Syria’s hidden Christmas refugee crisis

Winter wonderland? Families in camps in Lebanon cut off by snowfalls © Getty Images

Three quarters of the Syrian population will need aid during 2014, according to the UN. As the winter snows draw in, a massive refugee disaster unfolds. Why is it not on the front pages?

Launching the biggest fundraising effort in its history on Monday, the United Nations asked people to come forward with £4 billion to help feed, clothe and care for more than two million Syrians affected by their country’s civil war.

During the next year, the UN warned, there would be more Syrians in need of international aid than not. A conflict that began in March 2011 with brutal repression of protests against the regime of President Bashar al Assad is dragging on in ever-more-bloody fashion.

Around one third of the money raised by the UN will be used for relief efforts inside Syria’s borders, where an estimated six million people have already had to leave their homes because of the fighting. But the majority of the fundraising is to be spent on those who have managed to escape.

Part of the challenge will be reaching the refugees before it’s too late: the cold, snowy conditions this winter are making their plight much worse.

In the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon over the weekend, blizzards cut off the roads around the informal clusters of refugee tents, making it impossible for aid to get through. Without clean water, families can only melt down snow for cooking and washing. Without firewood, they are reduced to burning household items for a little heat, risking poisoning from toxic fumes in their huts and tents.

Around half of all Syrian refugees are children, many of whom will not survive these conditions.

Walking through the snowbound camps at night, even the BBC’s veteran Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen seemed bewildered. It may be understandable that the world’s powers can’t find a way to end Syria’s civil war, he said, but how can they not have acted to prevent the refugee crisis?

This week the UN warns that far from improving, the situation is getting worse all the time. ‘The snows could achieve what Assad’s forces failed to do,’ said one MP on Monday. As more of the population face oblivion, how many of those deaths are due to the fact that Syria has almost disappeared from the bulletins?

Silent suffering

‘Why has the world abandoned us?’ This question, posed to the UN high commissioner for refugees Baroness Valerie Amos by a Syrian refugee, has a painfully inadequate answer.

For two and a half years, any hope of ending the conflict between Assad’s forces and the various, splintered armed groups trying to bring down his regime has proved to be unfounded. Efforts by some Western leaders to build support for military action against Assad also failed. The intractable nature of the problem and the feeling of relief that a wider war has been avoided have gradually pushed Syria’s plight further and further down the news agenda.

You Decide

  1. Is it a good thing that Syria is back in the news because of the UN appeal?
  2. ‘It is exhausting to read or watch news about insoluble problems.’ Do you agree?


  1. Make a fundraising plan for a contribution to the UN Syrian refugee appeal.
  2. Play fantasy news editor: choose the three most important or interesting news items current this week and mock up your own front page. Explain your decision to include / not include Syria.

Some People Say...

“Recognise yourself in he and she who are not like you and me.’Carlos Fuentes”

What do you think?

Q & A

So why has Syria dropped out of the news recently?
In September, an international deal to force Assad’s regime to disclose its chemical weapons ended weeks of anxiety: the world was dismayed at the thought of military intervention by the West, and a war that might drag in Iran and Russia against the US. Since then the problem has been pushed into the back of our collective minds.
Collective minds?
The awareness, that is, of which issues are the most pressing to people in power, and most important to the media’s audience. It’s worth remembering that news organisations are staffed by human beings, who probably felt as much relief as anyone else that war had been avoided in September and the chemical weapons crisis resolved. Sadly, it wasn’t really the end of the story.

Word Watch

The internally displaced people, as they are called, suffer a similar level of deprivation and disruption as those who make it across the borders, and sometimes it is more difficult to help them. On Monday the International Rescue Committee, an aid organisation headed by the former Labour politician David Miliband, said that many Syrians are facing starvation and the price of bread has risen by 500%.
This neighbouring country has taken in far more refugees from Syria than it can hope to cope with. Some 1.4 million Syrians live in Lebanon, including 842,500 officially registered with UN charities, who are rushing to distribute aid to the most vulnerable – around half a million people.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.