Christian Jepsen (25.11.2013)
Intense fighting in Syrian villages bordering Lebanon has led to a mass influx to Aarsal in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. Local people, authorities and humanitarian agencies are working overtime to provide emergency services such as shelter, food, water, sanitation, health services and winter clothing.
There is nothing new about Syrian refugees in Aarsal. Pitched high up in the barren mountains in the Bekaa valley some 40 kilometers from the border to Syria, Aarsal’s 47,000 inhabitants have for the past two and a half years been welcoming hundreds and even thousands of Syrian refugees every day. But the up to 10,000 refugees that poured into the town in the days around 15th and 16th of November 2013 is ‘unprecedented’. This has challenged both the people of Aarsal, its authorities and the humanitarian agencies working in the area. But the real tragedy lies with the refugees, many of whom had been displaced for months inside Syria before crossing the border to seek safety in Lebanon.
“It happened really quickly. We heard that an attack could happen imminently and that men would be targeted, so myself alongside other men hurried out of the village and crossed the border to Lebanon during the night,” says ‘Mohammad’. His wife and children left Qara village and crossed the border the following day, walking for four hours with only what they could carry in their hands. The re-united family has just spent the first night in an improvised collective centre in Aarsal, when Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) assessment team caught up with them.
Hundreds sharing toilet
Many local families continue to host refugees in their homes, before some move on while others seek longer lasting solutions in the area. But as the small border town’s population has doubled over the last year due to the refugee influx, it has become much more challenging to locate adequate shelter for all newcomers. In the building where Mohammed and his family reside, in a small events hall 30 families (approximately 150 people) share two toilets of which only one is working. And ‘luxuries’ such as water or even a water-tank are not available.
“We need to upgrade this and other buildings immediately to ensure that the refugees are protected against the cold and have access to sanitation. For buildings where hundreds of people share large open spaces, we also prioritize some basic partitions to allow a bare minimum of privacy for families,” says Marta Zaccagnini, Emergency Shelter Coordinator with NRC.
The upcoming winter will produce snow and sub-zero temperatures in Lebanon’s mountains. Such conditions will be a major challenge for refugees that in many cases have arrived to Lebanon with only the clothes they wear.
“We are seriously concerned about Lebanon’s ability to keep hosting such high numbers of refugees in private houses – not least in light of the approaching winter. Despite the best efforts of Lebanese authorities and humanitarian organisations, we fear that thousands of Syrian families will end up in informal settlements in the coming months, staying in improvised shelters of plastic and cardboard in freezing conditions”, warns Niamh Murnaghan, NRC’s Country Director in Lebanon.
In Aarsal, emergency registration and distribution of mattresses, blankets and kitchen sets has quickly been established by humanitarian organisations in the days following the mass influx. After the rapid assessment, NRC has begun sealing-off unfinished houses and establishing partitions in large collective centres in Aarsal. Additionally, NRC’s social teams are referring refugees to registration and other services such as schools and health services.