Egypt, and refugees typically spend the money on buying winter clothes, blankets or electric heaters.

Due to limited funds this year, we can only help 37 per cent of the 128,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt, all of whom live in urban areas, but if more funds can be secured, we will increase our number of winterization assistance recipients to 84,000 people and increase the amount of cash to $38. While the winter in Egypt is milder than other countries in the region, many buildings lack insulation and heavy blankets and heaters are needed.


In Turkey, UNHCR's winter aid programme will help 362,000 Syrian refugees in both camp and urban settings, including the distribution of thermal blankets, radiators and Anoraks, warm clothes, winter boots and cash assistance to vulnerable families in urban areas. We will also replace tents if needed in some of the camps. UNHCR will also provide cash assistance to 6,000 of the most vulnerable non-Syrian refugee households (including Iraqis) living outside of camps, in association with our partners and local authorities. The programme also includes winter aid for 15,000 Iraqi refugees in camps in southern Turkey.


In Iraq, there are now 3.2 million Iraqis uprooted by conflict since the start of last year, on top of the 245,500 Syrian refugees still in the country. Most of the refugees and almost a third of the IDPs live in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which experiences snow and sub-zero temperatures in winter. Winter rain and floods are also common in Central and North Iraq, which hosts 68 per cent of the IDPs, with frost and snow flurries also common in Baghdad.

As part of an inter-agency effort, UNHCR's winter plan for Iraq will include helping 60,000 uprooted Iraqi families (360,000 people) with additional relief items this winter such as blankets, heating stoves, kerosene jerry cans, water jerry cans and plastic sheets, with partners covering the rest of the 130,000 families identified as needing this kind of aid. UNHCR will also be supporting some 15,000 vulnerable families (90,000 people) outside of camps with a one-off cash grant enabling them to cover their most pressing winter needs. Another 13,000 families (78,000 people) will receive winter-proofing kits for their tents, including tent liners, polystyrene foam boards and insulating floor mats, to help them cope with low temperatures. Another 25,000 families received similar winter proofing kits last year. We will also complement the Iraqi government's provision of kerosene to displaced people. We had hoped to give kerosene to 60,000 of the most vulnerable families, but due to funding shortfalls we can only help 17,000 families. This leaves 43,000 vulnerable displaced Iraqi families (some 378,000 people) with a shortage of fuel this winter. UNHCR is urging the government to also distribute enough kerosene to cover the entire displaced population in Iraq.

We are also supporting 12,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugee families living outside of camps with a one-off cash grant this winter. Funding shortfalls also mean 20,000 Syrian families (some 120,000 people) will miss out on fuel aid this winter, as we can only give kerosene to 12,500 of the most vulnerable refugees.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Geneva, Ariane Rummery +41 79 200 7617
  • In Iraq, Natalia Micevic +964 780 919 3947
  • In Jordan, Aoife McDonnell +962 79 545 0379
  • In Syria, Firas Al-Khateeb +963 930 40 3228
  • In Egypt, Marwa Hashem +20 122 191 2664
  • In Turkey, Selin Unal +90 530 282 7862
  • In the Gulf, Mohammad Abu Asaker +971 50 621 3552