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Q&A: Syrian Refugee Camps Struggle to Prepare for Winter

Syrian refugees near the border with Turkey on Oct. 31. Photo by Hamzeh Al-Binshi/Shaam News Network/Handout via Reuters.

As the fighting in Syria continues, hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled their torched homes and battered neighborhoods to find refuge in bordering countries.

The United Nations has registered nearly 400,000 refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, with tens of thousands of additional Syrians who haven’t yet registered.

Foreign aid continues to stream in, but funding has fallen far short of what relief groups have requested. Making matters worse, winter is fast approaching.

To shed some light on the situation, we spoke with Daryl Grisgraber, a senior advocate for Refugees International, who recently traveled to Turkey, Jordan and Iraq to examine conditions for the displaced and those trying to help them. It was a follow-up to a visit to Lebanon and Jordan in May.

What was different this time around?

DARYL GRISGRABER: There is a large percentage of refugees not living in the camps in Turkey, but we can’t really tell the numbers at this point — we’ve heard estimates ranging from 30,000 to 300,000 of those in urban setting. There are about 10,000 to 12,000 people stuck at the border right now because the camps are at capacity and they’re just waiting for these new camps to be built.

The last time we left Jordan there were no camps set up yet, just these places called transit centers, which very quickly became overcrowded. Practically everyone from those centers was sent to a camp once they were set up. There are easily tens of thousands of refugees in the cities in Jordan. And that number is increasing because conditions in the camps are so bad and many refugees are picking up and leaving.

The camps in Iraq are relatively new — built around eight or nine months ago. The one we visited this time still feels very much in a developmental state. There is a school but it’s overcrowded and so they have to use it in shifts. There are activity centers but they’re used for shelter because it’s hard hit for space.

There was one major common thread that we saw in Jordan and Iraq and Turkey, and that was that the urban refugees are going to eventually run out of resources and have to move to camps. In Iraq alone, they’ve had to expand the camp four times since it was built just to accommodate the numbers.

How are camps dealing with the approaching winter?

DARYL GRISGRABER: Unfortunately, people aren’t preparing much. Everyone is aware that winter is coming. People are asking where they will get blankets and warmer shoes. It’s on everyone’s minds. But in a place like northern Iraq the people coming through are overwhelming the registration resources to such a degree that there really isn’t enough time to address other needs like preparing for changing seasons.

What will likely happen to the refugees if winter preparations are not fully addressed?

DARYL GRISGRABER: Keep in mind that the State Department just gave some money for winterization ($32 million in humanitarian aid last week), but with numbers increasing there’s no telling if that will be enough. The challenge is that it’s hard to project how many refugees will actually be in these camps a month or even a week from now.

But if preparations aren’t made there will be health problems. Colds and respiratory issues will rise and spread. And if people can’t find the living environment they need in the camps they may move into urban areas or if they’re living in urban areas you may see them trying to enter the camps. And if conditions are bad everywhere there is always the chance that they’ll return to Syria, because many feel if they’re going to die of the cold then they would rather do it in Syria.

What’s happening to Syrians who can’t cross the border?

DARYL GRISGRABER: There are a handful of humanitarian agencies operating inside Syria, some recognized by the government and others that are not, and they have provided some relief. But their efforts are very piecemeal because there they are so few in number and also because the conflict, as it moves, periodically stops operations for everyone. Overall, the relief operation inside Syria is neither adequate nor systemic.

How are refugees being treated in their host countries?

DARYL GRISGRABER: There is definitely a certain tension … where the international community comes in and says we’re here to help and the host communities feel they have needs, too. In Turkey, particularly in the border provinces, it felt like things weren’t very intense between refugees and citizens. But if you speak to refugees themselves they say they do feel some tension, inevitably.

How do refugees feel about their current situation?

DARYL GRISGRABER: I think everyone’s hope — literally everyone’s — is that they’ll be able to go back to Syria. Even people who would have security threats no matter who is in power — everyone wants to go back. It was amazing how many times in each country people said, if this battle ends in the next 24 hours we will go back to our country.

As far as the mood, though, that has shifted. People had the idea in May that the conflict would last just a few weeks, that they’d only have to be in the camps for a short while. But in October the mood was noticeably different. Everyone knows it now as a prolonged conflict, and that is taxing. I heard some people were considering going to Egypt. And others were considering returning to Syria, saying, “I’d rather die there than here where I’m a refugee.”

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