Sunday 19 August 2012
ShelterBox Response Team members reflect on the Syrian refugee crisis
Thousands of refugees are streaming across the Syrian border as fierce fighting in the beleaguered Arab nation continues. Fleeing intense fighting between President Bashar Assad's military regime and opposition groups, families are seeking refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Refugees who once hosted those fleeing the Lebanese conflict are now opening their homes to Syrians desperate to find somewhere safe to live; but with the numbers of refugees rising, space is hard to come by and tensions in the crowded cities and towns of the host countries could potentially rise. The UN and other humanitarian aid organisations are worried about host countries becoming overwhelmed as the Syrian conflict drags on. ShelterBox had been assessing the need for shelter in Lebanon and Jordan and looking at ways to ease the strain of the Syrian refugee influx. Last week ShelterBox took the decision to pull their team out of Lebanon following a spate of violence and kidnappings in the capital Beirut. But with aid workers forced to postpone their response, the situation for Syrian refugees is more fragile than ever.
MARIAM is sitting in a tent crying because she left her only daughter in Homs where she cannot escape to Lebanon and her husband has joined the revolution. Her shelter consists of old banners made of plastic which she has bound together. A Palestinian flag catches the wind at the entrance to her tent, a reference to the pain the Syrians are suffering and their unity with the “children of Gaza”. Inside, the dried mud floor is covered by a small piece of carpet. Mariam, fled across the Syrian border into the town of Masharih Al-Qaa in the north eastern Bekaa region. She and the other refugees are perilously close to the gun-fire and periodic shelling just across the border in Syria. Mariam's neighbour Matar mourns the loss of her son who was killed in Homs. Weeping, Matar explains that she and her daughter Ghada, who is disabled as a result of polio, were unable to return to the besieged city to attend his burial. Three year old Sarah lives with her widowed aunt and her four children in Mariam's tent. Sarah is the only survivor of a family of five. Plagued by hunger, deprivation and grief, Sarah sits apart from the other children – her grief has rendered her unable to speak. Their stories are not uncommon. Thousands more refugees, who stream across the border everyday, have faced similar tragedies.
The conflict began 17 months ago in March 2011 with public demonstrations demanding the end of nearly five decades of Ba'th party rule, as well as the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. These demonstrations developed into a nationwide uprising and subsequently a bloody civil war. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates about 150,000 people (and counting) have been displaced as a result of the conflict, but this figure does not take into account those Syrians who have not registered as refugees. Too scared they will be sent back to Syria they are instead seeking refuge with extended family or friends in neighbouring countries and blending into the general populace. In Jordan the UNHCR has registered about 10,000 Syrian refugees during the month of July. Bashabsheh camp has now been closed, with Syrian refugees being moved to the newly established Za`atari camp in Jordan where medical facilities are being offered by the Moroccan government and other aid agencies.
ShelterBox operations co-ordinator Tom Lay flew out to Jordan earlier this year. “We were monitoring the situation at the beginning of this year and we quickly realised the scenario could develop into something where we were no longer talking about small numbers of refugees trickling over the Syrian border, but big influxes of displaced people seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. We needed to be on the front foot, ready to respond.” ShelterBox, which provides shelter and other non food items to victims of natural disasters and conflicts, have been working with UNHCR, the Red Cross and Rotary groups in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Tom said: “Thousands of displaced people are coming over the border, an increase of about 18 to 20,000 as a result of the peaks in violence.” Jordanian authorities and NGOs are setting up transit camps along the border ready to provide immediate medical care, food and and shelter should their be an even bigger influx of Syrian refugees. Some reports estimate about 4,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Jordan during one night. At the moment aid agencies are not visibly operating in Syria, but if Assad's regime falls then the need for humanitarian aid could be massive. Tom said: “We will make an intervention into Syria if it's appropriate. At the moment it's too dangerous to send any response teams into the country, but we are preparing should ShelterBox be needed there. If fighting in Syria ceases and families start to return, they will need shelter because their homes will more than likely have been destroyed as a result of the conflict.”
Meanwhile in Beirut, ShelterBox response team member (SRT) Alice Jefferson had been working with grassroots organisations and the UNHCR to ascertain the need for shelter in Lebanon. Syrian refugees from Homs, Damascus, Dara'a and Aleppo continue to stream across the Eastern Masnaa borders into the Lebanese cities of Beirut, Tripoli and Saida. According to UNHCR 37 per cent of displaced Syrians in north Lebanon are currently living with Lebanese host families in some of the poorest and under-serviced areas. Alice, 23 and from Truro, said: “The capacity of the local community is being stretched to the limits. More and more people are coming across the border and those with means are renting apartments or staying in hotels in urban areas, this means the price of living is being pushed up and it's very difficult to find any accommodation.” In rural areas schools are being used to house multiple families. Alice continued: “There are three schools in the Bekaa region where families are living on top of each other. The authorities want to re-open the schools in time for the start of the new academic year, which means these families will have to leave.” ShelterBox have pre-positioned stocks with the Jordanian Red Crescent in Amman and have made contact with agencies operating in Turkey and Iraq. Alice explained: “I was part of a team working on pre-positioning stock in Lebanon with agencies like UNHCR in case of a sudden influx due to violence returning to Damascus or Homs.”
But ShelterBox's repsonse had to be postponed after the armed wing if the Muqdad clan retaliated against the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) kidnapping of their clansman Hassan Muqdad. According to reports 30 people were seized in the Bekaa valley and in southern Beirut, raising worrying security issues for aid workers operating in the area. SRT Phil Duloy, 31 and from Falmouth, recalled: “Members of the Muqdad clan wearing balaclavas and holding automatic weapons were interviewed on live television, saying they were targeting citizens of countries and even local individuals who they deemed supportive of Syria's insurgency. There list included the very contact we had just been meeting with, who was due to pass out aid request to the government. Having found no other secure routes for ShelterBox aid into Lebanon, we reluctantly made the decision to wait for a better chance and focus our efforts on Jordanian routes.
Alice added: “We were also looking at potential options to react if the agencies we are working with are able to get safe access into Syria.” With shelling and clashes between Syrian government forces and rebels continuing outside the capital Damascus and in Aleppo, safe access to Syria seems a long way off. Neighbouring countries are looking more susceptable to the spread of violence beyond their own borders; and they face a different kind of problem, one of capacity, as Syrian refugees like Mariam and her neighbour Matar continue to seek refuge from a politically complex and devastating civil war.