The lives of 70,000 Syrian refugees in makeshift camps across Lebanon are at risk as the country faces extreme weather conditions and flooding, the UN’s refugee agency has said.
A heavy storm with colder temperatures and high winds dubbed Norma by Lebanese meteorologists has already affected some 11,301 refugees in 361 different sites across Lebanon since Sunday.
“These exceptional weather conditions are making the living situation of Syrian refugees even more precarious,” said Philippe Lazzarini, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon, said on Thursday.
According to the UN, 40,000 of those at risk are children. They live across 850 sites that may be also hit by the storm in the next few days.
In the meantime UN agencies are trying to provide emergency aid to the worst affected areas. In the Beirut and Mount Lebanon region, some refugee camps have collapsed under the heavy snow, while others have been fully flooded or experienced heavy water leakages.
In these regions, UN agencies in coordination with local authorities and other NGOs are distributing core relief items, such as winter clothing, mattresses and blankets.
In the North and Akkar regions, heavy rainfalls and flash floods have affected some 1,750 refugees. Relief agencies are providing clean water and hygiene kits along with other emergency items, including food parcel distribution, to families in need.
The situation is particularly difficult in the Bekaa and Baalbek regions, which have been hit by torrential rains and heavy snowfalls. A total of 315 sites are at risk, including 117 which are being prioritised, with people in need of shelter and water.
In Arsal, refugees are running out of food and some settlements at high altitudes are particularly difficult to reach, said the UN. Refugees there are asking for fuel for heating, good quality plastic sheeting and insulation kits.
About 1.5 million refugees are estimated to be living in Lebanon today, where one in every four inhabitants is a refugee, said the UN coordinator. The figure includes some 31,502 Palestinian refugees from Syria, 35,000 Lebanese returnees, and a pre-existing population of more than 277,985 Palestinian refugees.
Lazzarini, whose office works closely with Damascus over voluntary repatriations, said the eight-year conflict in Syria and stalemate over its political resolution meant it was difficult for most Syrian refugees to consider returning home.
“The conditions haven’t been met yet for most of the refugees to consider it safe to go back to Syria,” he said.
In 2018, between 16,000 and 17,000 refugees returned home on a voluntary basis, a slight increase compared with 2017, when 13,000 returned.
“With these figures we are far from any mass returns. If the refugees prefer to face dire living conditions rather than returning home, it means we don’t have the right conditions for them to go back,” Lazzarini said.
Syrians who are willing to return have to contact the Syrian Internal Security, which vets their requests. Once their return has been approved, the UN agency assists the refugees on their journey back, said the UN coordinator. However, many refugees still fear being arrested or persecuted upon their return home.
For its part, the Lebanese government has said that refugees will not be forcibly repatriated.
“While the integration of refugees is not an option, Lebanon has agreed to a non-refoulment policy,” Lazzarini confirmed.
Nevertheless, fearing that refugees may settle down permanently, Lebanese authorities have banned the construction of proper camps with permanent structures and services, and have imposed restrictions on the materials to be used. The refugees have ended up in precarious makeshift sites which can hardly withstand extreme weather conditions.
The high number of refugees has taken its toll on the country’s economy as well as on its social fabric, with tensions rising between local communities and the refugees.
Lazzarini said competition between the two groups over low-income jobs and the discriminatory measures adopted by some municipalities are exacerbating friction between the host community and the Syrian refugees.
The prolonged political deadlock over the formation of a new government in Lebanon is also worsening an already bleak economic outlook.
The international community has responded to the Lebanese refugee crisis with average of $1.2bn in annual funding since the crisis began in 2014. The funds have been used mainly for emergency aid and for the education of refugee children. But 75 percent of all refugees still live under the poverty line and half of these in extreme poverty.