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Harsh Middle East winter brings misery to refugees

16 January 2015


Clearing a path: a six-year-old Syrian refugee happily digs out the snow from his tent in a camp in Lebanon, preparing for freezing night

Clearing a path: a six-year-old Syrian refugee happily digs out the snow from his tent in a camp in Lebanon, preparing for freezing night

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 elsewhere.

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 population".

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.

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