Refugees prefer shelling to storm

Last updated 15:39 12/12/2013

A snow and rain storm sweeping across parts of the Middle East brings further misery to Syrian refugees living in makeshift camps in Lebanon. Deborah Lutterbeck reports.

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The United Nations is "extremely concerned" for the plight of Syria's refugees as snow and freezing temperatures descend on the region.

Syria and the countries that border it have been bracing for what is expected to be the worst winter storm in years.

Snow hit some areas of Lebanon, Turkey and northern Syria overnight Tuesday (NZT Wednesday) as sharp winds and cold, heavy rains battered others, causing misery for hundreds of thousands in camps and makeshift shanties.

In Lebanon, despite the wintry conditions, the flow of Syrians fleeing the war is unrelenting.

Local officials in the border town of Arsal, where some of the heaviest snow fell overnight, have reported the arrival of 200 men, women and children who had risked the treacherous journey across the mountains on foot.

Many were from the town of Yabroud in the Qalamoun region, where a Syrian army offensive is underway.

Aid agencies, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Lebanese army rushed to distribute kits containing plastic sheeting and blankets to the newcomers, but poorly funded humanitarian groups are struggling to meet the overwhelming needs.

Authorities remain reluctant to establish permanent refugee camps in Lebanon and have opened only one official, 100-tent "transit camp".

In the Lebanese town of Minieh, just outside the port city of Tripoli, a muddy, makeshift collection of tents and shacks spill down from the side of the highway to the coast.

Despite biting sea winds and flooding, the 400 Syrians who have sought refuge here do not qualify for the UNHCR's winter fuel assistance, because their camp is too close to sea-level.

On Wednesday, children dug rocks out of the ground with their hands to weigh down plastic sheeting that covered their tents. The tarpaulins nailed to wooden frames provide poor shelter in driving rain and wind.

A man, 47, who arrived from Syria's Hama province a year ago pointed out the place where water had flooded his tent overnight.

He said it was impossible for his family to sleep and expressed fear that the storm - which was expected to continue toward the weekend - would get worse.

"I don't know where to go," said the man, who for security reasons declined to give his name.

 "I don't know where to take my children. It's much worse than last year, and it's only the beginning."

There was no heating inside the damp tent, which costs the family US$77 (NZ$100) a month. The man's wife huddled with their seven children, holding out her daughter's hand to a visitor.

"It's ice," she said.

In a tent a little higher up in the camp, a 51-year-old man, his wife and their 13 children gathered around a small barbecue. The cheap, cut-price charcoal, virtually dust, is difficult to light. When the rains started a few days ago, the tent flooded, said the man, who also declined to give his name.

"The place was a swamp," he said.

"We propped up wood above the water and slept on that."

In the corner, 9-year-old Ibrahim was curled under a blanket.

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"He's already almost dead," his mother said, pulling one scrawny arm out from under a blanket.

"He barely eats. We can do nothing but use our bodies to keep them warm."

Roberta Russo, a UNHCR spokeswoman, said the agency's top priority was refugees at higher altitudes, where snow was falling. But she said assistance would be expanded where possible.

"We are extremely concerned about the onset of winter," Russo said.

"We are giving out blankets and materials. But as long as people remain in tents, there's only so much you can do."

- Washington Post

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