Middle East

Syrian refugees in Lebanon hit by winter storm

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Media captionSyrian refugees are living in makeshift homes in harsh winter conditions

The UN says it is "extremely concerned" for Syrian refugees in Lebanon as a fierce winter storm bears down.

There has been snow, rain, high winds and freezing temperatures in the north of the country and the Bekaa Valley, home to more than 200 informal camps.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was "working harder than ever" to protect the more than 800,000 Syrians sheltering in Lebanon.

The Lebanese army is helping distribute emergency kits, including blankets.

"We are worried, because it is really cold in the Bekaa region, and we're extremely worried about the refugees living in makeshift shelters, because many are really substandard," UNHCR spokeswomen Lisa Abou Khaled told the AFP news agency.

'Shivering with cold'

At least 80,000 refugees will have to spend the winter in tents. Many others are living in unfinished or unheated buildings with only slightly more protection.

Ms Abou Khaled said the UNHCR had stockpiles of items to help refugees whose shelters might be damaged or destroyed, including plastic sheeting, floor mats, blankets and mattresses. Supplies have also been given to local councils.

"The Syrian refugees here are shivering with cold, especially the ones in tents," said Wafiq Khalaf, a councillor in Arsal, a town in the northern Bekaa Valley that has seen 20,000 people arrive in the past few months.

"Water has come into the tents from the roofs, and from the ground where there is flooding," he told AFP. "At the moment there is more than 10cm (3.9in) of snow on the ground, but more is expected."

Image caption Almost 2.3 million Syrians have fled into neighbouring countries

The BBC's Jim Muir in the Bekaa Valley met one family who were feeding their fire with old shoes because they could not afford firewood, despite their children being barefoot.

There are similar scenes across the region as hundreds of thousands of refugees improvise desperately to stay alive, our correspondent adds.

Forecasters are predicting between 7.6cm and 13cm of snow in total.

The latest warning comes after the UNHCR announced on Tuesday that it would be airlifting food and other aid items into northern Syria from Iraq for the first time.

Twelve planeloads of supplies will be flown in over the next few days, ahead of what the UN fears will be the region's harshest winter in a century.

The decision was made after land convoys were shot at, harassed, and detained at check points, officials said.

Almost 2.3 million Syrians have fled into neighbouring countries since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, according to the UN. There are also an estimated 6.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) inside Syria, and many more in need of aid.