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Hard winter arrives for underprepared Syrian refugees

Preparing for winter in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley
Preparing for winter in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

The upcoming winter in Lebanon brought the first snowfall to parts of the country on Wednesday. It is an unwelcome sign for the 2.2 million Syrian refugees living outside of the country right now.

Temperatures fell to as low as 20ºF as the refugees must cope with little or no heat. Winter is a particularly hard time and the acceleration of people fleeing from Syria over the past year weighs heavy on the humanitarian response.

Current predictions indicate that this year’s winter will be harsh in countries where Syrian refugees are living, such as Lebanon and Jordan.

Nearly 3 million people received supplies to help cope with the winter, including high thermal blankets and extra plastic sheeting, from UNHCR. Still, many people are relying solely on the blankets to keep warm during the cold months.

“Most of these people used to live relatively decent lives. They were not used to worrying about hunger and keeping warm,” explained Phillips, Campaigns and Policy Director for Oxfam GB, to Humanosphere. “It is a huge shock psychologically.”

Because many of the people who left Syria were not living in poverty, they arrived in neighboring countries with some assets. With little or no opportunity to make an income, families are turning to personal savings and finally selling off valuables.

But the money is running out.

Finding a Way

Za'atari Refugee Camp, Jordan
Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan

Phillips recently returned from visiting with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He said the candor with which people described the hardships they face and their worries was disarming.

“It is really striking in these situations when people lose any sense of inhibition or pride when telling you how worried they are and how desperate they are,” he said.

One home Phillips visited did not have any mattresses. The people relied on the blankets and each other for warmth. In another case, a family is paying $100 a month to rent a structure that was formerly used as a chicken coop. Then there is the image Phillips snapped last week of a structure using the poster for the latest Hunger Games film as its exterior.

The arrival of winter and no income is behind the worries of Syrian refugees. Oxfam’s latest estimates say that Syrian refugees are spending money at double the rate that it is coming in. They are not officially allowed to work in Jordan and Lebanon, so they do not over fears of being deported back to Syria.

Day labor is an infrequent option for people in Lebanon. When the opportunity arises, fathers will bring along their children if extra labor is needed. For a nation where child labor is not the norm, the use of children is evidence of an increasingly dire situation for the refugees.

“It is reaching that point where the financial crunch is on and the money is running out at the coldest period,” said Phillips.

The money is still well short of what is needed. Only 64% of the more than $4 billion that the UN’s needs estimate is funded. The UN and NGOs like Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee are using the holiday season to raise money and fill the gaps.

Needed International Response

A young Syrian refugee secures "guy lines" - ropes used to reinforce a tent against wind and weather - to the outside of his family's tent in Za'atari refugee camp, Jordan.
A young Syrian refugee secures “guy lines” – ropes used to reinforce a tent against wind and weather – to the outside of his family’s tent in Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan.

Philips says there is more to be done in regards to partnering with the countries hosting the refugees. They are bearing the brunt of the burden for the refugee crisis and the global community should be providing more support.

The refugee population not makes up 25% of the population living in Lebanon. Most of the people are living outside of refugee camps and have find ways to pay for rent.  Thousands of refugees live in more than 200 informal camps in central and north Lebanon. There is hope that things may change in Syria with the January peace conference, but it is widely recognized that the refugee situation will remain for some time, regardless of what is decided.

Host countries have the opportunity to engage with the refugees in a way that can improve the economy and relations with nationals. Lifting working restrictions and encouraging trade is one way forward, but greater engagement is needed from countries to alleviate the stresses of hosting so many refugees.

“This is not a problem for Lebanon and Jordan to solve, this is for the world to solve. We are there alongside with the two countries if they challenge the international community to ask, “What are you doing to help us?” said Phillips.

One obstacle is the fact that the international community sees this as largely a political problem. The US, for example, showed a willingness to intervene militarily when it was found that the Syrian regime was using chemical weapons. Such a campaign would carry a hefty price tag.

Phillips argued that money intended to be spent on strikes in Syria, which was not used, could support the humanitarian effort. It all boils down to not enough money. Oxfam is one of many organizations distributing cash and vouchers for things like food, but more is needed.

“Our biggest challenge at the moment is that there is just not enough money to do this and provide the level of support that Syrians need,” said Phillips.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]