Living conditions for Syrian refugees in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon have plummeted in the aftermath of a storm which resulted in widespread flooding and the destruction of hundreds of makeshift camps. Storm Norma, which has affected over 22,000 refugees according to the UN, hit Lebanon’s eastern and northern region last week, bringing with it torrential rain thus forcing thousands to relocate. The situation is worsening as refugees now battle a new storm, dubbed Storm Miriam, which hit on Sunday evening and is expected to continue until January 17th with snowfall, as Al Jazeera reports.
Dr Hussam Al Fakir, chairman of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations International (UOSSM International) has said the dire conditions are likely to claim the lives of vulnerable refugees. “Children, [the] elderly, the infirm and [the] vulnerable will not survive much longer without being moved to warm and dry locations.” In fact, Storm Norma has already claimed the life of an eight-year-old Syrian girl who drowned in a river swollen by the floods in the northern town of Minyeh, as reported by Associated Press. Al Fakir has issued a plea to the international community, “This is a humanitarian nightmare and will require an enormous coordinated effort to reach all these camps in time.” Abou Kahled, a spokeswoman for the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, has stated that the UNHCR and NGOs have been working round the clock to relieve living conditions. “We’ve been giving plastic sheets for damaged tents, mattresses, rubber boots, and other goods because of the rain”.
However, the overpopulated camps lack the infrastructure to withstand the harsh winter weather which these storms bring. The inadequate irrigation and drainage systems mean that the floods have left the streets and homes of refugees awash with sewage and waste, increasing the risk of infectious diseases spreading. The Lebanese government has banned the construction of any form of permanent housing using concrete or more durable material for Syrian refugees since they are seen as temporary residents in the country. It is no surprise, therefore, that due to the storms 66 informal settlements have been flooded with 15 completely destroyed. According to the UNHCR, as the figures continually increase, the storms keep worsening. Mahmoud Said, a 43-year-old refugee who lives in Bekaa valley with his wife and six children, described his living conditions to NPR. He recounts: “My tent has been flooded now for five days. I am 10 meters from the river so all the mud, sewage, and trash, from the river, has come into my tent. This is not the way to live.”
However, due to the ban on more permanent and stable forms of accommodation, there is very little Said can do to improve his conditions. Said’s plight is similar to that of the 1.5 million Syrians who have been seeking asylum in Lebanon since 2011, according to UN figures. Despite this being over a quarter of the Lebanese population, the government refuses to recognize them as anything other than temporary residents and has left it to NGOs and agencies to address their basic needs. NGOs, however, can only provide short-term relief due to the restrictions placed on them by the government on the type of housing which refugees are permitted. If the living conditions of Syrian refugees are to improve, the solution must be sought from the government itself, and the restrictions on housing must be lifted. Perhaps the atrocities of Storm Norma and Miriam will persuade the government of the desperate need for more permanent housing in this harsh political and environmental climate.
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