The Current Crisis

August 7, 2006

In News

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at the press briefing, on 4 August 2006, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The situation of hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the ongoing conflict in Lebanon – within the country and in neighbouring Syria – is becoming increasingly difficult as the crisis deepens. In Lebanon, after overnight bombings on the road between Tripoli and Beirut, we are awaiting further information on how this will affect UN convoys coming into the country from Syria – where UNHCR has a supply base – and our operations distributing relief to the north of Beirut.

The massive displacement of people to the north of the country as they flee the conflict has put a huge strain on public shelter facilities and host families. The Lebanese government’s Higher Relief Committee estimates some 800,000 people are now displaced in Lebanon with 130,000 living in public shelters – mainly schools.

UNHCR is now working in seven governates north and south of Beirut, delivering relief supplies of blankets, mattresses, kitchen sets, hygiene items and supplementary food to thousands of displaced people in an effort to ease some of the problems people are experiencing in cramped conditions. Our teams report they are also finding people in communal shelters or even construction sites with almost no facilities. Host families, while tremendously generous, are also suffering from overcrowding. Our teams have visited numerous families in isolated areas, which are housing on average 20-30 people. They note an overall lack of food, health care and adequate shelter.

To ease the housing strain and decongest crowded schools scheduled to reopen in mid-September, UNHCR is working with the government and others to develop a tented camp for 800 -1,000 displaced people at an old railway depot in Beirut’s Furn El Shabak district. UNHCR has visited a second potential site, while the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation is helping develop another camp.

In Lebanon we have now distributed more than 6,200 blankets, several tents, 54 kitchen sets and 3,380 mattresses to nearly 5,000 people. But we are seriously concerned that the fuel shortage will start to hamper our relief efforts in the mountains, where we are using local transport to deliver our supplies. Without fuel, this operation could come to a grinding halt.

Despite serious security and logistical constraints, UNHCR has over the past week through the joint UN logistical services, trucked in a total of 4,925 blankets, 5,398 mattresses, 5,060 jerry cans, 1,075 canvas family tents, 100 lightweight tents, 2,500 pieces of plastic sheeting and 10 large plastic rolls. The supply pipeline from Syria through the northern corridor via the Al Aarida border crossing has been functioning reasonably well.

To keep up the momentum, we have over the last three days dispatched 20 trucks from UNHCR’s well-stocked regional warehouse in Jordan to our supply hub in Damascus loaded with relief supplies for 20,000 people including 5,000 tents, 5,000 plastic sheets, 5,000 stoves, 20,000 blankets, 20,000 jerry cans and 5,000 kitchen sets. These supplies will be distributed both in Lebanon and Syria and more supplies will follow.

In Syria, our teams monitoring four border points are reporting some 5,000 people a day are arriving through northern border crossings with an estimated total of 140,000 Lebanese now in the country. The teams say that after attacks, such as those on Baalbek earlier in the week, there is an immediate increase in the number of Lebanese crossing the border. Those arriving at the Al Jdeideh border point are now arriving on foot after parts of the road, close to the border was destroyed. Unlike the first wave of Lebanese who arrived in Syria, current arrivals are reported to be more destitute. Most of the arrivals are from southern Lebanon and the Bekaa area around Baalbek – a poor rural area of Lebanon – and have made the journey to Syria in stages. They report the horror of their flight with planes and helicopters flying overhead and bombings nearby. Many of the new arrivals from Baalbek are scared and confused after witnessing attacks and destruction, particularly children and elderly who are showing signs of post traumatic stress disorders.

Syrians are taking the displaced Lebanese into their homes but they are also being housed in schools, summer camps, community centres, mosques and hotels. However, with schools due to restart next month, the government is relocating those living in schools to summer youth camps on the outskirts of Syria’s major cities. While local generosity has been overwhelming, it is in danger of being overstretched.

UNHCR is working closely with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent providing relief items for distribution. We are also identifying shelter sites, including host families, which need help. So far, 1,000 tents, 13,460 mattresses, 13,000 blankets, 1,500 plastic sheets, 2,366 kitchen sets and 1,000 kerosene stoves have been distributed or are being stored in warehouses for immediate assistance to refugees, asylums seekers and others in and around Damascus, Homs, Tartus and Aleppo.

Unfortunately, UNHCR remains woefully under funded for its Lebanon operation. In the UN Flash Appeal late last month we asked for US$18.9 million for an initial three month period. But so far we have received only US$4.65 million in confirmed donations. If we are to help ease the suffering of tens of thousands of people displaced by the conflict, we need substantial support from donors and call on them to give generously.