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Disaster looms for Syrian refugees

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CAIRO — Even as the United States picks up from the wreckage left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Mother Nature has a much larger humanitarian disaster in store for Syria — and aid workers are scrambling to contain the damage.

Winter is approaching, threatening the millions of Syrians who have been displaced from their homes by the 19-month conflict. Temperatures are dropping fast: In the city of Aleppo, which has been ravaged by fierce guerrilla fighting since June, the average low in December is 39 degrees Fahrenheit; the average rainfall is 2.5 inches. Along the Turkish border, where an estimated 170,000 refugees are living, the conditions are even colder and wetter.

"It is hard. We lack the donations to purchase the supplies, we lack the people on the ground to help us, and we lack safety while working," said Diana Rifai, a Syrian from the city of Homs working to provide aid to refugees in north Lebanon. "I am actually speechless. It makes me cry every time I discuss it with anyone."

The latest report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) paints a picture of a rapidly expanding refugee population, and international organizations struggling to keep up with their growing needs. There are currently 350,00 refugees registered in the countries bordering Syria, the UNHCR reports, and another 1.2 million people displaced from their homes inside the country. But those numbers are expected to grow dramatically in the months ahead: The refugee agency projects that the number of external Syrian refugees could double to 710,000 people by the end of the year.

The UNHCR winterization plan promises to provide blankets, cooking stoves, hygiene kits and direct financial assistance to refugees in need. But it only aims to provide resources to 500,000 displaced Syrians inside the country, and 380,000 refugees in neighboring countries - meaning that, even if it is fully funded, hundreds of thousands of Syrians will still not receive assistance.

But at the moment, UNHCR is still a long way from fully funding its winterization plan. The refugee agency projects that its efforts will cost roughly $75 million. Of that total, only $13 million, or about 17 percent, has so far been received.

"We’re proceeding on the assumption that we’re going to get this assistance. We’re putting stuff in the pipeline," Ron Redmond, UNHCR’s regional spokesman for Syria, says. "We’re ordering the materials we need to winterize tents, we’re doing cash assistance programs in Syria and elsewhere now, and we’re hoping that we don’t run out of money to complete this project."

Activist networks and local residents have made up the difference as best they can. But Rifai, a volunteer for the organization Watan ("Nation"), a subgroup of the opposition Syrian National Council, says that ongoing clashes in the region have become a danger to aid workers. "Aid is not being given to most refugees and internally displaced people," she said. "It is devastating and so hard to keep up with this work because refugees are afraid to register, making it even more risky for us to work."

Rifai drums up funds by appealing to local residents and spreading awareness on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and even Instagram. Watan then uses the donations to provide care packages for infants, purchase gas cooking stoves and canned food for the refugees, and providing anything else that help the refugees survive the winter - even at times paying their rent.

But money is always short. "Blankets are not cheap - the good, thick ones are $12 to $13 each," Rifai said. "International organizations do not help us. We barely hear or see from the Red Cross or UNHCR."

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCCS), a network of activists inside the country, have also been critical to providing humanitarian assistance to those in need within Syria. Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the LCCS, says that the network has been delivering food baskets across the country, launching a blanket drive, and setting up field schools for children whose education has been halted by the civil war.

According to Jouejati, the LCCS distributed nearly 3,000 food baskets throughout Syria during September, including 1,700 in northern Idlib Province and over 700 in Damascus and its suburbs. In October, the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria), an aid organization that coordinates with the LCCS, also provided enough funds to supply 1,000 blankets, 1,000 food baskets, support for 6 orphans for half a year, and roughly $1,500 worth of toys and gifts for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.

The logistical difficulties of delivering aid, however, have constrained the number of people that the LCCS can reach. "Activists delivering [food baskets] are subject to detention and torture, or risk getting shot on the spot when caught, and the merchandise is easily stolen," Jouejati said. "Activists have had to establish supply routes ... bribe regime and other officials, and develop coordinated schedules with other activists to minimize danger and maximize the quantity of supplies they can deliver."

In addition to the violence, bureaucratic challenges also hinder efforts to get aid to Syrian in need. Inside Syria, the United Nations rely on what it terms a "cluster approach," where each separate agency focuses on issues related to its area of expertise - UNICEF concentrates on children’s health, for example, while the World Food Programme provides food to Syrians in need. Redmond says that the aid organizations also work closely with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), making use of its distribution networks to funnel assistance into the country.

But some activists view the presence of the SARC, an organization tied to President Bashar Assad’s regime, with skepticism. "SARC is a regime-controlled organization, so one never knows if one is dealing with a humanitarian or a regime plant," Jouejati said. "SARC has been able to deliver goods to hard-hit areas, but only at the whim of the regime."

Nobody is denying that some SARC employees have provided invaluable assistance to stricken regions - often at great risk to themselves. In January, the SARC’s secretary-general was shot and killed while driving along the highway connecting Aleppo and Damascus in a clearly marked Red Crescent vehicle. The government blamed an "armed terrorist group" for the crime, while the anti-Assad opposition blamed regime forces.

However, activists view the top leadership of the SARC with suspicion, fearing that it is not giving anti-Assad areas of the country the same assistance as other regions. Much of the distrust centers on the aid organization’s president, Abdul Rahman Attar, a Sunni businessman who rose to prominence under the Assad regime and a figure aid workers had long criticized for the level of control he exerted over international NGOs operating in Syria.

"He’s a big personality, and one of the richest, most powerful men in Syria and he doesn’t want to lose control over NGOs to the [Foreign Ministry]" said an international aid worker in a 2009 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.

Activists’ suspicions of the SARC, needless to say, are mirrored in the Assad regime’s hostility toward aid groups connected with the opposition. It is yet another indication of how humanitarian efforts are at the mercy of Syria’s poisonous politics: As the war grinds on, millions of people remain caught in the middle as winter approaches. 

Kenner is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

— Foreign Policy

 

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