UNUSUALLY harsh winter weather in the Middle East over recent
days has compounded the misery of the hundreds of thousands of
Syrian and Iraqi refugees sheltering in Lebanon, Jordan, and
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says that it has been
"working around the clock this week to help the millions of Syrian
refugees and internally displaced people scattered across the
Middle East endure a severe winter storm that has swept through
much of the region".
Teams from UNHCR and its partners have been replacing damaged
tents, providing repair kits, and offering alternative shelters to
those who have been forced to abandon their homes. Despite the best
efforts of governments, local authorities, and the UNHCR, however,
the situation across the region "remains precarious for most
refugees, particularly given the poor conditions in which many
people already live, and the scattered nature of the
The UNHCR reports that the situation in Lebanon is of particular
concern. More than 100 shelters and tents have been damaged, and
flooding and standing water are a serious problem in places hit by
heavy rains and high winds.
In the largest refugee camp in Jordan, Za'atari, which is
accommodating nearly 85,000 Syrians, dozens of families were moved
to emergency shelters after their tents collapsed under the weight
of snow. UNHCR highlighted the experience of a young couple who
were trying to protect their three small children from the cold
when the roof of their tent fell in on them. "We had a small stove
burning in the tent to keep warm, and it fell on to my son and
burned his back," the mother said. "We ran out of the tent and were
told to come here." Her son was treated at a makeshift hospital
inside the camp.
UNHCR says that more funds are needed "to meet these critical
challenges, and to help some of the most vulnerable people".
There seems little hope that the pressures on UNHCR staff will
diminish in the foreseeable future, as continuing violence in
Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere makes more and more people homeless. The
Christian community in Syria received another setback when
shellfire badly damaged the Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Aleppo.
It was hit when areas of the city held by government forces came
under fire from an opposition Islamist group. The building was
empty, but holes were blown in the roof and walls.
"If the bombing had taken place just two hours later, the church
would have been full of worshippers," Bishop Mikael Mouradian told
the Armenian Weekly, because a special mass was going to
be held that day for St Rita. "God saved them," he said.
The Armenian government condemned the attack on the church. It
said: "Encroachments against sacred places are unacceptable, and
are evidence of the barbaric and wild nature of those who make
them. The international community should redouble its efforts to
prevent such crimes against civilians, minorities, and shrines."
The Holy Martyrs' Church, in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, was blown up by
Islamic State fighters last September.
Syria's western neighbour, Lebanon, is having to cope not only
with an influx of refugees but also with violence associated with
that country. Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, said
that it had carried out a suicide bombing in the northern city of
Tripoli which killed seven people and injured about 30. The target
was a café in a district that is home to the Alawite community -
the same as that of the Syrian leadership. The UN Security Council
strongly condemned the incident, and expressed its determination to
combat terrorism on all fronts.
With so much international focus on the crises in Syria and
Iraq, it is easy to ignore violence elsewhere in the Middle East.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein,
has said that deteriorating security in Yemen demands global
attention. "Perhaps because of the violence engulfing so many other
countries, relatively little attention is being paid to the
situation in Yemen," he said. "The past few weeks have seen dozens
of people killed in a succession of bomb attacks. Such wanton acts
of indiscriminate violence are utterly deplorable."
Yemen is experiencing a range of interconnected conflicts.
Despite the formation on 7 November of a new government, which
sought to bring about a full transition towards democracy, Yemen -
one of the poorest countries in the world - continues to be
crippled by violence.
Chaos has also enveloped Libya, where the fate of missing
Egyptian Copts has still not been clarified (News, 9
January). Reports that 13 Copts had been abducted by armed
Islamists were later denied. A group in Libya affiliated with
Islamic State says that it is holding 21 "Christian crusaders"; and
the Egyptian government says that 20 of its nationals have been
abducted in two separate incidents.