Temperatures in Lebanon and Jordan are already plunging but the worst of the winter is yet to come. Many people are only wearing the thin summer clothes they fled from Syria in and those living in tents are sleeping on just a bare mat or thin mattress above the cold winter ground.
Since last winter the number of refugees fleeing into neighboring countries has soared to at least four times the size it was a year ago. This time last year, the refugee population in Lebanon was 100,000, now it is around 1m. Many of those families are living in areas which are particularly prone to rain, snow and bitterly cold temperatures. In Jordan, where more than 550,000 Syrians have been registered, 80 per cent of the refugee population is living in makeshift tents and mostly inadequate housing.
Last month, Michelle Dockery, on her first trip overseas with Oxfam, visited refugees from Syria living in Jordan, and today launches the charity’s 12 Days of Giving appeal. The appeal aims to raise £1m for the emergency response to the Syria Crisis, with the UK Government agreeing to match pound-for-pound all public donations as part of the Aid Match scheme.
Michelle Dockery says: "What I have seen and heard on my trip is hard to put into words. I met families who have had to leave the homes they have been building for years, mothers who have fled with their children leaving husbands and loved ones behind, unsure when they will be reunited. All of the refugees I met were experiencing a terrible suffering which is hard to comprehend.
Cold conditions are leading to a spread of respiratory diseases amongst children as families share cramped conditions. Local clinics in North Lebanon and Bekaa Valley have already noted an increase in the number of patients arriving in November, particularly children with respiratory diseases.
In Jordan, hospitals and clinics in Irbid, Maraq, Jarash and Ajloun are awaiting critical medical equipment from UNHCR to help with the influx. According to the Jordanian health ministry, more than 287,000 Syrians received treatment in government health structures in the first six months of this year.
The health services in host countries are already feeling the strain, particularly in emergency rooms and clinics, and an increase in demand throughout winter is only going to add further stress on services. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now make up 40 per cent of all primary health clinic visits.
Michelle continues: "I met families living in sprawling camps, tents on the side of the road and rented accommodation in horrific conditions with the damp so extreme it is making children and the elderly sick. Mothers told me their children are already unable to sleep because of the cold and it is only going to get worse.
“I met just a few of the millions of refugees from Syria who are going to need the very basics to keep them warm and survive the coming months. Oxfam will be doing the best they can by delivering winter kits to help many of the poorest families, but they want to be able to do much more and so we really need the public’s help.”
Oxfam is soon to start distributing special winter kits in Jordan, which will provide a vital lifeline during the cold months. Money raised through the appeal will help support the further distribution of these kits, which for refugees living in flats will include blankets, gas heaters and refill for four months; and those living in tents will receive blankets and plastic sheeting to help protect the tents better from the rain and snow. In Lebanon, in addition to winter kits, cash assistance or winter vouchers will also be distributed. But more cash is needed so the response can be stepped up.
Mark Goldring, Oxfam’s chief executive, said: “Life is becoming even harder for refugees as winter starts to bite. Temperatures will continue to drop over the coming weeks and inevitably that will start to take its toll on people’s health. ”Children are particularly vulnerable. Many are sleeping on the cold ground wearing cotton shirts and a simple cough can quickly escalate into something much more serious.
“Poor sanitation facilities mean tents can be flooded with sewage overnight, making people vulnerable to disease. The scale of this crisis is massive and ultimately it needs to be resolved politically so Syrians – both inside the country and out – can start to rebuild their lives. But these families we work with need more help, urgently. People have been incredibly generous last month in giving to the Philippines appeal and we are asking them to dig deep again if they can.”
People can donate at www.oxfam.org.uk/syria.