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Alex Rowell

A humanitarian nightmare awaits Syrian refugees this winter

As newborn babies are killed by snowstorms, officials responsible say refugees give off “terrorist radiation"

More than 250,000 refugees in Lebanon live at altitudes of 1,000m or above, according to UNHCR (AP)

If Syrian refugees in Lebanon thought they had a tough summer, what with the mass beatings, stabbings and shootings; the torchings of their tents; and the deadly shells fired on their camps by everyone from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra to Hezbollah and the Lebanese army, they may be in store for an even worse winter.

 

Already, two infants have been killed by the sheer cold since the onset of heavy rain and snow storms a few weeks ago. With over a quarter of a million refugees living at altitudes of 1,000m or higher*, many of them in flood-prone campsites with nothing but a sheet of fabric over their heads, there will surely be more deaths to come. Pneumonia, respiratory problems, dysentery from flooded toilets, and infections are merely a sample of the likely accompaniments.

 

Meanwhile, the social affairs minister, whose job it is to look after refugees, told us on Tuesday that Syrian refugees give off “terrorist radiation.” Which is a neat summary of what is now perhaps an even greater cause of refugees’ suffering than the chronic underfunding of UNHCR (currently 56% below requirement): official indifference.

 

The unpleasant and largely unspoken reality today is that all sides of Lebanon’s political divide have given up caring about the refugees. The decision in the summer to close the border to new arrivals had bipartisan support, and the apartheid-like curfews and other collective punishments, much like the armed bands of ‘vigilantes’ beating up Syrian laborers with the tacit approval of local authorities, are as likely to be found in March 14-majority neighborhoods as in March 8 ones.

 

When a government loses interest in a refugee population, the aid workers’ task becomes tremendously more difficult. When a government’s own refugees minister calls them a gangrenous and radioactive terror threat, the stage is set for a humanitarian nightmare. It’s going to be a cold, and lonely, winter for Syrians in Lebanon.

 

* According to minutes of UNCHR inter-agency meeting held November 7, 2014, available here (pdf)

More than 250,000 refugees in Lebanon live at altitudes of 1,000m or above, according to UNHCR (AP)

The unpleasant and largely unspoken reality today is that all sides of Lebanon’s political divide have given up caring about the refugees."