Refugees are already some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many have suffered violence, loss and hunger, but now as winter looms in the Middle East and North Africa, displaced families face significant risks to their health and wellbeing.

This year, Syrian and Afghan families are particularly vulnerable and face a dangerous combination of conflict, extreme climate events and COVID-19. They’ve already suffered from war, but now they have to contend with the pandemic and worsening climate crisis, which is contributing to harsher winters.

In Afghanistan, even prior to the events that unfolded in recent months, more than 18 million Afghans required urgent humanitarian assistance. Over 3.5 million have been displaced from their homes by conflict and remain inside the country, including some 700,000 this year.

Now as winter looms, conflict has forced people from their homes into harsh winter conditions. Millions of Afghan families who left their homes in search of safety will struggle to stay warm this winter.

Temperatures can drop well below freezing, with up to a metre of snow falling in some areas. For thousands of displaced families, living in makeshifts shelters and separated from the elements by only a few millimetres of canvas or plastic sheeting, there is no time to lose. The young and elderly are at particularly high risk without immediate and additional support.

Siba, 10, is a Syrian refugee living in a settlement camp in Beqaa Valley, where heavy snow storms are common in winter.
© UNHCR/Diego Ibarra Sánchez

“I can’t stress enough how urgent this is — we need to scale up what we’re doing now so that, hopefully, nobody dies of the cold.” - Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.

Syrian refugee, Ali Huseein Al Hassan has been in Lebanon for the last 10 years. Her husband, Khoda is struggling to move economically forward and winter and COVID-19 are making things harder. 
© UNHCR/Diego Ibarra Sánchez

In Lebanon where more than one million Syrian refugees are hosted, they are now facing a tough winter ahead in light of worsening economic conditions. Many refugees in Lebanon dread the arrival of winter as it brings unrelenting freezing winds, heavy rains, and snow.

Last winter, refugees were caught in a heavy snow storm when winter storm JOYCE hit. Displaced refugees from Syria living in flimsy tents at high altitudes struggled to cope.

This year humanitarian needs are more acute than ever. The ongoing economic crisis in the country and efforts to contain COVID-19 have threatened jobs and pushed households deeper into poverty.

“When Syrians first fled to Lebanon in search of protection, they had just left their families, their homes, their schools or work behind. Some had even brought some savings,” said Ayaki Ito, UNHCR Representative in Lebanon.

“But as the years went by and they remained in a situation of exile – paying rent every month, buying food and covering medical expenses, just like everyone else – they quickly depleted any savings they initially had, and instead started accumulating debts.”

Today, nine out of 10 Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty and life for already vulnerable refugee families has gotten more and more difficult, with limited possibilities to generate income to cover basic needs.

“The current reality is taking a very big toll on Syrian refugees’ mental health. Last year, there was a sharp increase in the number of calls made by refugees to our nationwide call centres, where refugees told my colleagues that they don’t know how to manage anymore, how to survive,” said Ayaki Ito.

“Something that was repeated over and over is, ‘I’m thinking about taking my own life, what’s the point of continuing living if it’s such a struggle just to survive every single day?’”

Every year at this time, UNHCR launches a massive relief operation to help these vulnerable families prepare for the cold. The Winter Survival Fund helps thousands of refugees receive shelter insulation kits, cash assistance, heaters, warm blankets and other essential winter supplies to help them through the cold winter months. 

With so many families vulnerable and living in the open, protection is urgently needed now, ahead of winter, before they face life-threatening consequences.

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Farah, a young Syrian refugee from Raqqa. She has been in Lebanon for the last five years. Each year, UNHCR’s winter aid program helps support refugees like Farah by providing them with core relief items, including thermal blankets and warm clothing. 

© UNHCR/Diego Ibarra Sánchez

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