Middle East

UN refugee agency 'prepared' for Syrian winter

In this Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 photo, Syrian refugee children stand in line before attending class at the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan. (AP Photo/ Raad Adayleh)

GENEVA: The UN refugee agency said Friday it was ready for the Syrian winter but the real problem was helping victims of the fighting within Syria itself.

"We are at a very great state of preparedness ... we can take this hugely seriously," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Although the conflict began in March last year, far fewer people needed help over the first winter than is the case now, Fleming told reporters in Geneva.

By the end of the year the UNHCR expects there to be up to 700,000 refugees, Fleming said.

"The figures have shot up after the first winter, the real crisis began in the spring ... internal displacement has got dramatically worse over the last six months," she added.

The majority of refugees now coming forward for help had fled at the start of the conflict and had exhausted their cash reserves, Fleming explained.

In addition, 2-3,000 refugees continue to flee across Syria's borders every day, reinforcing the need to refurbish shelters and make refugees' tents as comfortable as possible, the UNHCR spokeswoman added.

"It's awful to be a refugee, it's awful to live in a tent when it's cold outside," she said "We have to make these tents as comfortable as possible."

As part of its $64 million (49.4 million euro) winter contingency plan for Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, the UNHCR is to distribute blankets, clothing, prefabricated housing and cash to refugees.

The problems are at their worst in Syria itself, Fleming added, where around 1.2 million people are displaced, sometimes more than once.

"For the people (in Syria), this is where the most suffering remains, the most fear," she said, adding that a lack of electricity and heating could drive yet more people to flee the country in search of shelter.

The agency aims to target 500,000 Syrians inside the country in the next three months as part of its $32.4 million (25 million euro) "Keeping Families Warm" initiative, Fleming said.

But it has struggled to extend its help beyond urban areas because of the "terrible violence" that marks the 19-month-old conflict.

"We can brag about the number of people reached in the hundreds of thousands or millions, but this is a fraction of what is needed," she said.

For its part, the World Food Programme told reporters it had distributed food to 1.5 million people in September in 14 Syrian governorates and that it was about to launch a voucher system for refugees in Turkey.

"The food is there," said a WFP spokeswoman.

The UNHCR also made a global appeal for countries to "keep their borders open" and "be receptive" to Syrian asylum seekers. Countries neighbouring Syria had taken the "bulk" of the demand, Fleming said, with 18,000 asylum applications submitted so far in Europe.





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