Oxfam launches new appeal to help refugees from Syria and warns of increased health risks as winter begins to bite

Published: 3rd December 2013

Special cash assistance and winter kit distribution gets underway in both Jordan and Lebanon

Aid agency Oxfam is today launching a major appeal to help families affected by the Syria Crisis get through the harsh winter months – and beyond.

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 on the cold winter ground.

More refugees in vulnerable areas

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. In Lebanon, the refugee population has risen from 100,000 in December 2012 to nearly one million now. Many of those families are living in areas more prone to the harsh winter conditions.

Nearly 65 per cent of the refugee population have settled in North Lebanon and Bekaa Valley, which experiences 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 the host community, the majority in cramped, poor-quality rented accommodation as well as in tents and temporary shelters.

12 Days of Giving

Last month, Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery visited refugees from Syria living in Jordan, and today she is launching Oxfam’s new 12 Days of Giving appeal to help raise $1.6m for the emergency response to the Syria Crisis.

Michelle Dockery said: “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.

“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.”

Refugees are already struggling to combat the cold and are unable to afford to buy fuel to run heating stoves, extra clothing or blankets. Those living in tents are particularly vulnerable and cannot afford to reinforce their shelters to better protect them from the elements.

In Jordan, refugees living in Jawa, near Amman, say their tents are flooded even after just an hour-long downpour. During one recent rainstorm, many frantically dug channels in the soil in a desperate bid to divert the flow of the rainwater (that had mixed with sewage from nearby make-shift toilets) away from their tents.

Distributing winter kits

Oxfam will soon start the distribution of special winter kits in Jordan, which will provide a vital lifeline during the cold months. The kits going to people 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.

Michelle Dockery added: “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.”

Increasing health care needs

Cold conditions are helping the spread of respiratory diseases as families share cramped conditions. 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.

Local clinics in North Lebanon and Bekaa Valley noted an increase in the number of patients arriving in November, particularly children with respiratory diseases. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now make up 40 per cent of all primary health clinic visits.

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 facilities in the first six months of this year.

Dr Walid Ammar, Director General of Lebanon’s Public Health Ministry, said: “We are expecting the worst this winter. Last year we had things under better control, but now refugees are coming to public health clinics all over the country and the clinics need much more vaccine, essential medication and reproductive items to be able to cope.”

International help needed

Oxfam and other agencies are calling for much more support to be able to help the most vulnerable refugees over the coming months. The international community must also show its support for the generosity of the host governments whose health infrastructures are being over-stretched.

Nigel Timmins, who is heading up Oxfam’s response to the Syria Crisis, 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 in giving to the Philippines appeal and we are asking them to dig deep again if they can.”

Donate now to Oxfam's Syria Crisis Appeal

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.
Nigel Timmins
Oxfam’s response to the Syria Crisis

Notes to editors

  • VNR of footage of Michelle Dockery, in Jordan, can be downloaded from here – http://wordsandpictures.oxfam.org.uk/?c=15057&k=9d3c86a72f

  • Images of Michelle Dockery, in Jordan, can be downloaded here: http://wordsandpictures.oxfam.org.uk/?c=14907&k=f83ee52c98

  • In Lebanon, an estimated 70 per cent of refugees are living in apartments, 14 per cent in informal tented settlements and the remainder in unfinished buildings, garages, warehouse that are not properly insulated against the cold climate. In Jordan, 80 per cent of refugees live in tented settlements or rented flats, which are largely inadequate, as well as makeshift tents (UNHCR).

  • The UN estimates 450,000 refugees and other vulnerable people in Lebanon will need assistance throughout the winter.

  • In Lebanon, although UNHCR provides 75 per cent of basic medical costs for registered refugees, many still can’t afford to pay the remainder and are failing to seek medical care. Compounding this problem is the arrival of winter also signals an end to most of the day labour agricultural and construction jobs that Syrians were doing – not only are their medical expenses going to increase throughout the winter months, their means to pay for them has diminished.

Contact information

For more information or to arrange interviews with Nigel Timmins, please call Janna Hamilton, +961-760-27223, janna.hamilton@oxfamnovib.nl