Lebanon's winter storm floods refugee settlements and leaves thousands at risk

The UN estimates some 11,000 refugees have been affected, and 151 settlements flooded

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A winter storm battering Lebanon has displaced hundreds of Syrian refugees and flooded tented settlements while further bad weather threatens thousands more.

The UNHCR in Lebanon has launched an extreme weather response as thousands of refugees across the country are in need of supplies, food and temporary accommodation after refugee settlements in low lying areas flooded.

Winter storm Norma has submerged streets across Beirut, closed roads and forced thousands of schools to shut their doors. While it has been a hot topic across social media in recent days, with images of stranded drivers and cut off houses and shops being shared alongside images of people paddling down major highways in boats, for the over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country the situation has been life-threatening.

"Look at this weather, we are cut off from everything, the tent has collapsed, we turn to God," one refugee in the remote northeastern town of Arsal told Agence France-Presse as snowflakes landed on her black headscarf.

"The storm arrived yesterday and more than one metre of snow has fallen," another said on Tuesday, shortly after the storm hit. "There's no food, no bread, and the road has been closed since yesterday."

Many live in tented communities or poor quality rented housing and with over two-thirds living near or below the poverty line, most have no resources to insulate themselves against the cold and wet.

"This storm comes at a time when we know how difficult everyday life already is for many families and the last thing they need is this added burden to survive," Lisa Abu Khalid, a Public Information Officer for UNHCR in Lebanon, told The National. "This is why assistance in winter is crucial as its life-saving…already almost 70 per cent [of refugees] live under poverty line and last year more refugees incurring debt as they can't meet basic needs. …in winter this becomes more difficult."

Source: UNHCR
Source: UNHCR

The UNHCR reported on Wednesday that a total of 151 settlements and 11,000 refugees had been impacted by the storm. One child has been reported missing.

“Winter every year is very difficult, but this storm has been particularly difficult, especially for families in tents or in substandard shelters and [flooding or snow] means many have had to leave their shelters and find somewhere else to stay,” Ms Abu Khalid said.

In the north and Bekaa region of the country, flooded tents have made 2,035 homeless and the UN has stepped in to provide alternative accommodation for those unable to stay with family or friends.

Heavy rain and gusts of wind had swept up clothes and furniture, burying some in the mud that has churned up around tents.

"The flood took away everything in its path: tents, cooking [equipment], covers," said Faisal Abu Zeid, originally from the neighbouring province of Hama.

"We don't have food or water... 25 families have found refuge in the mosque," in the Syrian border town of Atme, he added.


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The UNHCR said that they were still receiving referrals of people in need of assistance and were distributing emergency winter aid where needed.

At one site in Akkar district, 173 refugees were rehoused at a local school and mosque earlier this week.

The UNHCR reported that they have begun a damage assessment of settlements to see the extent of repairs needed.

In the Western Bekaa region, the UN said that “eff­orts to pump out water accumulating in informal tented settlements are ongoing but challenged by water pouring back in because of them being located below the level of the road and continuous rainfall”.

It also noted that some were concerned about leaving their settlement for fear of being prevented from returning.

In other areas, tents leaked, were buried under snow or collapsed, leaving vulnerable people living in dangerous conditions.

For now, forecasts predict that the rain has eased up, but freezing temperatures will continue and more bad weather is expected next week.

Ms Abu Khalid noted that with poor weather, there have been reports of tent fires caused by cooking stoves and heaters. While she noted that it had been isolated incidents so far this winter, refugees in the past have been killed or disfigured by tent fires.

Under Lebanese law, only the original official Palestinian refugee camps are allowed. That means that when tens of thousands of Syrians began crossing the border to flee escalating violence after the outbreak of war in 2011, the UN was not allowed to establish official settlements.

Many refugees live in cheap, shared or poor quality buildings around the country while others live in tents on empty or rented ground outside the cities, leaving them poorly insulated and heated. This has been a major challenge for aid agencies in the eight years since the war began in Syria.