Middle East

Winter storm brings misery to Middle East refugees

A Syrian refugee uses a pole to try to clear snow from the roof of his tent in Deir Zannoun village, in the Bekaa Valley, east Lebanon (7 January 2015) Image copyright AP
Image caption Syrian refugees in Lebanon tried to remove snow from the roofs of their tents to prevent them collapsing

A fierce winter storm has brought freezing temperatures to the Middle East, raising worries about the plight of the millions of refugees there.

Snow has fallen in the mountains around Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians live.

With icy winds blowing there have been attempts to anchor tents more securely, and prepare for flooding.

The UN is also "extremely concerned" about the situation in Jordan, where it is distributing extra blankets.

More than 7.6 million people have been displaced inside Syria since the uprising began in 2011, while more than 3.3 million have fled abroad.

Makeshift shelters

The winter storm, forecast to last several days, has brought snowfall and freezing temperatures to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey. Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have also been affected.

In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley - where tens of thousands of refugees are living in tents, and many others in unfinished or unheated buildings - the snow blocked roads and forced many businesses to close.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Winter storm Huda is forecast to last several days
Image copyright AP
Image caption Some Syrians managed to enjoy themselves as traffic was brought to a near standstill in Damascus

"Refugees in informal settlements are very cold. Most of them are staying inside their tents to keep warm next to the heating stove," UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled told the BBC.

"Some are wiping the snow off the roof of their makeshift tents because they are worried that they might collapse under the weight of the snow."

At the scene: Paul Wood, BBC News, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

One of the tents - used as a schoolroom - has collapsed from the weight of snow. The "main street" of the camp is a lake of dirty, icy water. Children stand around, seemingly dressed more for summer than for winter. Some even wear flip-flops.

We are in a makeshift refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. Even after four years as refugees, people are still living under plastic sheeting. Conditions are miserable.

One man shows us water leaking through the roof. We meet a family with seven children huddling around a wood burning stove. The two latest additions to the family are twin babies, born three days ago. The mother looks exhausted, wrapped in a blanket on the floor.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are living like this in Lebanon. The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, has provided emergency winter aid or one kind or another to some 660,000 people in Lebanon. No-one thinks this fourth winter away from home will be the last for the refugees.

Ms Abou Khaled said the UNHCR and its partners began their preparations for the winter in early October and had so far reached 75% of the families targeted.

The charity Oxfam said it was also worried that tents would be flooded when the snow melts and that refugees would not have proper access to clean water for days.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Up to 19,600 families are currently displaced in Gaza, with many forced to live in war-damaged buildings
Image copyright AFP
Image caption In Turkey, temperatures were forecast to stay below zero for several days

A Red Cross source told the AFP news agency that the bodies of a Syrian man and a six-year-old boy were found in Ain al-Joz, in the mountains of southern Lebanon. A Lebanese security source said they were overcome by the cold while trying to enter the country on foot.

The Palestinian Authority also declared a state of emergency in the West Bank and Gaza, where tens of thousands of people lost their homes during the war between Israel and Palestinian militants last year.

An eight-month-old baby was killed in a fire caused by a heater in the Tulkarem refugee camp, a civil defence ministry spokesman told the Associated Press.

There was also heavy snowfall in northern Israel and the occupied Golan Heights. Schools in Jerusalem, to the south, also closed.

In Syria, traffic was brought to a near standstill in the capital Damascus, and the education ministry said schools and universities would not open.