BEIRUT, AKKAR, BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon: As the U.N. and its partner organizations ramped up relief efforts to Syrian refugees after the onslaught of a brutal storm Thursday, some complained that their most pressing needs were far from being met.
Ahmad al-Zuhouri, a refugee from Qara in the mountainous Qalamoun region of Syria, slammed UNHCR, saying the agency had failed to provide the minimum requirements to refugees.
“All they [UNHCR] managed to do so far is provide food assistance and some blankets, mattresses and some tents, which do not protect us from the cold winter weather and strong winds,” Zuhouri said.
He implored relief organizations to provide refugees with structured housing, rather than tents, so they can be protected from the harsh elements. He said the organizations should rush to provide refugees with shelter, especially as the storm was only the first of the season and more will surely come.
Mohammad Rumman, a father of seven, said the relief organizations that visited him in Akkar only brought 12 tents, barely enough to shelter a quarter of his refugee community.
“They come from different organizations, register our names and they rarely come back,” he said. “If the residents of Hisa and other neighboring villages didn’t offer us help, my family and many children would have died. We thank them for they have helped us at night by taking us into their homes.”
In the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon, several Syrian refugee families suffered from the harsh weather conditions, as the cooled seeped into their feeble tents.
The UNHCR’s operation to help refugees cope with the weather was underway Thursday. With help from the Army, the agency was able to speed up the distribution of emergency shelter kits, including plastic sheets, timber and tools to thousands of refugees living in tents in the Bekaa Valley, the region the most affected by the storm.
In a statement, the agency reiterated its concern for many refugees living in makeshift accommodation, as their homes were fragile and substandard. Some 125,000 refugees living in the Bekaa Valley have already received winter kits and 55,000 more will be reached in the coming days, the statement added.
UNICEF raised concerns for children residing in flimsy tent settlements, saying that exposure to the cold put more strain on their health and was “a real threat to their survival,” according to a statement.
Over the past weekend the agency delivered 5,000 kits containing warm clothes for children in Arsal, bringing the number of winter kits distributed to a total of 74,603. In the next month, the agency said more than 153,000 children would receive winter clothing.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the international community had failed Lebanon in meeting the overwhelming needs of Syrian refugees, after meeting with Valerie Amos, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.
“Lebanon has never hesitated to carry out its humanitarian duties toward the Syrian refugees but [Lebanon] is disappointed with the international community for neglecting humanitarian considerations,” Mikati said.
“The international community did not take steps in accordance with the needs and the limited capabilities of the Lebanese state,” he added.
Amos said her meeting with Mikati centered on the effects of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, in terms of the rising number of Syrian refugees and the burden this was having on the economy, particularly the health and education sectors.
She added that the U.N. and its partners were working to support refugees, host communities and the government to address the refugee crisis.
Amos said the U.N. was implementing Security Council decisions which were agreed upon in October, and included a number of measures to protect civilians and facilitate the transfer of aid to refugees inside Syria.
The U.N. has a plan for communities in need to face the arrival of the winter season, Amos, who was accompanied by top U.N. officials in Lebanon, Derek Plumbly and Robert Watkins, added.
Amos also met with caretaker Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour, who said in a news conference after the meeting that establishing safe passages into Syria was the only means to assuage Lebanon’s refugee burden.
“If the U.N., with the help of the international community, can come to a decision with the Syrian regime to establish [safe passages] ... this is the only possible solution to help displaced Syrians in their country and stop the influx into Lebanon,” Abu Faour said.
He reiterated Lebanon’s demand for the establishment of refugee camps in Syria under U.N. protection.
Abu Faour said the U.N. delegation headed by Amos informed him that efforts to establish such passages and camps in Syria were ongoing.
The minister also criticized the failure of the Lebanese government to establish formal refugee camps, saying they would have lessened the impact the winter season was having on the refugees in Lebanon, especially those living in makeshift and tent settlements. – Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari, Rakan al-Fakih and Samya Kullab