Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Having already fled their homes in Syria, refugees in and around the Lebanese border town of Arsal have had their troubles compounded in recent months after fighting broke out in the area in August between the Lebanese army and fighters from extremist groups fighting in Syria.
Many had to subsequently flee the area, returning only when the Lebanese army regained control of the town after it was overrun by the fighters, who belonged to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front.
Moreover, as a result of the fighting the Lebanese authorities closed some of the encampments, moving the tents to other areas in Arsal with the help of a number of NGOs. The movement of these refugees, many of whom already suffer from malnutrition and exhaustion, caused even further problems.
But these troubles have been even further exacerbated in recent weeks with the adverse weather conditions that have hit Lebanon. Heavy rains have caused flooding in many parts of the country, including Arsal, which was then covered by a blanket of snow as temperatures plummeted.
Arsal is currently home to more than 80,000 Syrian refugees, according to figures from the Arsal municipality. However, a large number of these refugees are not registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) due to workers from the agency not being able to get into the area in light of the recent security troubles. Many of the refugees, especially those who returned following the fighting, are also technically residing outside the municipality in the hilly areas on the Syrian border, which are difficult for relief agencies and NGOs to reach and outside the purview of local authorities.
Many of these refugees are now staying in unheated tents amid the low temperatures. Two newborn babies at the camps were reported to have died on Saturday and Monday—one of them just three days old—as a result of the freezing temperatures.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Ahmed Fleiti, deputy head of the Arsal municipality, described the situation of the Syrian refugees in and around the town as “dire,” saying that their inability to get hold of fuel was causing a “heating crisis” in the camps.
The problems are especially acute for those refugees in the area who have not been able to register with the UNHCR. The agency previously distributed coupons among registered refugees to enable them to obtain fuel supplies, but Fleiti says relief workers’ intermittent presence in the area since the recent security troubles mean many refugees are currently unable to register and thus obtain means of heating their tents, many of which are simply makeshift, ad-hoc concoctions, which NGOs and relief agencies say do not meet basic safety standards.
Safwan Al-Khatib, a Lebanese activist working in the area, told Asharq Al-Awsat the recent rainfall was so heavy it caused flooding and swept away some of the tents in the camps. He says a committee of NGOs formed to help the refugees “received several urgent calls for help” from the refugees following the floods, “but we were unable to respond.”
Khatib calls on the Lebanese authorities to do more for the refugees in Arsal, “in accordance with Lebanese legal standards,” in order to ease the already desperate humanitarian situation the refugees are experiencing, before it gets even worse as winter progresses.