HERMEL, Lebanon: Thousands of Syrian refugees flocked to the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal over the weekend to escape an expected regime-led offensive in a key town in the adjacent Qalamoun mountains, as locals feared for the humanitarian conditions of the new arrivals. The Social Affairs Ministry said Sunday that over 500 Syrian families had crossed to Arsal, east Lebanon, in the past few hours, bringing the total number of Syrian families residing in Arsal to 1,700.
“The process of registering 600 of them is over and they were provided with basic aid such as food, mattresses, sheets and other forms of aid,” the statement said.
Most refugees crossing to Arsal fled to avoid the looming regime offensive in the rebel-held town of Qarrah, located in the Qalamoun mountain area which lies roughly north of Damascus, adjacent to the Anti-Lebanon Range.
Activists reported that regime forces had already begun to besiege the city Sunday evening. The U.N. said around 1,000 Syrian families had fled Qarrah to Lebanon Saturday.
Qarrah is used by the rebels to cross from Lebanon and links Damascus to government strongholds along the coast. The recent influx marks a significant increase in the number of refugees coming to Arsal, a town that already hosted 30,000.
In its latest report on the Syrian refugee situation in Lebanon published Friday, UNHCR said the number of displaced people in the country turn to page 10from page 1stood at 816,000, with around 11,000 newcomers between Nov. 8 and Nov. 15. But Lebanese officials put the number of refugees at over 1 million.“Just like most residents of the town, we began preparations to leave as news emerged that regime troops were advancing toward [Qarrah],” Abu Ahmad Zuhouri told The Daily Star. Zuhouri fled Qarrah with his seven-member family.
“Many refugees spent their first night in the vehicles that brought them to Arsal. They then moved to mosques, stayed with host families or were provided with housing by refugees who had arrived earlier,” Zuhouri explained.
Some refugees walked to Arsal when they couldn’t find vehicles to take them. Some fled without any of their belongings.
The Social Affairs Ministry said it had established a registration center in Arsal and provided them with immediate aid, in cooperation with Arsal’s municipality, UNHCR and other international and local organizations.
It added that the wounded were transferred to hospitals for treatment. The ministry said that its teams were always present at their coordination headquarters in Arsal to follow up on the situation of refugees.
Until an official center is ready to temporarily house the new refugees, the ministry said that 350 families had been taken to specific areas, with 100 in makeshift housing and the rest put up in homes.
The Social Affairs Ministry also said its teams had registered 924 Syrian refugees who flocked to the village of Shebaa in south Lebanon starting on Oct. 30. It added that three wounded Syrians crossed into the area Saturday and were transferred to close hospitals.
The ministry’s center in Shebaa is registering refugees and providing them with aid in cooperation with the UNHCR, the Lebanese Red Cross, the Shield organization and other groups.
The statement said that up until now, refugees in Shebaa were staying in homes with host families.
Local officials in Arsal sounded alarm bells over the lack of available space to house the refugees.
Ahmad Fliti, Arsal’s deputy mayor, said the municipality and residents of Arsal had been in a state of emergency to secure housing options for the huge number of refugees, expected to increase as the fighting worsens.
“The municipality opened Al-Mukhtar wedding halls and the town’s mosques to receive the refugees,” Fliti said.
He added that around 150 families were staying at every mosque, but said that some refugees unable to find accommodations were staying outdoors.
“There are no more places or houses to host refugees. The number of refugees that have flocked to Arsal since the start of Syria’s unrest is double the number of Arsal’s residents,” Fliti said.
Fliti explained that the municipality was providing the refugees with basic needs, mainly food.
He urged the government as well as the United Nations refugee agency to assist the town in coping with the sudden influx of refugees.
Fliti said that a delegation of representatives of international organizations had met Arsal’s mayor and toured homes and other shelters hosting refugees.
For its part, the Army bolstered its presence on the mountainous areas of Arsal that border Syria and in Ras Baalbek and Al-Qaa, in a bid to prevent the smuggling of arms and rigged cars and the movement of gunmen across illegal crossings.
Separately, three Syrians were kidnapped while boarding a minibus on the Hermel- Qobeiyat road. The vehicle was transporting Syrian families to Akroum in Akkar. Security agencies began investigating the whereabouts of the abducted Syrian nationals Mahmoud Zhouri, Khaled Hasan and Mohammad Shtiwi.