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The Syrians need urgent help

01 March 2013

The scale of the refugee crisis outweighs the response, says Johanna Rogers


New home: a family of refugees from Syria, in one of the many en­­campments that have sprung up in the farming area of Jeb Jannine, Lebanon

New home: a family of refugees from Syria, in one of the many en­­campments that have sprung up in the farming area of Jeb Jannine, Lebanon

IN THE Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, the country's most important farming region, dozens of encampments have sprung up in recent months on pockets of disused land. Consisting of shacks made from wood and plastic sheeting, these are the homes of some of the thousands of refugees from Syria who have sought sanctuar.

The conditions they have fled worsen daily. Syria, it seems, is disintegrating before the eyes of the international community. A peaceful end to the violence is desperately needed, but will continue to be elusive - unless world leaders step up efforts to find a just solution.

The agony of the conflict, which has so far cost an estimated 70,000 lives, has triggered a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions. Four million people are in need of help inside Syria: two million are homeless, while a further million live in miserable conditions in neighbouring countries. It is estimated that one in four Syrians, either inside the country or beyond its borders, are in urgent need. The UN reports that 5000 refugees are fleeing the country every day.

The scale of the crisis far outweighs the humanitarian response so far. Food is badly needed, along with materials for shelters and medical supplies, but this is just the start. A generation of children is growing up without an education, many of them traumatised by their experiences.

In January, world Leaders, UN agencies, and humanitarian organisations gathered in Kuwait to pledge their support to the humanitarian effort, but many of the pledges have not yet been met.

In Lebanon, the number of arrivals is now so great that they represent more than ten per cent of the country's entire population, which stood at four-and-a-half million before the crisis. The official figure is said to be more than 300,000, but the unofficial figure is more than twice this. And still they arrive - some 42,000 in the past fortnight.

They have found shelter wherever they can: the Lebanese government has not yet permitted any official camps. Some have moved in with relatives, or are renting rooms, while others erect makeshift camps wherever they can, or bed down in disused buildings.

IN THE camps in the Beqaa Valley, conditions are squalid. "The hygiene situation here is very bad - children are getting sick, and there is no clean water," Samira, a mother of seven children, said.

The scale of suffering is shocking. At Bedawi, a camp established decades ago for Palestinians, near the border of Lebanon with Syria, a new arrival, Kamal, aged 32, described how he and his family were forced to flee months of violence in Yarmouk, one of the largest Palestinian camps in Syria.

At first, they found shelter in a mosque in Damascus, where they were able to stay at night, but eventually they crossed the border, and home now is a four-room apartment, sleeping 23 each night - many of them ill from malnourishment and overcrowding.

About 16,000 people now live in the camp at Bedawi - 6000 of them Palestinians from Syria who have arrived in the past year. As many as 2000 more are expected in the coming weeks.

A Lebanese organisation, Association Najdeh, which is working in Bedawi, has provided bedding and food, such as rice, beans, sugar, hummus, cheese, and tomatoes, as well as education and support for children. It has identified a further 5000 people who are in urgent need.

Sanaa Qais, who works for Najdeh as a teacher in one of the camps, says: "We want to help. With more resources, we could give more blankets and food and support to more children, but the need is more. They need houses. Even if they have relatives here, it is expensive, and they cannot always help them."

Bread is five times the price it was in Syria; so families struggle to feed themselves. Rents have doubled or trebled because landlords are taking advantage of the huge numbers arriving. Some charge as much as £150 a month for a rented room, sometimes in appalling conditions, often housing up to 20 people.

Association Najdeh also reports that many refugees are suffering from psychological trauma. It is already providing counselling and therapy to children in the camps, as are civil-society organisations elsewhere in Lebanon.

Eleven-year-old Hoda watched as a bomb killed her sister, after which her family fled the country. "I will always remember what happened - we buried my sister, and then we left."

Now in Lebanon, she attends a school run by another Lebanese organisation, Mouvement Social, which has helped 1500 Syrian refugees in the past year, providing children with education, psychosocial support, and food.

Mouvement Social is making a huge difference to Hoda and other children who have suffered in the conflict. "I love everything we do here. I especially love reading - I love Arabic literature," Hoda says.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said in January: "Of all the terrible conflicts facing the world in 2013, Syria is undoubtedly the most complex and dangerous. Two years into the crisis, its humanitarian impact is enormous, in particular since fighting escalated during the summer of 2012."

It is indeed complex, and the UN and other organisations are making valiant attempts to make a difference; but the problems seem overwhelming. Efforts must be stepped up to ensure a peaceful end to the conflict, as a matter of urgency. Those who have pledged funds should also meet their commitments promptly. A humanitarian crisis of this scale requires immediate action.

Johanna Rogers is a journalist at Christian Aid specialising in Asia and the Middle East.

Christian Aid has launched a Syria and Middle East Crisis Appeal, working through local partners such Najdeh and Mouvement Social. For details, visit www.christian-aid.org.

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