Oxfam warns of health risks to Syria refugees as summer approaches

With temperatures set to soar up to 104ºF (40˚C) in the coming weeks, international agency Oxfam has warned that the warmer weather will increase health-related risks for Syrian refugees. The aid agency says the most vulnerable, such as the elderly, women and young children, are already facing serious health risks due to a lack of shelter, water and basic sanitation.

As refugees continue to arrive in Jordan and Lebanon, Oxfam says the health risks must be urgently addressed. Increased cases of public health-related diseases such as diarrhea and skin infections have already been recorded in host communities and temporary settlements where an increasing number of refugees now live. Just in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, there are now some 240 tented settlements, six times the amount recorded in January.

The Lebanese Ministry of Public Health says more than 100 cases of cutaneous leishmaniasis, also known as the Aleppo boil, have been diagnosed in private clinics in the past two weeks. If left untreated, the festering boil, can grow to a weeping wound several centimetres in diameter. It is caused by a single-cell parasite that is transmitted by sandfly. Access to medicine, clean water and good hygiene practices are critical to help treat these infections.

Access to water and sanitation lacking

Despite the generosity of Lebanese citizens and authorities, most Syrian refugees still have poor access to water and sanitation facilities in Lebanon. UNHCR says it is worried that the incidence of water-related diseases will increase in the coming few months as a result. In MSF clinics throughout the Beqaa Valley, 84 cases of diarrhea have been confirmed in April. According to the agency, the rise in case load is expected to continue in the coming months due to lack of clean water, inadequate sanitation and the arrival of the hot season. International Medical Corps (IMC) in Lebanon reported that 7 per cent of the patients were suffering from gastro intestinal diseases and is expected to increase in the coming weeks. Access to clean and potable water is essential as gastro intestinal diseases can lead to dehydration.

Oxfam appeal for humanitarian aid

Oxfam, which has decades of experience in addressing public health risks through improved access to water and sanitation, says it is crucial to ensure funds are in place to provide refugees with shelter, clean water and adequate sanitation. Oxfam is aiming to raise some US$53.4 million over the next year, but so far its appeal is only 23% funded (US$10.6m).

Please donate to Oxfam's Syria Crisis Appeal

“We are starting to really worry about the health of Syrian refugees. Too many are living in inadequate shelters such as an empty shopping centre or the outskirts of a cemetery. These shelters have no toilets, little water and garbage has started to pile up. With high summer right around the corner, refugees living in poor sanitary conditions are facing serious risks of diseases,” said Rick Bauer, Regional humanitarian coordinator of Oxfam.

“During the upcoming months of dry summer, we need to minimize the risks and this starts with providing refugees with proper shelter. High rental costs in both Jordan and Lebanon are forcing thousands of refugees to live and sleep in overcrowded, insanitary conditions, with little privacy. The aid effort must be properly funded and focused on providing refugees with affordable and decent places to stay, where they can live with dignity. That’s priority number one for refugees and host communities alike.”

Needs continue to grow

As needs continue to grow both in Syria and host countries, the current UN appeal for the Syria crisis is only 58 per cent funded, over US$650 million-short. The UN agencies are set to review and issue a new call for funds for the next six months on June 7.

In Jordan, where 55 per cent of the refugees are under the age of 18, Syrians living in host communities, are lacking the money to buy the basics including soap and enough water for bathing. In one tent community in West Balqa Oxfam found that some children could only take a bath once every ten days. Oxfam has already seen an increasing number of skin infections especially among young children.

The aid agency is also looking to increase its direct assistance in Balqa and Zarqa to help refugee as well as local communities access clean water and essential hygiene items. Oxfam will be working closely with refugees and host communities to introduce water conservation measures and promote hygiene practices using less water for all residents, including local communities. In addition, the agency is scaling up its water and sanitation programme in Jordan’s biggest refugee camp, Zataari camp, to cope with the rising temperatures and the knock-on health risks. WHO have identified dehydration, diarrhea and food conservation as the main risks in the camp.

In Lebanon, the North Governorate hosts the highest concentration of people in need of clean water and basic sanitation. As of May 2013, some 635,000 people are in need of assistance - both refugees and host communities – and Oxfam says it anticipates this number to increase to over 740,000 by November 2013.

Municipalities in the Beqaa Valley have reported to international NGOS that they were unable to provide solid waste disposal services for the refugees. They have called for funding to be able to assist and make sure that garbage disposal is done on a regular basis in makeshift camps now home to thousands of Syrian refugees.

Bauer said: “The sad reality is that the vast majority of Syrian refugees are not going home soon. It is also crystal clear that host communities in Lebanon and Jordan need urgent help. Both countries have shown incredible solidarity and generosity in welcoming refugees, but they need help dealing with serious health risks and the possibility of diseases which will affect refugees and host communities alike in the coming months.

“During the summer months, people need secure water supplies for good hygiene practices and prevent common diseases. But if aid groups and local authorities are to be able to increase their programs, they need more funds. There is no way around it. Providing safe water, appropriate sanitation facilities and access to health care is costly. It’s time for the key donors to wake up and face that reality.”

Notes to editors

Footage available to download:
http://wordsandpictures.oxfam.org.uk/?c=13921&k=2bdfff1cd0

For photos (free of rights):
http://wordsandpictures.oxfam.org.uk/?c=13913&k=e6932c57ca

For more information about the humanitarian activities in the region:
http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

For more data from the Ministry of Public Health in Lebanon:
http://www.moph.gov.lb/Prevention/Surveillance/Pages/CurrentYear.aspx

*** Over the next two weeks Oxfam will be handing over 48 washing units serving more than 8,000 refugees in Zaatari Camp - journalists' visits and interviews on site can be arranged.

Contact information

Louis Belanger, Oxfam Humanitarian Media Officer
In Lebanon +961 360 7348
USA +1 917 224 0834 |
skype: louisoxfam
Twitter: @louis_press

Related links

Donate to Oxfam's Syria crisis response

Read the report: Syria: Overtaken By Need. The world’s failure to meet Syria’s escalating humanitarian crisis

Video on Oxfam's Syria crisis response

Blog: Why Syria is Oxfam's number one priority