Monday, December 21, 2015

Welcome is turning cold: Syrian refugees faces a new crackdown from military ... as temperatures plunge

If life in Lebanon were not tough enough for the 1million-plus Syrian refugees escaping carnage back home, beleaguered officials and suspicious military are now threatening a sterner crackdown.
The influx of refugees into 4million-population Lebanon would be the equivalent of Britain taking in at least 25million newcomers.
Yet while aid workers have sympathy for the burden imposed on Syria’s neighbours, they are also increasingly concerned lives are being put in extra danger by new moves to deter any more arrivals.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2012, some 6.5million people still inside the country have lost their homes.
Another 4.18million have fled abroad, including official figures of 2.18million in Turkey, 1.08million in Lebanon, 630,000 in Jordan and 245,000 in Iraq.
Unlike in Jordan, where refugees have congregated in organised camps such as Zaatari, those in Lebanon are far more disparately spread.
About half are thought to be living in rented properties - whether flats, basements or garages - while another quarter are in unfinished buildings and the remainder in small makeshift tented camps.
There are thought to be as many as 300 so-called ‘informal settlements’ in the region.
Many here have come from the neighbouring region including Homs - Syria’s third-largest city, devastatingly reduced to chaotic ruins by three years of shelling by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Save The Children field manager Guy Halsey told Metro: ‘You can see Homs on the horizon - once the fighting started, this area was the first that had to respond to the crisis.
‘What we’re now seeing as the crisis drags on is that people are using up what savings they left Syria with.
‘And one of the main challenges we have is getting accourate information - about humanitarian needs, and are we meeting minimum humanitarian standards on, say, shelter, accommodation.’
The Akkar region has more than 100,000 registered Syrian refugees but the true tally is thought to be far higher.
Northern Lebanon has only one registration centre - in the city of Tripoli, almost 50 miles south of the border with Syria.
And Lebanon is now refusing to allow new registrations, saying they cannot accept any more Syrian refugees.
Yet still many come, even though if arriving safely they potentially face even direr circumstances than their earlier-arriving compatriots - denied access to official food and oil vouchers.
Meanwhile, those camping out in fields - some using advertising posters on sticks as makeshift tents - are coming under growing pressure from Lebanese military forces.
Abrupt overnight evictions are on the rise, with new rules stipulating camps must be cleared if within 600m of major roads.
That has left aid workers anxious about committing to major works such as installing drainage and sanitation systems, for fear could be left squandered behind at any moment.
‘It’s quite astonishing how quickly these evictions have happened,’ Mr Halsey said.
‘So far they’ve mainly happened in the western Sahel area, but there are fears they could move upwards towards Queshra and even further beyond.’
One key Save The Children priority is to renovate unfinished buildings where Syrian refugees have taken shelter - preferably winter-proofing, whether with wood or plastic sheeting as a start.
Aid agencies have agreed deals with landlords to carry out the works themselves in exchange for tenants being allowed to live there for a year rent-free.
Any protection at all is increasingly crucial as winter develops, with temperatures in some parts of northern Lebanon plunging as low as -15C by night.
Those registered with the Lebanese authorities should be entitled to not only food tokens, but also oil vouchers - much-needed, to keep stove fires burning as the winter draws in.
Temperatures in Akkar and neighbouring Bekaa Valley, the two Lebanese regions with the densest concentrations of refugees, are tipped to plunge as low as -10C, possibly even -15C at times and in places.
The easternmost regions can include people trying to take shelter as high as 1,500m above sea level.
Mr Halsey said: ‘It becomes a life-threatening issue. There were people literally freezing to death last year, and there’s no reason to believe there won’t be more doing so this time around.’
The food cards allow each person the equivalent of $21, or £14, per month - hardly luxurious anyway, although a boost after it dropped earlier this year to $13, or £8.60.
But anyone arriving now will struggle even to gain access to such scant support.
Charities such as Save The Children are doing what they can to offer not only improved shelter but medical assistance, food and water rations and even occasionally cash grants.
Other priorities include improving opportunities for vocational training, setting up ‘small income generation schemes’ and giving children access to education.
Despite concerns from Lebanese authorities about the pressure on places, some schools have offered separate ‘afternoon shift’ classes for Syrian incomers.
Some bases are also being used for unofficial ‘schooling’ centres, although while the children may follow the Lebanese curriculum they are denied any official recognition nor qualifications.
As Metro reported yesterday, Britain will be hosting a major summit on Syria’s refugees in London in February.
Britain is second only to the US in terms of unilateral aid offered to refugees from Syria.
International development secretary Justine Greening vowed to push for more long-term funding and support to help refugees find jobs and livelihoods.
But the governments of Syrian’s neighbours must be persuaded to lift restrictions - a prospect complicated by political stalement in Lebanon, without a president since May last year.
Mr Halsey added: ‘Legally, Syrians aren’t allowed to work in Lebanon - although a lot of them do so unofficially, in agricultural work perhaps. But even that is very vulnerable and low-paid.
‘Security in Homs has become a little better - but there have been rising rumours about IS in the area and with many of the refugees here Sunni, as are IS, we worry they then suffer even more of a backlash.’
The outlook remains bleak, despite best efforts.
Mr Halsey said: ‘Five months ago the funding situation wasn’t particularly good - now it’s changed a little for the better, with the EU migrant crisis.
‘Help has improved in the last few months, for the essentials, but the scale of the situation means it all remains a hugely expensive operation - and with no end in sight.’

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