Death by snow: it’s a reality that receives little attention in the international media, but for the more than 11 million Syrians living as either internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside the civil-war torn country or as refugees in neighboring states, the effects of winter weather make our extreme weather problems here in the US look like a winter wonderland.
Think about it. Earlier this week, the US government shut down because of snow. This past weekend, New England was hit by another blizzard. The country’s southern states have been paralyzed by the shock of snowfalls. Meteorologists are predicting the continuation of record extreme weather conditions for the rest of this month. Through it all, the US news cycle reports that wet and heavy “heart-attack snow” has claimed many victims; hospital E.R.s have seen a spike in visits for treatment of grizzly frost bite symptoms; urban commuters have been trapped in subways stopped by frozen tracks and power outages; public school superintendents are scrambling to reschedule the rest of the academic year after the onslaught of snow days; and homeowners are struggling with freezing pipes and buckling roofs caused by ice dams.
But we in America would do well to put our angst about winter into perspective. In the words of a wise teenage whose maturity and compassion and humor bring daily joy to my life, “these are first world problems!” She’s absolutely right. The reality of winter for Syria’s IDPs and refugees is a daily struggle for survival against the winter elements. Consider the following facts, simple and bleak. Since Syria’s descent into civil war since 2011, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees has registered 2.2 million Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, and the government of Turkey has registered 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Other neighboring countries in the Mideast and North Africa, as well as in Europe, have taken in an estimated 100,000 refugees from Syria, bringing the estimated total to 3.8 million refugees, with an additional 6.5 million Syrians living as internally displaced persons.
Simply put, 50% of Syria’s population (more than 11 million out of 22 million) has been moved, either voluntarily or by force, because of the unending violence of civil war between supporters of the al-Assad regime and a motley coalition of opposition forces which have now been infiltrated and marginalized by the expanding terror footprint of The Islamic State (IS/ISIS). As The Wall Street Journal reported early this year, Syria’s population shifts since 2011 would be the equivalent of “more than 160 million Americans either fleeing the U.S. or moving to other cities or states because of fighting in their neighborhoods.”
Imagine our extreme weather conditions of the last few weeks against that sort of backdrop, and you have a sense of the winter nightmare being endured by Syrians. During the months of January and February, winter conditions, including blizzards, rains, heavy winds, and freezing temperatures, have swept Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Indeed, winter struck just after international humanitarian providers raised the alarm about the humanitarian consequences of impending snows in the Mideast. At the end of 2014, the World Food Program (WFP) announced that flagging donor support was forcing the suspension of the WFP’s food voucher program, a cut that would terminate the ability of 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey to buy food in shops; the United Nations agency emphasized that the suspension of the food voucher program would be disastrous for Syrian refugees and IDPs already at risk of perishing from malnutrition and lack of regular access to clean drinking water.
According to the Syrian Refugees Inter-Agency Report for February 2015, prior to the cold snap that’s spread across the Levant, 38% of Syrian refugees were already living in sub-standard conditions which aid agencies have described as deplorable, despicable, and inhuman. The UN reported its preference for relocation of refugees affected by winter weather, but yet again, lack of funds has made this impossible. Syrian refugees and IDPS struggle in plastic tents with no heat and intermittent electricity. The majority of tents are not weatherized, much less winterized, so snow and rain and wind have meant that tents collapse, camps flood, and people freeze to death. Relief workers report that small children are either barefoot or wearing summer flip-flops in freezing temperatures. Standard-issue plastic sheeting provides no protection, and the need for blankets and heating stoves is at critical levels. The UN has moved urgently to distribute blankets, as well as stoves and gas cylinders for heat, but these goods are in short supply and can’t meet the needs of the full refugee populations.
The terrible conditions in formal refugee camps organized by international aid agencies are worse still in the plethora of informal refugee settlements in which many Syrians have gathered. For example, Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley has almost 900 informal refugee settlements, where tens of thousands of Syrians congregate unsheltered, in sheds and on farmland and in vacant lots. The Lebanese Red Cross reported only recently that Syrians fleeing across the border into Lebanon have frozen to death on the trek, with a seven-year old boy and a shepherd, and a 10-year-old girl, the latest recovered victims of wartime winter. The plight of Syrian IDPs is even worse. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian IDPs live in unfinished buildings and garages, and on exposed mountainsides. In the absence of core relief services, such as physical shelter, regular access to food and water and basic medical care, and functioning sewage systems, the most vulnerable populations (children, women, the elderly, and the disabled and emotionally traumatized) are at grave risk of perishing in winter.
Meanwhile, here in the US, a quick look today at the short-term forecast by the National Weather Service shows that we’re in for more ice, snow, and frigid temperatures in huge swaths of the country. But let’s remember, our battles with weather are first-world struggles. For Syria’s millions of refugees and IDPs, the weather forecast is a matter of life and death. Let’s try to take action, by offering time and treasure to humanitarian organizations and relief agencies that can make sure that death by snow is not added to the daily suffering, degradation, and despair that now define the lives of so many of Syria’s people.
Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe Study Group.