Middle East

Winter ordeal for Syrian refugees in makeshift camps

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Media captionMany of the refugees lack adequate clothing for the freezing weather, as Paul Wood reports

A snow storm in the Middle East is adding to the misery of the three million refugees who have fled the conflict Syria. The BBC's Paul Wood visited one makeshift camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

The snow was falling thick and fast. The mountains on the border with Syria were wreathed in freezing mist and barely visible.

Refugees were desperately sweeping snow off their tent roofs to stop them from collapsing.

"There is no wood, no bread: it's hopeless," said Omar al-Mohammed.

He complained bitterly that the refugees had seen their food rations cut - but the UN is desperately overstretched.

"The children are hungry," he added. "We call upon the outside world to help us."

'Disastrous'

The camp's "main street" was a lake of slush and icy water. A little girl who looked about 10 years old was frantically trying to sweep the water away from the entrance to her tent.

Image caption Some children were able to enjoy the snow despite not having suitable clothing and footwear

She had only open sandals on her bare feet. Other children ran around, more dressed for summer than winter.

"Look at this water," said another refugee, Khodar al-Ezzo, as a small stream poured down through the leaking roof of his tent. "We need something to keep us warm. Our situation is disastrous. People are beside themselves."

A roof had been caved in by snow. It was the school tent. The children were delighted, making a snowman.

They jumped up and down with excitement as we filmed them.

They forgot the cold for a few minutes before running off to warm their hands by a brazier burning scrap wood and plastic.

Image caption Mona al-Ali has no proper heating in her tent, where she lives with seven children, two of them new-borns

Nearby, we found a tent with Mona al-Ali, who had given birth to twins Abbas and Bassima three days earlier. Their five older siblings huddled around a fire, which was not putting out enough heat to warm their tent.

Mona, who is from Homs, told me she prayed to God for things to get better.

"Our situation is very bad," she said. "There's no proper heating. I have to keep the kids locked up all day, buried in this tent. We can't afford many things we need, medicine for example. The children all have the flu."

Frozen to death

On the day we visited the camp in the Bekaa, there was news of a tragedy in southern Lebanon.

A six-year-old Syrian boy died crossing the border. His father carried him through the blizzard.

He was among a group walking over the mountains into Lebanon.

Image caption Lebanon's government is fearful of the political consequences of allowing permanent refugee settlements

Two men died as well. They got lost. They were eventually found just 200m (656ft) from a Lebanese Army checkpoint.

They may have been smugglers, rather than refugees fleeing the conflict. The little boy was still a victim of the war and the weather.

The refugees are now experiencing their fourth winter in Lebanon, but they are still living in makeshift camps, huddled together under plastic sheeting.

The Lebanese government is fearful of the political consequences of allowing permanent refugee settlements.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, has provided emergency winter aid of one kind or another to some 660,000 people in Lebanon.

"Despite our best efforts, the situation in Lebanon remains precarious," said Resident Representative Ninette Kelley.

No-one believes this will be the refugees' last winter under canvas.