Coming winter intensifies fear over lack of Syrian-refugee aid
With what may be a brutal winter just weeks away, humanitarian-aid groups say there are 2 million refugees outside Syria and millions more who have fled their homes but remain in Syria.
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Only weeks ahead of what forecasters say could be a brutal winter, humanitarian-aid agencies working on the Syrian conflict are sounding the alarm that little is being done to provide assistance to a refugee population that’s expected to reach 3 million by the end of the year.
The United Nations has collected only half the $5 billion it needs to provide assistance, and humanitarian aid groups say they’re resigned that they’ll be able help only some of the 2 million refugees outside Syria and the millions more who have fled their homes but remain in Syria.
“The reality is, a huge amount of aid is needed and, as long as countries are sending guns and ammunition rather than food or blankets, the crisis is only going to worsen,” said Noah Gottschalk, senior humanitarian-policy adviser for Oxfam America, an international aid group that focuses on poverty and hunger.
“It’s not too late, but it’s getting closer and closer. The clock is ticking,” Gottschalk said, referring to the narrow window of opportunity before communities begin to suffer and roads to some areas become impassable.
There’s no sign of an urgent aid mobilization on the scale that would be needed to help hundreds of thousands of refugees, particularly the so-called invisible Syrians who are living, unregistered, in urban areas in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
While there are stepped-up efforts to get families winter kits with items such as plastic sheeting, heating stoves and blankets, the need greatly outpaces the resources.
In Lebanon, the huge flow of refugees has forced tens of thousands of families to sleep under flimsy shelter in areas with high altitudes and heavy snowfall. The conflict has gone on so long that families’ savings are depleted, just as rents go up because of the high demand.
The already slim prospects for finding work — both in Syria and in neighboring countries — become even slimmer in winter, when construction and agricultural jobs dry up. Fearful of not having sturdy shelter when the cold sets in, some refugees already are selling some of their aid on the black market, to avoid eviction.
Lebanon, to which as many as 1 million Syrian refugees have fled, will be hit hardest because of the proliferation of what aid workers call “informal tented settlements,” with clusters of refugees living in makeshift tents, unfinished buildings and other vulnerable structures.
Last winter, there were 41 such settlements across Lebanon. Today there are 450, with their populations accounting for 16 percent of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according to Oxfam America.
Another place of concern is the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, where 63,000 Syrians have fled in just the past couple of months, bringing the total there to more than 220,000 according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Erin Weir, the protection and advocacy adviser for the Middle East at Norwegian Refugee Council, an Oslo-based humanitarian nonprofit organization, said she just returned from northern Iraq, where she found Kurdish officials frantically trying to keep up with the flow. But even with the construction of several new camps, she said, there’s little more than tents for shelter.
“They’re really struggling,” Weir said. “All these new camps are tents, and I don’t think winterization has begun on anything like the scale that’s needed.”