BEIRUT — Heavy snowstorms and record-breaking cold across much of the Middle East this month have worsened conditions for some of the region’s most vulnerable people: the tens of thousands of displaced Syrians still living in camps.
In Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, the refugee and displaced populations are grappling with the effects of recent back-to-back cold fronts that brought an onslaught of severe weather and put thousands at risk.
Temperatures fell to 23 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-5 Celsius) in parts of northern Syria last week, according to the New York-based International Rescue Committee. Most of the people in camps live in tents, sheds and other unfinished shelters — and are particularly vulnerable to harsh winters as a result.
According to the United Nations and other aid agencies, three children died in northern Syria this month amid the cold, including one who was killed when snow caused the tent in which he was sheltering to collapse. Two others died when a heater in their makeshift shelter caught fire.
“It has become commonplace during the winter and when the weather gets colder, that kids get caught up,” said Juliette Touma, the communications chief for the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, in the Middle East and North Africa.
The U.N. Refugee Agency says that 6.2 million people are displaced inside Syria, and 5.7 million other refugees have registered in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Snowfall and cold weather are not uncommon in the region. But the yearslong conflict in Syria and fresh economic crises in Lebanon and Turkey have compounded the refugees’ woes.
“The winters are getting harsher and deadlier while families are less and less able to cope with freezing temperatures,” the Syria director for the Geneva-based aid agency CARE, Jolien Veldwijk, said in a statement last week.
“This is yet another blow to people whose lives are already beyond unbearable,” Veldwijk said. “Families are afraid that they will freeze to death.”
At a small refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which is known for its wet winters, the roughly two dozen Syrian men who live there gather each morning to clear the snow that accumulates on the tents’ roofs overnight. If they don’t, their families could be at risk.
Armed with just plastic kitchen-floor wipers, the men climb atop the rickety wood-frame structures and sweep the snow piles off onto the ground, according to accounts from residents. But there, the snow melts and ends up seeping back into the tents, weakening the makeshift structures wrapped in simple tarps.
“We’re afraid that the tents will collapse from the snow,” said Maha al-Dood, a 43-year-old Syrian resident of the camp, who has lived there for almost 10 years.
“There are children, there are old people,” said al-Dood, who was reached by phone. “The situation is so bad, and we don’t know what to do.”
In Lebanon, where a near-total economic collapse has pushed much of the population below the poverty line, local aid agencies are also struggling to cope.
The aid and development group Sawa said that the cost of a tarpaulin tent has soared from about $102 before the crisis to nearly 3 million pounds $2,000 now, at the official exchange rate for the Lebanese pound.
Al-Dood says that her wood ceiling is cracked. The snow is oppressive and everywhere: in the small spaces between tents, covering the road, blocking access to the camp.
Every time she leaves her tent, her feet are submerged in a large puddle of icy water that pools directly outside her door. She turns off her fuel heater at night because she thinks it is too dangerous — and she worries that one of her children will turn over while sleeping and set a blanket alight.
“We would move from being surrounded by snow to being surrounded by fire,” she said.
Fuel also is expensive in Lebanon. Syrian refugees receive a stipend from the United Nations for heating. But al-Dood says that it is not enough to keep her family warm through the snowy winters in the valley.
“There is no heat. There are no food items. We are missing so much in the camp,” she said. “All of the tarps have holes from the snow, and all the wood is getting wet and breaking and going bad.”
“It’s shocking that we continue to have the same story every winter,” said UNICEF’s Touma.
“The responsibility lies on those [who are] fighting to stop fighting” in Syria, she said. “And to go back to the negotiating table to find a political solution.”